Learning the ABCs of Electric Filing

Investing in an electric file means knowing how to properly use it — and that means getting the right education. Here, we show you where to go and why it’s important to keep learning.

For more than two decades, nail technicians have used electric files for all types of services. Despite their wide use, there hasn’t been consistent or widely available information or education on their proper use in salons. It’s no wonder they’ve been misused so often, says Lysa Comfort, veteran nail tech and founder of Charisma Nail Innovations.

In recent years, however, e-files have gained new ground. More than ever, manufacturers and nail technicians are aware of the importance of knowing how to properly use such a tool. Without proper education and practice, a nail technician can seriously damage a client’s nails and, potentially, permanently damage the nail matrix and inhibit nail growth.

“Electric files still get a bad rap from nail techs who use them improperly, from techs who don’t use them and fear them, and from the myths that some nail techs still insist on believing and propagating,” says Barb Wetzel, a LaGrange, Ill.-based independent educator and founder of www.nailsplash.com, an educational website. “Sometimes our industry is its own worst enemy.”

Although those words may hold some truth, it’s also a fact that the industry is stepping up its efforts and attempting to make nail professionals as skilled as possible with these instruments.

Enter the Association of Electric File Manufacturers, or AEFM as it’s more commonly known. Started in 1998 in response to the bad reputation electric files were developing in the nail industry, the AEFM is a group of manufacturers with a mission to better train professionals in electric file use. By training educators who in turn train other nail techs and state boards, the organization is making proper electric file use a reality.

In fact, the AEFM’s educational program has become so recognized and accepted that numerous schools and state boards have implemented the program into their curriculums.

With more and more salons vying for the public’s attention, proper education is one good way of putting yourself ahead of the rest.

And we’re not just talking about getting nail techs more education. You also need to keep your clients in mind. “Educate clients by explaining the benefits of using the electric file,” suggests Gari-Dawn Tingler, vice president of Hand and Nail Harmony. “Let them know why electric files can be a good choice.”

Once you’re well versed in electric file use, you’ll be able to speak with confidence and authority to clients as well. After all, there’s nothing worse than a nail tech who can’t explain what she’s doing to a client or seems unsure.

If you encounter a client who’s had a bad experience at another salon, it’s all the more reason to show her you know what you’re doing.

Only with proper education will electric files be able to beat the bad rap they’ve gotten in recent years. It may sound a bit contrived, but knowledge really is power.

Electric Filing Techniques

Using an electric file can help get a client in and out of your salon in no time. From repairing cracks to grooming natural nails, these handy machines do a lot. Here, we’ve illustrated some of the most common things an electric file can be used for.

Editor’s Note: Lysa Comfort provided this selection of demos showing some of the techniques and bits you can use with e-files. 

Removing Lifted Acrylic

Lifted product is one of the most common complaints associated with artificial nails.

Here’s how to get rid of the pesky problem.

Type of bit to use: Tapered

  1. Thin down the regrowth of acrylic that’s closest to the cuticle.
  2. Keeping the bit flat, use complete horizontal side-to-side motions. After the product has been refined, use a one-stroke method along the acrylic where the sealed and loose acrylic join and remove any remaining product.
  3. If a small white shadow appears around the sealed, refined product, do not worry, says Comfort. It won’t show underneath the acrylic. Continue with the fill as usual.

Repairing a Crack

Cracks appear too often on acrylic nails, but with the help of an electric file they can easily be removed, says Comfort.

Type of bit to use: Mini French-filled diamond

  1. Begin work on the crack before prepping the nail. The nail is still shiny and smooth and you can still see the definition of the crack.
  2. Drill out the crack using a low speed ranging from 3,500-6,000 RPM, depending on the machine. If you go too slowly, it can cause the machine to vibrate and send air pockets into the nail.
  3. Hold the bit parallel to the nail. Apply even pressure starting from the outer perimeter of the nail, going in toward the crack. Only remove enough material to make your repair and move on.

Prepping for a Full Set

Getting the nails ready for a full set is one of the most important steps in artificial nail application. Doing a proper prep ensures the nails will adhere longer and prevents the possibility of any product lifting.

Type of bit to use: Either a fine sanding band, medium to fine diamond, or a coarse silicone

  1. Push back the cuticles so the bit doesn’t grab onto the skin.
  2. Using a speed of 2,000 RPM, hold the bit flat against the nail. Using minimal pressure, go over the entire surface from left to right and back again, making sure you have not left any part of the nail untouched. Always lift the bit off the nail after a few strokes so that heat doesn’t build up.
  3. Do not angle the bit on the nail. Come up on the cuticle to remove any dead excess skin.
  4. Adjust the client’s hand to fit your needs. Do not attempt to maneuver the electric file around the client’s nails.

Working on the Natural Nail

“As long as it’s done properly and with the right tools, an electric file on the natural nail can be just as safe as a regular nail file,” says Comfort.

Type of bit to use: Extra-fine diamond, extra-fine sanding band, or silicone

  1. Gently push back the cuticle, exposing any dead excess skin. Then, using the bit along with a drill-friendly oil, remove any ridges and smooth the nail’s texture. Comfort says the oil helps make contact across the skin so the bit goes nice and smooth around the nail.
  2. Use a speed ranging from 2,500-6,000 RPM. Keep the bit flat to the nail. Holding it horizontally, move it from one lateral fold to the other. Remove the dead excess skin by circling over it with the bit.
  3. Next, use an extra-fine sanding band along with the drill oil. Hold the bit horizontally going from one lateral fold to the other. Come up on the cuticle, keeping the bit flat.
  4. Use a cotton buffer along with a buffing cream to buff the nail to a high shine using circular motions. Then, massage cuticle oil into the nail. The nail should stay smooth and shiny until it grows out, says Comfort.


Doing a backfill with an electric file can help you achieve faster and more accurate results. Backfills should only be done along a client’s natural free edge, says Comfort.

Type of bit to use: French-filled diamond, carbide straight barrel, or specialized backfill

  1. Use the inside portion of a nail form and a pencil to draw a smile line, suggests Comfort. This is especially good for beginners. Use the drawn line as a guide for where to drill on the nail.
  2. Using a speed between 5,000-9,000 RPM, position the hand at a 10° angle and cut a new smile line. White acrylic dulls in color as it ages. The new white tip powder is whiter in color and will make a strip of lighter white if you do not remove the entire white tip when doing your backfill. Remove a minimum of 80%-90% pink and 60%-70% white.
  3. Instead of a diamond barrel bit, you can also use a carbide straight barrel bit. If you do use this type of bit, start at the right side of the nail and go toward the left side, holding the bit parallel to the nail. Hold the electric file securely without too much pressure on the nail. Do not cut too deep. You can always go back over the area if your cut isn’t deep enough.

Finishing a Nail

An electric file is the perfect tool to use on a nail when you’re trying to achieve a smooth, finished look.

Type of bit to use: Either medium barrel, diamond, or carbide; extra-fine diamond

  1. Beginners can use a pencil to draw on the nail and help them determine where to take down the sidewalls.
  2. By now, the nail should already be shortened. Support the nail by holding it tightly. This helps eliminate extra vibrations and is more comfortable for the client, says Comfort. Apply pressure across the nail to the desired length. Use horizontal motions when shaping the nail, going from sidewall to sidewall. The bit should float across the nail, says Comfort. Stick to a speed between 5,000-12,000 RPM.
  3. When working near the cuticle area, the bit should be parallel to the nail. Move the client’s hand for added ease. When working on the cuticle area, reduce speed to under 7,000 RPM.
  4. Smooth the nail with an extra-fine diamond bit and a drill-friendly oil. Avoid using cuticle oil as it can clog and damage the electric file.

More E-file Information

Safety, how to go about purchasing an electric file, and other helpful tips are important things to keep in mind when it comes to drills. Not only will you be up to date, it’ll also assure clients you’re giving them the best service possible.

How to Clean and Disinfect Your E-file

Cleaning and disinfecting bits is probably the most ignored yet the most important procedure when using an electric file. The care you take to keep your bits disinfected should be at the same level as your other professional implements.

Would you ever use a dirty nail file on a client? The same logic applies to electric file bits, which can be easily cleaned and disinfected between clients.

Drill bits (carbide or diamond) should first be scrubbed with a brush and soapy water to loosen dust and particles. You can also soak the bits in acetone to dissolve acrylic dust and build-up.

Then, disinfect the bits in a disinfecting solution specifically formulated for use with metal instruments. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on soaking time.

After soaking the bits, allow them to air dry thoroughly. Keep bits in a dry, covered container when they’re not in use.

So what can’t be disinfected? Sandpaper bits, or sanding bands, for example, are one-use items that must be discarded. Rubberized abrasive attachments, abrasive stones, and porous accessories and attachments cannot be disinfected. Chamois and fabric buffing attachments are also considered one-use items.

Keep in mind that bits may rust in the disinfection process. Some carbide bits have a tendency to rust, but a high-quality diamond should not. The disinfectant you use may also be the culprit. If you are using a high-quality bit and are disinfecting it for the proper amount of time, then you shouldn’t have any problems.

How to Purchase an E-file

So you’re interested in purchasing an electric file but aren’t sure what to look for. What’s a nail tech to do?

First and foremost, go with an electric file that feels comfortable in your hand. Make sure the bit turns true so it doesn’t wobble or hammer on the nail. If the bit vibrates, it can damage the client’s nail matrix. And, says Comfort, just as important is a good warranty and repair service. After all, if you spend hundreds of dollars on a machine only to have it break down and there’s no repair service, you’re stuck. Most machines come with one-year warranties.

Variable speed is also important. It’s nice to be able to turn the machine slower when doing delicate, intricate work or faster when doing bulk reduction.

Also think about purchasing an electric file with standard size shanks. If you buy a machine that doesn’t take standard size bits you’re limited to purchasing what that manufacturer has to offer.

Here are other things to consider:

  • Look for hand-pieces that do not vibrate excessively.
  • Make sure the electric file has enough power. When a machine lacks power it forces the nail tech to work at a higher speed, says Comfort.
  • Ask about the manufacturer’s technical support. A good support system means you’ll have quick answers to any problems.


    E-file Technique Tips

    Here are some tips to help simplify your electric-filing techniques.
  • Do not push the bit too hard when cleaning the underside of the nails. Doing so can damage the hyponychium.


  • In general, use a lower speed for the cuticle area, a medium speed for backfills and refining the concave/convex shape at the tips, and a faster speed on top for shaping. Speeds in excess of 15,000 RPM can be potentially dangerous.


  • Always angle the client’s hand instead of maneuvering the electric file around the nail.


  • To determine how much heat is building up, put your thumb on the hand that is holding the client’s nail and as you work periodically feel the top of the nail. The nail is hotter on top than underneath, so you’ll be able to lift the bit before your client becomes uncomfortable.


  • Have a firm grip on your client’s fingers. This will eliminate any unnecessary vibrations from the electric file that can cause some discomfort. Proper balancing requires that you use your pinky or ring finger braced against your other hand for balance as you work. This is often referred to as a “fulcrum finger.”


  • Remember to apply the proper amount of pressure. If you use too much pressure, the nail can be affected. Also remember to periodically lift the bit from the nail to prevent heat build-up.


    E-file Maintenance Dos And Don’ts

    If you have an electric file, but aren’t sure about the proper way to maintain it, here are some tips to help your new machine achieve a long, healthy life.
  • Do cleanse the electric file regularly with a soft cloth or brush to remove any dust and debris that can settle in cracks and crevices. Make sure to unplug the machine before cleaning it.
  • Don’t apply lubricant anywhere on the machine. Most electric files feature bearings inside the hand-piece that are self-lubricating. Adding more oil can actually damage the bearings, not to mention heat them up, causing friction and heating the entire machine.
  • Do hold your electric file’s cord properly. Try to avoid constantly bending it, as the cord can become loose from the power supply or the hand-piece. Hold the cord at a natural angle.
  • Don’t place the hand-piece in disinfectant. You don’t want to cause interior damage to it.
  • Do remove the bit from the hand-piece when you’re done using it.
  • Don’t switch your electric file to the reverse option while it’s in forward motion.
  • Do make sure the bits are centered properly. If not, the electric file stem will wobble and loosen, damaging the hand-piece.

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