Nail Trends

There's a Science to Creating Nails that Win

Top competitors share the minute-by-minute timetables that make them winners.

Everyone has 24 hours in a day---it’s how you use those hours that makes your life extraordinary. Similarly, all participants in a nail competition have two and a half hours to create a set of flawless sculptured nails, but some are winners and some are not. What sets the winners apart from the rest?

First, they’re able to organize their two and a half hours so they spend an adequate amount of time on detail work. Second, they have refined their technique so they can make the nails perfect in a limited amount of time. In short, many nail competition winners have the two-and-a-half-hour set down to a science.


Any nail competition victory is the result of a lot of preparation, and winning a nail competition is no exception. Getting ready for competition means you’ve already put in the hours of practice, selected a model, and made travel arrangements. The day before a competition is the time to be sure that everything is ready.

 “I usually give my model a manicure the day before a competition.” says Victoria Sozio, owner of The Upper Cut (Washington Township, N.J.) and a seven-year competitor. “I trim the cuticles and trim the nails to the exact length I want. It saves time initially because you’re not going in cold with someone and having to trim the nails.

 “You have to make sure everything you need is there and well organized,” continues Sozio. “I prepare my case the night before and organize my powders, liquid, primer, files, buffers, duster, clippers, nippers, and towels. When I get to the competition I set them out the same way I keep things in the salon.”

Read over the contest rules to be sure you have everything you need, says Jewell Cunningham, a nail technician at Iris Color Collections (Downey, Calif.). In addition to five years as a competitor, Cunningham has served as a competition director and judge. “If the rules and regulations say to bring something, bring it,” she says, “so you’re not stressed when you get to the competition and find out you don’t have all the supplies you need. Always bring an extension cord, a lamp, and an extra light bulb.”

Preparing your model is as important as preparing yourself. “I tell my model I need her participation,” says Kym Lee, founder of Galaxy Nail Products (Huntington Beach, Calif.) and a five-year competitor. “She’ll have to keep time for me during the competition as each step goes along. I also explain to her my idiosyncrasies---in the middle of a competition I may snap at her or tell her to relax. I don’t want to hear ‘I am relaxed,’ I just want her to say ‘OK.’”

Finally, prepare yourself mentally before the competition. “I study my schedule for a long time before I compete,” says Brenda Desmarais, a nail technician at Nail Extenders (Phoenix, Ariz.). During her six years of competing, Desmarais had to learn to stick to a schedule in order to finish on time. She now writes out her schedule while on the plane to each competition. Like Lee, she has her model keep time, using two watches---one to time the entire two and a half hours, the other to time specific procedures.

Before she begins her schedule, however, Desmarais writes her goal at the top of the page. “Before one competition, I wrote ‘First Place Nails in Vegas’ at the top of the paper,” she says. “I have to psyche myself up. You’ve got to think you can win or it’s not going to happen. Do as much as you can to believe you can do it and then it will happen.”(Desmarais did, in fact, win first place at the NAILS Magazine Show in Las Vegas last October.)

 “Time is a big problem for me. It’s hurt me in competition because I don’t finish on time,” Desmarais continues. “Timing doesn’t come naturally to me like it does to others. I had to break everything down. Now if you see me at a competition, you’ll see a piece of paper next to me with a breakdown of time.”


Schedules are as individual as competitors: What works for one may not work for another. For example, Sozio doesn’t need a schedule. “I don’t have it broken down. If my time is really tight, then I limit it,” she explains. “I usually spend more time sculpting than filing and buffing, because I feel the judges are more interested in sculpting than in your throwing it on and filing. They’re interested in the art of it.”

Cunningham, on the other hand, makes sure she has ample time for finish work. “It’s best to get everything done in two hours and spend the last half-hour doing all the finish work, because the finish work will make you a winner,” she says. “Most competitors don’t go the extra mile it takes. The top people are the last people done---not that they think there’s anything to being last, but they are the last done because the finishing work is very important.”

Lee and Desmarais use very specific schedules and have their models tell them what time they have used up and when they’re over their time limit. Lee spends about an hour applying product, a little under an hour filing, and the remaining time finishing the nails. She has error time built into her schedule (see “Kym Lee’s Timetable”).

 “The model tells me when a certain time has elapsed, and if I have extra time, she carries that time over to the next nail,” says Lee. “If I have an error, then I have that catch-up time.”

Desmarais allows an hour for application, giving more time to the unpolished hand, as the smile lines and moons must be more precise (see “Brenda  Desmarais’ Timetable”). “If I’m not on a time schedule, I tend to want to perfect the manicure so much I’ll overwork it,” says Desmarais. “My model sometimes gets stressed because she doesn’t have control. Her job is to keep time and mine is to stick to the schedule.”

Sticking to a timetable means focusing your attention on the nails in front of you. “You shouldn’t let anything distract you. That will waste time,” says Sozio. “It’s not as important to do the fastest set as it is to do the best.”

Cunningham adds, “Know what your goal is and what you want to see in the end so you don’t have to backtrack. Get the unpolished hand going, because that’s the hand you’ll spend the most time on. And make sure you breathe.”


By focusing on your work, you’ll be alerted to places where your technique can be refined. For example, Lee encourages competitors to create a filing system, a specific method of filing and shaping the nail. A filing system, says Lee, will not only increase your speed, it will make the nails more consistent. “I’ve seen competitors apply a great set of nails and then trash them when they file,” says Lee. “When I first talked to Brenda, she said she filed the sides and free edge and then the top. When I asked her how she did the top, she said she just started somewhere on the top and ended up somewhere on the top.

 “Brenda said that a filing system helped her win,” continues Lee. “Start filing at the cuticle area, then the stress area, then bevel the free edge into the stress area.”

Desmarais says, “A filing system has improved my work drastically---my work, the quality of the nails, and my time. Since I started a filing system, I’ve won competitions. I don’t have to do touch-ups because I get it right the first time.”


The science of winning competitions, whether it means learning to organize your time or learning a technique that makes you better and faster, can be applied to salon nails as well. “I have learned more in the last six months than in all my years of competition,” says Desmarais. “I owe it to competing because it’s pushed me to want to learn and do better. What I’ve learned has helped me with my shop nails. I wouldn’t have had motivation if I hadn’t been competing. My time used to be a problem but solving it pushed me to find ways to do nails faster and better.”




  • Ø Manicure the model’s nails the day before competition to clean up the cuticles and trim the free edge to the exact length you want.
  • Ø Make sure you have everything you need and that everything is organized. Get to the competition early to set up your station. Organize your tools similarly to the way you do in the salon.
  • Ø Eliminate distractions during competition. Focus on the nails only.
  • Ø You can save time by choosing which hand will be polished before you begin sculpting, because the polished hand does not require as much precision work as the clean hand. Concentrate on the details on the unpolished hand only.
  • Ø Tell your model beforehand what level of participation you expect from her.
  • Ø If you’re using metal forms, make sure they’re cleaned, flattened, and ready for use. In some competitions, you can even size the forms on the model before the competition begins.
  • Ø Get a good night’s rest and eat a good breakfast so you feel awake and alert during competition.
  • Ø Be consistent with timing yourself.
  • Ø Create a filing system to ensure quick, quality work.
  • Ø Apply a thin layer of product on the nail to eliminate the need for unnecessary filing.
  • Ø Use the barrel of the brush to pat the product in place with a minimum of patting, pushing, and dabbling.




ACTION                                                                TIME PER NAIL                                                                                  TOTAL TIME

Etching, Dusting, Priming                              30 sec.                                                                                      5 min.

Second Priming                                                                                                                                                 15 sec.

Apply Forms and Product                             4 ½ min.                                                                               45 min.

Error Time                                                                                                                                                           10 min.

Filing Sides and Free Edges                          30 sec.                                                                                  5 min.

Filing and Shaping Top                                   3 min.                                                                                    30 min.

Error Time                                                                                                                                                           10 min

Buffing With Coarse Buffer                          1 ½ min.                                                                               15 min.

Apply 1 Coat of Polish                                    30 sec.                                                                                  3 min.

Coarse Shiner on Unpolished Hand          10 sec (thumbs:15)                                                          2 min.

Repeat Coarse Shiner                                    10 to 15 sec.                                                                       2 min.

Second Coat of Polish                                    30 sec.                                                                                  3 min.

Medium Buffer                                                 about 10 sec.                                                                     2 min.

Repeat                                                                                 about 10 sec.                                                                     2 min.

Fine Buffer                                                         about 15 sec.                                                                     2 min.

Repeat                                                                                 about 15 sec.                                                                     2 min.

Remaining time: Shine, wash, repairs                                                                                                     about 16 min.


Grand Total:                                                                                                                                                       2 ½ hrs.



PROCEDURE                                                       TIME PER NAIL                                                                  TOTAL TIME

Etch and Prime                                                  1 min.                                                                                    10 min.

Apply Moons to One Hand                          1 min.                                                                                    5 min.

Application to Polished Hand                      2 min.                                                                                    10 min.

Application to Unpolished Hand                                3 min.                                                                                    15 min

C-curves and Product Setup                        2-3 min.                                                                                35 min.

Filing Sides and Free Edge                            1 min.                                                                                    10 min.

Filing Top of Nail (100 grit)                            1 min.                                                                                    10 min.

Filing Top of Nail (zebra file)                        2 min.                                                                                    20 min.

Buffer                                                                   1 min.                                                                                    10 min.

Wash and Polish One Hand                          3 min.                                                                                    15 min.

Shine Unpolished Hand                                 20 sec.                                                                                  2 min.

Shine With Fine Buffer                                  20 sec.                                                                                  2 min.

Repeat Fine Buffer                                          20 sec.                                                                                  2 min.

Extra Time                                                           4 min.


Grand Total:                                                                                                                                                       2 ½ hrs.

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