After months of training, passing state boards, and being hired by a salon, some nail techs still feel ill-equipped to begin their new career. “School just didn’t prepare me,” says Kelly Hand, owner of Nails by Hand in Oneonta, N.Y. “Our teacher told us to work through a book at our desks; we basically taught ourselves.” Although studying the book may have been beneficial, it is certainly no substitute for hands-on training. Hand was left wondering where she could find more education to improve her technique.

Tammy Warner, owner of Nails Unlimited in Endicott, N.Y., found herself in the same position. Warner did continue her education by attending multiple classes offered through her local beauty supplier. With her wall decorated with framed certificates, she admits, “It really wasn’t worth it.” Warner says the classes covered what she already knew; what they lacked was having someone evaluate her work. She knew how to do nails, but when her clients experienced lifting and breaking, she didn’t know what she was doing wrong.

Hand and Warner are not alone. Many new techs complain of seeing problems in their work, but they don’t know how to prevent them. On the following pages we offer help for the 10 most common complaints from new nail techs. They’re presented in order beginning with prep problems, application techniques, fine finishing, and finally business problems.

1. Symptom: The nails “pop” off, or break off, in one piece.

Root problem: Artificial nails didn’t adhere well. This is a common complaint among clients, though in reality, nails seldom pop off by themselves. It’s easy, however, for clients to “help” the nail come off in one piece if the nail is lifting.

Here are three possible reasons the nail is lifting: First, you may have applied product over the cuticle. Many new techs think they haven’t covered the cuticle because the product looks thinner at the base of the nail compared to the rest of the nail.

Here’s the test: When the product is dry, lightly brush your nippers across the client’s cuticle. If product flakes off, you’ve covered the cuticle. Also, if you gently push the skin of your client’s finger down toward her first knuckle, does the product release itself from the skin but still stay attached to the newly applied nail?

Second, you may have left oil on the natural nail. When you prepare a natural nail for an enhancement, all of the oils on the nail plate need to be removed or the product you apply won’t bond. Push the cuticle and the sides of the finger down as you prepare the natural nail to ensure that you are preparing the whole nail plate.

Third, you may have over-prepared the nail. You know you need to lightly file a natural nail to allow the product to adhere to the nail plate. Did you know that if you file the nail too much it becomes smooth? Once that nail plate is smooth, the enhancement won’t be able to bond to the natural nail.

2. Symptom: Green/brown spots.

Root problem: Bacteria has started to grow because water has gotten between the natural and artificial nail. Very rarely do green or brown spots develop from one appointment to the next. A client may come in for a fill and have yellow discoloration on her nail, but it usually takes at least two appointments to achieve the brown or green color. In order to remove the water before the nail turns green or brown, you must refuse to take short cuts. If you see a hairline crack, or the tiniest bit of separation on the nail, DON’T fill over it. Ever. It may take a few more minutes to fix, but you must be uncompromising in your commitment to prep the nail correctly. Avoid “greenies” by carefully evaluating the nail when the client comes in and removing every bit of acrylic that has pulled away from the natural nail, even if means removing and replacing the whole nail.

3. Symptom: Air pockets.

Root problem: Air has caused the natural nail to separate from the artificial nail. One reason air pockets develop is because the tech didn’t remove all of the cracks in the product prior to a fill. If those cracks aren’t removed when you prep the nail, and acrylic is applied over them, they will become weak spots in the nail. When a client hits her hand, even against a keyboard while typing, the natural nail will continue to pull away from the enhancement at the point of those covered-over cracks and air pockets will develop. That is one more reason to double-check your prep work to make sure you’ve removed every bit of loose product. There is another reason air pockets develop, but that has more to do with the application than with the prep.

Air pockets can also be caused when new techs apply a ball of acrylic that is too dry. Additionally, sometimes a new tech will cover the entire nail with product, but won’t pat the product down to help it bond to the natural nail. Make sure your product has the correct liquid-to-powder ratio, and pat the product down, don’t drag it.

4. Symptom: Nails are too thick.

Root problem: Over-application. Nails don’t break less when they are thick. They break less when they are applied correctly. To avoid building the nail up too much, try working with one ball of acrylic instead of a lot of small balls. Don’t pick up a ball that is too large; pick up a manageable amount of product, and place it near the cuticle. Continue to wet your brush to keep the product pliable. Now work the product forward by patting not dragging. Small balls often create highs and lows that the tech tries to fix by adding more product; this makes the completed nail too heavy.

5. Symptom: Product separates from the tip of the natural nail.

Root problem: Poor application of product. Artificial nails separate at the tips for a variety of reasons, but when it happens often, the cause is usually found in how the product was applied at the last fill. Look at the client’s hand with the nail tips facing you. If you see that some of the natural nail has pulled away from the tip (or acrylic), don’t file underneath the nail. Instead, file off the unattached product from the top of the nail. Then, re-apply the product onto the prepared natural nail.

Note: Sometimes the natural nail is already the correct length and you won’t need to add a form or a tip to extend the natural nail. When this happens, pat the acrylic down all the way to the end of the free edge. To make sure you’ve covered the whole nail, bring the acrylic slightly beyond the free edge and use your brush to push the acrylic down over the end of the natural nail. You know you’ve applied the acrylic perfectly if the end of the client’s natural nail “cuts” the excess acrylic away and you are left with a fully covered natural nail.

6. Symptom: First-time clients don’t rebook.

Root problem: Attracting the wrong kind of client. There are a couple of reasons why new techs have a difficult time retaining clients. At first, you will lose some clients to more experienced techs. This is unavoidable and not in your control, but don’t get discouraged; you will still build a strong, faithful clientele. The second reason is controllable: transient clients. The temptation of new techs is to offer a free set, or a set at half price, and take any client who is willing to come in. This often draws people who will come in for that service — one time.

Look to the future when you are trying to build a clientele. You want clients who can afford to come in for maintenance appointments, clients who will wear their nails responsibly and keep their scheduled appointments. Two-for-one specials in a coupon book often draw people who will use the coupon and never come back. A far better approach is to hand out your cards to local businesses such as banks, real estate offices, schools, or even tennis clubs. This way you target a specific market. To increase your chances of their return, schedule their next appointment before they leave, and give them a confirmation call before their next appointment.

If you continue to have problems with your work, call an experienced tech in your area who has a good reputation. Offer to pay her to shadow you for a couple of hours and offer pointers. Don’t be intimidated to ask; every successful nail tech remembers the trials of her first year. More than likely, it will be a fun opportunity for her, and a great learning experience for you.

7. Symptom: Indented sidewalls.

Root problem: Taking too much off the sides of the nails in an attempt to make the nail appear thinner. Indented sidewalls take away the natural borders of the nail. This causes three problems: One, it weakens the nail and will more than likely cause the client’s nails to break. Two, it gives the client a rough edge as the natural nail grows out because the natural nail will be wider than the artificial nail. Three, the client will almost always return with lifting on the sides of her nail when the sidewalls have been removed. To avoid indenting your sidewalls, place a straight file along the nail’s sidewall when you are ready to start shaping the nail. With the file, push the skin away from the acrylic then bring the file toward you to create a straight line. That is your working area — your border. If there is product below that line, file it off, but don’t make the nail any narrower than the border you just created.

8. Symptom: Can’t get your time down.

Root problem: Lingering over each step. New techs seem to stay on the same nail, whether during prep, application, or fine finishing, for too long because they keep going over the same area. Part of that may be due to seeing something they don’t like and not knowing how to fix the problem.

You can improve your time in two ways: Work next to techs who are faster than you, and choose to believe in yourself. If you’ve read through this list and have identified some of the problems in your work, fix those problems and work confidently. You’ll see improve-ment in your work each time a client comes back for a fill.

9. Symptom: Misshaped nails.

Root problem: Neglecting to look at the nail from a crucial angle. Hold your hands up and look at your nails. Now tip them slightly forward so you are looking down the entire nail plate and you can see the whole arch of the nail. It is from this angle that the shape of the customer’s nail is created. After you’ve filed the tip of your client’s nails into the desired shape, hold her hand so that the nails are facing you. Now bend them forward and look at the curve. Do you see dips and high spots? When you can create a beautiful natural curve from this angle, you’ve created a beautiful nail.

There is another area of the nail to look at if you are having problems with shaping the nails. Again, look at your nails. You see the left sidewall and the right sidewall of your nail. Imagine a vertical line right down the center of the nail. Now imagine a line between the sidewall and the centerline.

If product is applied at the same thickness on these two lines, the nail will appear thick, humped, and artificial. Why? Because the nail should be gradually getting thinner as it approaches that sidewall. The nail should be thickest at the center point of the nail: Horizontally, the center is the middle of the free edge; vertically, it is the center of the nail. If you placed a drop of liquid at this center point, it should slide down in all directions, and melt off the nail at the tip, and into the cuticle at the bottom. If you can visualize the product being thickest at this point and becoming thinner as it moves away from that center point, you will be able to remove excess product and create an artificial nail with a natural curve.

10. Symptom: Nails lift on one side of the cuticle.

Root problem: Product, or nail plate, is too dry. Here’s what happens: The ball of acrylic has the correct ratio of liquid to powder and you apply it beautifully to the left side of the nail by the cuticle. By the time you reach the right side of the nail, the product is too dry — it’s started to harden — but you continue to apply it and when you’re done it looks good. However, when the client returns, you notice that on all of her nails, the product has lifted on the right side of the cuticle. To prevent this one-sided lifting, add liquid to your brush when your product becomes too dry. Eventually, your speed will increase and you’ll be able to apply the whole area by the cuticle without picking up more liquid.

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