More than just a fill to correct a “grown out” smile line, a backfill restructures the nail surface of a Ghent’s pink and whites. The smile line must be resculpted, the arch at the stress area rebuilt, and the area near the cuticle filled in and thinned out to complete the service.

“As the nail grows out, the arch moves down toward the free edge and the natural stress area is more vulnerable,” explains Justine Hartell, a nail technician in Hollywood, Calif. “You have to rebuild the nail so that the arch is placed over the stress area and the nail is thin at the cuticle, sides, and free edge.”

It used to be that backfills only required the drilling of a well or trench above the natural nail’s smile line. The trench was then filled in with white acrylic, filed, and finished as usual. More often, nail technicians are taking down the entire white free edge in addition to creating a new smile line.

“Just trenching out a new smile line makes it very difficult to reapply the white acrylic. No matter how good the product is, I’ve found that it always changes color over time, so you see this band of ultra-white powder in the middle of the finished nail. It defeats the purpose,” says Terri Lundberg, owner/founder of The Nail Technician Mentoring Institute in Minneapolis.

“The ultimate goal of a backfill is no fill lines, especially at the smile line and near the cuticle. You want it to look like a brand new set”

Successful backfills are the product of at least one or two months of continuous practice and finding the right methods and tools for the way you work. Some nail technicians use a hand-filing technique to reshape and restructure their clients’ nails. “If you’ve built the nails thin enough, you can take down the acrylic using just a fine-grit file in as little time as it takes to use an electric file,” says Hartell, adding that she thinks this is better for the extension and for the natural nail.

Which method you choose boils down to personal preference and application style. Once mastered, the extra steps add about a half-hour to the service, but it is time well spent. You can charge as much as $10 more for a backfill, while gaining an edge over nearby salons that don’t offer the service. Also, your clients will enjoy that they don’t have to get a new set every 4-6 weeks to maintain the sculpted French look.

Backfills With an Electric File

Step 1: As with all nail services, the key to a good backfill is preparation. When Victoria Sozio, co-owner and nail technician at The Upper Cut in Washington Township, N.J., does a backfill, she begins with a mini-manicure, being sure to push back and clean up the cuticles. “I then use a file to blend away any lifting,” says Sozio. “If you nip at lifted product it leaves fill lines and is bad for the client’s natural nails. Instead, take the time to file it down.”

Some nail technicians prefer to use their electric file to lightly go over the entire nail, especially if the acrylic is yellowed or discolored. “I use my drill to thin out the acrylic before I make my trench,” says Lisa Martin-Decenzo, a nail technician at Classic Look Hair & Nail Salon in Monroeville, Pa.

“I always determine how serious the lifting is first. If it’s bad, then I drill down as close to the natural nail as possible with my electric file,” says Nanda Khin, a nail technician and national competitor who works at The Beauty Zone in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Step 2: Lundberg recommends that nail technicians draw the new smile line directly on the nail with a pencil prior to trenching it out [photo 1], “Most nail technicians are not adept at drilling a well, so they spend a lot of time correcting it with acrylic. Using a pencil takes away the guessing,” she explains. “This can be a good way to introduce the client to this new service because it allows her to visualize what the nails will look like when you’re done.”

Step 3: To drill out the new smile line, hold the electric file at a 30° angle just above the natural smile line—unless the type of drill bit you use requires otherwise [photo 2]. For instance, diamond-shaped bits require the drill to be held parallel to the nail. The bit you use to create the smile line is usually a matter of personal preference. Use the drill to create the well, being sure not to go too slow. “Use a fair amount of speed and some pressure,” says Sozio. “Never leave the drill bit on the nail for any length of time —use short, quick strokes.”

Step 4: Using your electric file, shave off at least 75% of the white acrylic from the entire nail tip, which prevents shadows from forming. Before applying fresh acrylic, prepare the nail with a nail prep/dehydrator and one coat of primer, if required by your acrylic system.

Step 5: Be sure to use the white acrylic at the right consistency, usually medium-dry. “I put my brush in the liquid, wipe it once and then there is enough liquid left in the barrel of the brush for what I need,” says Sozio. According to Lundberg, drier acrylic also has a more brilliant color and helps build strength into the nail.

How the acrylic is applied can also guard against shadowing and save some time. “I use a one-ball method to fill the entire free edge,” says Khin. “If you keep adding new balls to fill in imperfections, their consistency may not be the same as the original ball, so they show up as shadows on the cured nail.”

If you’ve drilled the trench in as precisely as possible, the white acrylic should just flow in and create the smile line naturally. If you need to, correct the smile line using the tip of your brush. Do not add more liquid to your brush.

Step 6: Be sure to let the white acrylic cure as much as possible before applying the pink. “Sometimes, nail technicians get a cloudy smile line because the white and pink acrylic have run together,” says Martin-Decenzo. “This also happens when the nail technician doesn’t trench the nail deep enough or smooth enough and fills in the acrylic incorrectly.”

Perform a regular fill at the cuticle area using pink, natural, or clear acrylic. Then it is time to restructure the arch. “I apply what I call a “blender ball,’ which blends the cuticle area with the free edge and rebuilds the arch, lending support to the stress area,” Lundberg says.

Sozio applies pink acrylic at the cuticle, but then uses clear acrylic to rebuild the stress area, which helps make the tip and nail bed colors more distinct. “If you use too much pink, it inhibits the white color,” she says.

Step 7: Finish the nail as usual. “I use a 100/180 grit file to shape the nail after I complete the backfill,” says Khin. “I then use the gold barrel to finish the nail, which gives it a very smooth surface. Finally, I fine-tune with a white buffing block,” says Khin.

How You and Your Client Benefit From Backfills

Not every salon offers pink and whites, but you should. Of the nail technicians we spoke to, clients wearing permanent French manicures make up between 10%-45% of their current business and the number is growing. Here are some pointers on how to sell the service to your clients and reap the benefits:

  1. A permanent French gives the client freedom with her nails. “One of the biggest “filing points is that she can remove her polish in between fills and backfills and still have a flawless French underneath,” says Justine Hartell. And the client feels like she gets a new set of nails every 2—4 weeks, depending on how fast her nails grow.
  2. Since not every nail salon offers them, backfills distinguish you. “Only 30% of my clients wear them, but many change over from traditional acrylic once they see a finished set,” says Nanda Khin “We try to recommend the service to the client with the right profile. Someone who really wants a nice, clean-looking nail, even under polish or airbrushing designs.”
  3. You can charge more for a backfill. Add from $7-$ 10 to your regular fill price because you are providing a service that requires advanced skill.
  4. Be sure to book the right amount of time for a backfill. It will take you longer when you first start offering the service. “When I book them, I write down ‘refill’ and ‘backfill’ and add a half-hour on to my regular fill time,” says Victona Sozio.
  5. A backfill keeps the nails in better condition than removing the set every few weeks and replacing it ft requires the nail technician to file down any lifting instead of nipping so that fill lines won’t appear:

Learning Not to Dig Too Deep

The biggest challenge for beginners is knowing how far to drill down into the acrylic without hitting the nail bed. Terri Lundberg has a unique training technique that helps nail technicians to practice drilling until they feel comfortable.

Apply a thin layer of acrylic to a practice finger and smooth it out. This will act as the client’s natural nail bed.

Next, paint the acrylic using red nail polish, which will be the natural nail surface Let it dry Then apply a layer of pink and white acrylic as you would on a client during a regular application.

Once it cures, practice drilling out a trench and removing the white acrylic. “If you hit the red nail polish, you’ve gone down too far and hit the client’s nail bed,” she says. “This technique will make you confident that you aren’t going to harm your clients’ nails, and it allows you to explore which angle works best with your finishing machine.”

Backfills Using a Hand-Filing Method

Step 1: Start at the free edge and thin it out as much as possible without filing the natural nail. “Make sure the extension edge is razor thin,” says Hartell. “No matter where on the nail you are filing, start the stroke of the file at the smile line of the nail and work your way to the area that you are working on in a circular motion.”

Step 2: Thin down the area around the extension’s arch about 50% using your file.

Step 3: Thin down the cuticle area as much as possible. “File on top of any lifting on the nail until it becomes so thin that it flakes off and won’t cause fill lines,” Hartell explains. “Make sure that when you are done, all the product left on the nail is securely adhered to it.”

Step 4: Reapply the white acrylic in a medium-dry consistency as you would with a full set, using your brush to sculpt a smile line. “If you mess up the smile line, use your brush to push it back into place, but remember to ‘re-create’ the barrier between the nail and the acrylic before reapplying the nail prep in that area using another brush,” Hartell says. “Spread the product evenly from side to side when the product is at its wettest on the nail and use the point of the brush to move the corners of the smile line into place.”

Step 5: Apply the rest of the acrylic to the nails as you would when applying a full set and then finish by lightly buffing or applying a top coat.

Choosing a Drill Bit

Terri Lundberg educates nail technicians to define the smile line using a cone bit on an electric file. “Cone-shaped bits are easy to control and keep the smile line really clean,” she explains. She instructs them to remove the cone bit and drill down on the white acrylic using a carbide barrel-shaped bit “I change bits because the cone gets too hard to control when taking down acrylic over the entire free edge, especially if you are just starting out or are squeamish with a finishing machine,” she says.

Using a half-barrel or French fill bit keeps Nanda. Khin from changing bits mid-service and the shortness helps give her more control when carving out the new smile line. “I trained myself to drill the trench and shave off the acrylic with the same bit to save some time,” she says. “Even if I only save 30 seconds a nail, that’s five minutes off the entire service.” Khin also prefers the bit because it’s a snap to take down the rest of the white acrylic.

Similarly, nail technicians who use the diamond-shaped drill bits say they save time because they’re made specifically for backfills. Ute Green, a nail technician in Tarzana, Calif., holds her drill parallel to the nail and uses the point of the diamond to drill the trench. She then angles the drill downward and uses the bottom half of the bit to remove the white on the free edge. “I cut my time in half because I use only one bit and spend less time drilling a clean smile line,” Green says.

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