Some questions get asked and answered again and again. Electric files, what with all the controversy they can kick up, are a source of perpetual wonder. We wrangled manufacturers of electric files and bits and got them to share the answers to the questions they hear most.
Q: What’s an electric file for?
A: If used properly, an electric file can be used for backfills, reaching hard-to-reach areas like the cuticle area and underside of nails, shortening nails, shaping enhancements, high-shine buffing, natural nail prep, and refining tips. Many techs find that using an electric file shortens their service time and reduces job-related stress on the body.
Q: Do electric files damage nails?
A: In the hands of an untrained technician, an electric file can be damaging to nails. With the proper training and responsible use, an electric file is safe to use on nails.
Q: Do electric files burn the natural nail?
A: Electric files do not burn the nail. A tech controls the machine and determines how much pressure is applied to the surface of the nail. The rule for heat is: Pressure causes friction, friction causes heat. If pressure is not applied to the surface of the nail, the nail will not get hot. If your bit is fresh, you will not need to apply pressure. Constant movement and light pressure is the best technique for minimizing heat with all types of bits.
Sometimes heat from pressure can be caused by the client’s tense finger pressing up against the bit as you are working. Take time to explain the theory of pressure and friction to your clients and they will work to relax their fingers to avoid causing discomfort to their nails.
Q: Can an electric file be used on skin?
A: Some manufacturers have developed pedicure bits to be used on callused skin during pedicures. These bits must be used at very low RPM to prevent irritating skin. These bits were developed to reduce elbow and shoulder stress associated with the use of a traditional foot paddle.
Q: Which bit should I use for a backfill?
A: You can use a smile line scriber, backfill bit, or barrel bit during a backfill application. Any bit with a sharp edge at the top is appropriate for the job.
Q: What should I look for when shopping for an electric file?
A: First, consider your needs. Depending on how often you’ll use the file, decide if you need a top-of-the-line or low-end tool.
If the file will be your constant companion, look for a tool that will give you the best performance and last the longest. Look for a well-constructed tool made of quality materials. Try various handpieces to find the one that feels most comfortable in your hand.
Consider vibration. A good machine does not vibrate so you can use it all day without fatigue. Features that may be necessary are a foot pedal and reverse settings. Variable speed capabilities are a necessity. Look for a variable speed tool with a good RPM range (0 to 25,000 or more RPM) and good torque so the machine does not bog down and strain when you apply pressure.
Bits are mounted to electric files in a variety of ways. Some have locking chucks to keep bits in place, others require the use of wrenches or tools to secure bits. Make sure the bits mount in the fashion you prefer. And check the size of the bit. The standard bit size is 3/32” and bits in this size are easy to find in professional stores.
Finally, look for a good warranty. The industry average is one year.
Q: How often should an electric file be replaced?
A: Electric files are meant to last for years with basic user maintenance and a periodic tune-up or service from the manufacturer where only original parts are used to replace normal wearing parts. It is a good idea to send an electric file in for service when symptoms start to occur before a potential problem can get worse or damage other internal components.
Q: What speed should a file be used at on the natural nail?
A: Using only bits designed for natural nails, the speed of the electric file should be low. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for below 2,000 RPM.
Q: When should a bit be replaced?
A: When it is no longer refining the product in a timely manner. With daily use, bits can last anywhere from two to four months. You can use a bit for a year, but it won’t work properly.
Q: What’s a natural nail bit?
A: Synthetic rubberized soft bits are made for use on the natural nail. They can safely prep the natural nail, removed excess cuticle from the nail plate, and buff the nails, and even remove ridges.
Q: What different materials are bits made of?
A: There are disposal arbor bits, diamond bits, and carbide bits. Disposable arbor bits (also known as sanding bands) cannot be sanitized and are only available in one shape.
Diamond bits may be sanitized, are long lasting, and are manufactured in a wide variety of shapes, grits and sizes for different applications.
Carbide bits are durable and come in cris-cross and single-cut patterns. They are available in a variety of shapes and can be sanitized.
Q: Do I need extras of any components or tools?
A: It is a good idea to have a spare set of carbon brushes and an extra cord for the handpiece.
Q: Can I use a carbide or diamond bit on a natural nail?
A: Metal bits should never touch the natural nail. Natural nail bits are safer.
Q: How do I sanitize bits?
A: Bits should never be used on more than one client without proper disinfection. They must be disinfected in the same manner you would disinfect your implements as required by your state board. Start by removing the dust and product from the bit with a wire brush. Wash the bit in hot, soapy water and submerge the bit completely in a disinfection solution for the amount of time required by the solution and your state board. Before using the disinfected bit, rinse it well and dry it before mounting it in the handpiece.
Q: Is nail dust bad for an electric file?
A: It is impossible to keep dust off an electric file during use, but keep dust from getting into it as much as possible. Wipe off the casing and handpiece often to keep dust from building up.
Q: Is there an advantage to using a foot pedal?
A: Different speeds are used depending on what area of the nail you’re working on. For example, the cuticle area requires a slower speed than the one used when filing the surface of the nail. A variable-speed foot control allows the user to change the speed of their file as needed without stopping to manually change the speed with their hands. A foot pedal is an added convenience if you use an electric file heavily.
Q: I’m a beginner. What kind of bit should I use?
A: It’s up to you. Some users find that starting with a disposal arbor bit (or sanding band) is a good introduction because they give a similar feel and finished look as a similar grit hand file.
Q: What is the difference between carbide and diamond bits?
A: Carbide bits have flutes cut into them that provide the cutting power. The more flutes on a bit, the finer the cut. A carbide bit reduces material by acting like a potato peeler, shaving layers off while leaving the surface smooth.
Diamond bits are made by applying an adhesive to a shank and rolling it in diamond material that then dries on the shank. The diamond particles file the nails by scratching the surface to remove material.
Q: How do I know if a bit is properly mounted?
A: Different electric files have various methods of mounting bits (some require tools, others don’t). Read your manual for instructions on mounting bits and practice the proper technique. Once a bit has been mounted, start the electric file at a low RPM to be sure it is properly mounted before increasing the speed.
Q: What are the most frequently used bits for acrylic?
A: Medium diamond barrel, medium carbide, medium Swiss carbide, medium disposable arbor bit.
Q: Can I buy an electric file at an art store?
A: You should buy your electric file from a professional nail distributor or manufacturer. The tools found in craft or hobby stores are designed for use on wood, metal, and glass.
Q: What bits do I need to get started?
A: The bare necessity is a barrel bit for shaping and shortening and a cone bit for the cuticle.
Q: What’s a ring of fire?
A: A ring of fire is created when the surface of the natural nail is filed too aggressively with a file or electric file. Red, painful patches develop on the nail plate. Electric file users sometimes cause rings of fire when improperly using a barrel bit at the cuticle area. When used at an angle in the cuticle area, the barrel bit’s edge cuts into the natural nail. When using a barrel bit to refine product, hold the bit flat and avoid the cuticle area. To refine the cuticle area, use a rounded-edge cone bit.
Q: What bit should I use for the cuticle area?
A: Use a cone shaped, rounded-edge bit in a fine or medium grit.
Q: Why do I lose control of my bit when I am shaping the nails?
A: You are using too high an RPM and/or applying too much pressure. Slow down your RPM and apply less pressure.
Q: How fast should I use my electric file?
A: The average RPM usage is between 7,500 and 15,000, depending on the service. Cuticle work and backfill cutting should be slower than the filing on the top surface of a nail. If your RPM is too slow, the bit will grab and you will not make much headway in your filing. If your RPM is too fast you will not have control and run the risk of damaging the nail or nicking a client.
Thanks to the following companies who contributed to this piece:
- Ram Products
- Tres Chic Nails
- Nancy King for AEFM
- Lysa Comfort
Originally published in NAILS Magazine June, 2005.