Ask a nail tech which is better: a classic nail file or an electric one, and you’ll get a definite opinion. Some are strongly opposed to using an electric file anywhere near a nail, whether it be natural or acrylic, and swear by hand filing. Others can’t do without their electric counterpart and say it has cut down their filing time in half. Then you have nail techs who swear by both. The combination of hand and electric filing, they say, gives them the best of both worlds: quick filing and precision.

“Whatever the preference, there’s a case to be made for both tools. “Essentially, electric files can do everything that a hand file can do, but faster,” says Barb Wetzel, a LaGrange, Ill.-based independent educator and founder of, an educational website. But more than just fast, electric files can also do some things that hand filing cannot do, such as trenching for backfills and drilling out the back of sculpted nails when forms go awry.”

Deborah Reeves, owner of Nailz Hand & Foot Spa in Cashiers, N.C., prefers to stick to hand filing. “I mostly work by hand and occasionally use an electric file to clean the underside of the nails,” she says. “I feel comfortable with hand files and have good speed so I don’t have any urgency to change.”

The following are some techniques each tool is frequently used for during natural and artificial nail services. Whether you decide to stick to hand filing, start using an electric file, or choose to use a combination of both in your services is your choice. But whatever you do, make sure you get the proper education so you can be sure you know exactly what you’re doing. The more you know, the more your clients will be willing to put their hands in yours.


Nothing gets underneath a new or just-filled extension like an electric file. When cleaning the underside of the nail, hold the client’s finger with her palm facing up. To do the thumbs, point them down toward you. You can use a small cone or barrel bit to clean up the underside, but make sure you’ve done all the work on the free edge first.

Kelvin St. Pham, owner of St. K Nail Salon in Gardena, Calif., says it’s important to have a firm hold on your client s finger. Hold your client’s finger with her palm facing down It’s more comfortable and easier for you to see.

Use a barrel bit and start your stroke on one side of the nail and move the bit back and forth along the edge until you’ve taken down the desired length.

To take down product that’s been applied too thickly, St. Pham uses a barrel bit to shape the nail. He also suggests shaping the product with a brush so you won’t have to shape it as much with the electric file. It should only take two or three strokes to shape the nail Start at the free edge, work back over the arch, and finish with semicircular strokes at the cuticle.

Hold the nail so you can view it from the profile and file it with the barrel bit held horizontally to the side of the extended nail until the desired shape is achieved. Don’t press the top of the bit against the client’s skin.

Doing different types of fills: Electric files are ideal for achieving backfills, French fills, and pink-and-whitefills. To do a backfill, drill a trench with the edge of a barrel bit at the new smile line and then thin the nail from that point out to the end of the free edge.

To fill a set of pink-and-whites, St. Pham suggests using the same type of bit to remove a layer of product off the top of the nail from the smile line to the edge of the tip. Fill over that area with white product, creating a new, clean tip.

Prepping the cuticle area. Be careful at the cuticle Run the drill as slowly as you can, says St. Pham. Heat builds up quickly and can make the acrylic hot, burning the natural nail. Angle the bit to the product enough so you can make it flush to the nail, but not so much that you drill a trench. When drilling at the cuticle area, use a cone-shaped bit and minimal pressure and speed. Start at the groove wall on the right side of the nail and gently work around the cuticle area as you watch the bit from the side. Be careful not to touch the bit to the exposed nail at the cuticle area.

Drilling out and repairing cracks:

Stress cracks can happen right after a service or start small and grow. To fix one, St. Pham suggests holding the bit horizontal or flush with the crack and gently burrow through the acrylic on either side of the crack. A large carbide barrel bit will quickly remove the acrylic from around the crack; a cone- shaped diamond bit will take longer. Only remove enough material to make your repair.

Electric Filing Avenues

Using an electric file isn’t difficult but if you don’t have the proper training, then it can be hard to get the hang of it. Here are some I things to consider before using an electric file.

Do take an electric file safety course so you understand where and how to use each type of bit.

Don’t use a carbide bit or coarse diamond or sanding band on the natural nail.

Do clean bits by washing or soaking them in acetone, then disinfecting them according to your state’s guidelines.

Don’t use a sanding band more than once. These are single-use disposable items and must be thrown away after initial use.

Do keep the bit parallel to the table at all times when filing.

Don’t use craft or hobby tools.

Do know the capacity of your machine and how each type of bit should be used. It’s important that you know what speed to use for each type of service so that you don’t damage the client’s nails.


To avoid contact with your client’s skin, hold her finger with your thumb and forefinger. This steadies the nail and allows you to gently pull the surrounding skin down and away from your file. This minimizes the chance of damaging the skin while filing.

Your filing motion around the side-walls should be in a straight, back-and-forth motion.

This technique shapes the tip of the nail while retaining strength and thickness at its stress points. Hold the client’s finger with your thumb and forefinger. Holding the file at a 45-degree angle, file it back and forth across the top of the nail in the direction of growth while gently applying pressure from the stress area to the free edge. Make sure to retain the natural curve of the nail.

Nail Filing Techniques

Although hand filing may seem like it’s as simple as using a back- and-forth motion, the truth is there’s more to it than that Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you whip that abrasive out Du gently file straight down along the side of the nail wall to smooth the nail. Gradually angle the file using more pressure just below the stress area to create the desired shape.

  • Don’t use a grit normally used on acrylic to reduce thickness or length on the natural nail plate.
  • Do file vertically on the natural nail plate in the same direction as the nail cells. This etches the surface and removes the waxy layer; exposing a surface that acrylic can bond to.
  • Don’t file too fast because it can create heat and cause pain. Never file back and forth at sidewalls or cuticle areas, as it can cause redness.
  • Don’t file deeply into the corners of the nail walls during preparation or finishing filing. This causes a breakdown of the natural nails at the stress area and promotes stress cracking.


In most cases, a medium-grit acrylic file is fine, says St. Pham. If the nail is fairly smooth, you can use a file with a finer grit. For a rough nail, be careful when using a heavier grit file as this may take off more product than you want.

Be careful not to file too fast because it will cause heat to build up and cause lifting — not to mention cause the client unneeded discomfort.

You want to take down product without cutting or bruising the surrounding skin. Always use a light stroke and keep your client’s comfort in mind.

A medium or soft-grit file works best for precision. Hold your client’s finger between your thumb and forefinger with the nail file straight across the tip of the nail. File in one direction to avoid stress and flexing of the nail.

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