Acrylic Nails

The Strength Is in the Length

The secret to applying long-lasting tips is choosing the right length and shape for the individual client and educating her on how to care for her nails between appointment.

Any competent nail technician can apply a set of nail tips. The true test of a technician’s talent is time. How long do the nails remain strong and natural-looking? Nails that are too long or the wrong shape will soon break under pressure. And if the client doesn’t know how to care for her nails or when to return for maintenance, all your work will be for naught. Veteran nail technicians share their tips and techniques on applying tips that last.


The key to good-looking tips that last is determining the right length for the individual client. Some technicians ask the client how long she wants her nails, while other prefer to make a professional recommendation based on the shape of the client’s hand and her lifestyle. Katherian Harris, a technician at Sherwood Hair Design in Odessa, Texas, says that technician/client communication is extremely important.

“We ask them questions about the type of work they do and if they’ve ever worn nails before,” Harris says. “We get to know a little bit about their daily routine so we can help them decide on a length that is practical.”

For example, Harris encourages active clients to wear their nails short. “I also prefer shorter nails for clients who have ski slope nails or who have never worn tips before,” she says. “That way, they can get used to wearing them and learn how to break bad habits, like using their nails to dial the telephone or pull out staples.”

Linda Elmore, owner of Illusions in Lafayette, Ind., usually starts all of her new clients with a short length. “I make sure their nails grown gradually,” she says, “as they grow accustomed to wearing tips.”

Kari Fox, a technician at Rocky Mountain Hair in Ogden, Utah, bases her recommendations on the length of the client’s natural nails. “Generally, nail tips shouldn’t be any longer than the nail plate itself. They shouldn’t be longer than the length from the cuticle to the free edge, because the free edge is the balancing point. If the tip extends longer than that, it will be off balance and pull up,” she says.

Despite a technician’s professional advice, some clients insist on wearing their nails very long. Robin George, owner of Nail Works salons in Akron and Stowe, Ohio, has devised a method for dealing with these clients. She says, “First, I ask, ‘Do you realize that you have too much free edge on the end of this nail? That it’s longer than the nail bed? That if you wear these tips too long, you will cause a stress fracture?’ If they still insist on wearing long nails, I tell them, ‘Okay, I’ll make them long, but I won’t guarantee them.’”

George says it’s sometimes necessary to set rules for clients. “Anytime the free edge is longer than the nail bed,” she says, “it’s a red flag for stress fractures and other problems – unless a client has great, strong natural nails. We cover ourselves professionally by telling clients what we recommend. Then, if they still want them long, I’m willing to accommodate them as long as they’re willing to replace their nails more often. But if they want them guaranteed, they have to let me decide what length to cut them.”

Susan Welch, a technician at International Hair and Nails in Merriam Kan., has yet another method for determining just the right length for a client. “I have my clients look at my own nails and choose the length they want according to how ling mince are,” she says.


Once you’ve chosen a workable length, take care in cutting the tips so as not to break or shatter them. There are a variety of techniques for cutting tips, and each technician seems to have her favorite. Fox always cuts them at an angle. “I use small cuticle scissors and follow the curvature of the tip. You don’t want to use anything like a paper cutter or regular scissors that will slice it straight across. Instead, you want to use something that will cut up and down along with the curvature of the tip,” she explains.

Elmore agrees. “For tips, I use a toenail clipper,” she says. “First I cut in one side, then I cut in the other side. If you cut it all off at one time, it might break the tip.”

Welch chooses one finger and cuts the tip a little longer than what the client wants. “Their index finger is usually a good judge,” she says. “After I cut it, I tell them to make a fist and see if it feels funny. Or, I’ll have her tap the desk and see if she can work with it.

“If they leave it up to me,” she continues, “I’ll use a one-cut clipper, which is like dog clippers. I put the tip in there and squeeze. The blade comes up at an angle and cuts the nail. I get a slightly rounded nail, kind of a square-rounded shape. I decide on the length by pressing the one-cut as far against their finger as I can, at 45 angle, and I cut it there. When I hold the one-cut and press it as close as I can to the finger, the nail isn’t too long, but it’s not so short that they don’t have anything either.”


The shape of the nails contributes to both their strength and beauty. “Some technicians have problems shaping nails,” says Fox, who recommends filing the sidewalls straight, then following the shape of the cuticle at the free edge. “As long as you keep your sidewalls straight, you can’t go wrong. To keep the sidewalls straight, I look at the corners of her cuticle and line the file up with that,” she says.

Elmore says technicians should choose a shape that flatters the client’s hands. “Mature women tend to want an oval shape, for example, but it doesn’t always look good,” she says. “I also try not to make an oval shape on a client until she learns how to use her nails. Sometimes a client will ask for a certain shape because it’s popular. But I try to convince her to go with something that’s more like her natural nails. It’s also important to keep in mind the type of work a client does. I’ll put a blunter end on a tip for a client who is a typist, for instance, because it gives her added strength.”


No matter how hard you work to create a perfect set of tips, all your work will be wasted if you don’t educate the client on how to care for her new nails between visits. “We’ve made up a tablet that is like a prescription from the doctor,” Elmore says. “This tells clients what they have to do to maintain their nails and that their set is guaranteed for two weeks. I include as much information as possible, like how they shouldn’t use glue. Instead, they should call us if they have a problem. It’s important to educate them because beginners have to learn to adjust to their nails by learning what they can and can’t do when wearing them.”

Debra Richardson, owner of Single File in Louisville, Ky., agrees that the key to maintaining tips is client education. “Here in the Midwest, it’s good for clients to use lotion to keep their nails softened,” she says, “because in dry weather, they get brittle and can crack.”

Richardson suggests that clients return for fills every two weeks, and she guarantees her work for that long. “I explain how important it is that they maintain their nails, and I inform them about mold and other problems that can arise when they try to maintain their nails themselves. That way, if and when there are problems, I can’t be held liable. And, if a client doesn’t come in for three weeks after I’ve fit her with a set of tips, I charge $10 more. After that, I charge for a full set,” she says.

While regular visits should be stressed, some technicians also suggest teaching clients what to do in care of a nail emergency. Although many technicians don’t recommend that clients do any repair work themselves, some prefer to educate their clients about temporary measures they can take until they can get to the salon. Those who do sanction client repairs stress to clients that the nail must be absolutely dry prior to applying any adhesive.

Giving clients tips on how to use their nails is another important feature of maintenance. “We recommend they use the joint of their finger instead of their nail tip to push the air conditioner control, for instance,” Harris says. “We also recommend they learn to use the fold of their finger for other tasks, like buckling their seat belts, instead of the tips of their nails.”


When you’ve finished a set of tips, take a minute to study your work before dismissing the client. Do the nails look natural? Are the seams well-blended?

Says George, “The best way to evaluate a set of tips is to look at them in relation to how the client’s nails looked before you applied the tips. I’ve had technicians come to me and explain that they’ve done a terrible job on their client. So I go to see the client, only to find that she thinks they look great!

“Technicians have to learn that not everyone has nails that belong in a magazine. Some clients have wide, flat nails, others have nails that are thin or grow up in the air. Still others have nails that are narrow at the base and widen out on top. The important thing is whether you improved a client’s nails. If a technician can walk away saying that, then she has done her job well.”

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