Perfectly buffed nails can be so shiny you can see yourself in the reflection. They glow with a long-lasting, high-gloss finish that doesn’t chip or yellow.

Whether your clients are male or female, old or young, or wear artificial or natural nails, they’ll take a shine to a good, professional buffing.

Buffing is an art form that requires the correct tools and the right technique for that rich, lustrous finish that is unmatched by anything from a bottle.

Define by the Shine

What makes a true buffer? “There are two schools of thought,” says Houshang Rastegar, president of H&H Products (Westlake Village, Calif.). “Some people call anything that has a fine grit a buffer, while other people call only the files or blocks that give a shine a buffer.”

(1) A multi-step filing process starts with a coarse grit file that makes deep scratches in the acrylic. Next a fine grit file makes the scratches shallower. (2) At the final stage, a buffing block smoothes the surface to the point where the scratch pattern virtually disappears. (3) What remains is a smooth plane to reflect the light evenly.

(1) A multi-step filing process starts with a coarse grit file that makes deep scratches in the acrylic. Next a fine grit file makes the scratches shallower. (2) At the final stage, a buffing block smoothes the surface to the point where the scratch pattern virtually disappears. (3) What remains is a smooth plane to reflect the light evenly. 

“Buffing means bringing up the shine,” says Geoff Geils, president of Flowery Beauty Products (Greenwich, Conn.). “What most people call ‘buffing blocks’ don’t buff anything. I think it’s just that the motion of going over the surface of the nail is considered a buffing action, and it’s often the last step before polish, so they started being called buffing blocks.”

Until the late 1970s, the only true buffer was a chamois or soft-leather buffer used with a buffing cream, lotion, or paste to bring up a shine on the nail, “We’ve had that type of buffer as far back as Flowery goes,” Geils says. “We used to make a wooden buffer handle that was hand-painted with lacquer. Then we would glue foam to the base and wrap a chamois skin around it”

The leather-wrapped handle works in tandem with a buffing compound, usually a cream or paste, to shine the nail. In this combination, the cream is what truly creates the shine. “The chamois loads up with cream and provides a good vehicle to spread the cream and buff it into the nail much like you’d use a chamois and buffing compound to polish a car,” explains Geils “Our buffing cream contains diatomaceous earth, which is a mild abrasive that smooths and shines the nail, and paraffin, which makes the shine last.” The abrasive, he says, smoothes the nail, while the paraffin fills the scratches.

While the history of this buffing system (cream and chamois) is sketchy, nail technician and history buff Brenda Sweat of Nails by Brenda in San Jose, Calif., says this style of buffer has existed for a few hundred years. She owns one antique silver buffer that is more than 100 years old. Donna Taras, owner of Nailbuffs (Long Meadow, Mass.), agrees, saying she has several antique buffers dating from the Victorian period. Back then, she says, the upper-class men and women buffed their nails with a tinted paste that gave their nails a pink glow.

The chamois-style buffing system is still a strong seller for Flowery and the only product of a few companies like Nailbuffs. A modernized version is available in the form of chamois buffing bits for electric files that, when used with a buffing compound, quickly bring a shine to both natural and artificial nails. But since its introduction in the early 1980s, the three-way buffer has dominated the market.

Microabrasives Take Off

Like so many other products in the nail industry, the microabrasive technology used in three-way buffers is borrowed from another industry. “The concept of cushioned abrasives first came into use for cleaning fine art paintings,” says John E. Archer of Micro-Surface Finishing Products (Wilton, Iowa). “The material very quickly found use as an improved method for polishing acrylic windows in the aircraft industry.”

While these ultra-fine abrasives have long been available, it wasn’t until cushioned abrasives were introduced in the early 1960s that they came into use to polish surfaces like windshields on airplanes.

“Before they used buffing compounds like jeweler’s rouge and toothpaste, but the problems with these abrasives is that they distort the surface because you can t remove material evenly with a buffing compound,” explains Joyce Ervin, head of research and development for Micro- Surface. “With our process of cushioning the abrasive, we’re polishing the window evenly because we have more control.” Whereas once a scratch on a windshield meant a costly replacement, airlines now can return the windshields to like-new condition with microabrasives.

While if s hard to believe that an abrasive —which by its very nature abrades, roughens and scratches — can create a smooth, glossy appearance, Ervin explains that they polish by cutting scratches out of the surface. “Our microabrasives provide a uniform cutting surface because the grains are finely graded, which means the tolerances between crystal sizes is much smaller. Large crystals mixed with smaller ones give the abrasive grain, and the larger crystals are the ones that dig a deeper scratch.” For nails, the highly abrasive quality of a 100- or 150-grit buffer may be just what’s needed to shape the nail, but once the bulk is reduced, finer and finer scratches are needed to remove the deeper scratches that leave a dull, rough surface.

“Any scratches you don’t get out from one step to the next are left in the surface, causing light refraction,” she explains. “What you do is a heavy scratch pattern to reduce the surface, then a medium-grade abrasive, which removes the first, deepest scratch pattern.” To polish a surface, you must continually step the abrasive down with a finer and finer scratch pattern.

To prepare the nail for the final shine from a gray buffet, which can range from 8,000 to 15,000 grit, you have to continually step down the abrasive. On a three-way buffer, the coarsest surface is usually at least 240 grit, but is more likely around 1,000, says Rastegar. “We recommend a 1,000 grit to start; the medium grit can range from 2,000-5,000, and then go up to 15,000 for the final step.”

With each step, you are removing scratches with progressively smaller ones until, with the final step, the scratches are so small and fine that the surface reflects light, resulting in a glossy appearance. “The abrasive we use on the final step, the gray buffer, is 12,000 grit. You can’t even see or feel the abrasive, and the scratch pattern it produces is so minute it’s invisible. It makes the surface so smooth it appears glossy,” Ervin says.

Achieving a deep shine on an acrylic nail is trickier than a natural nail, says Mikey Falley, president of Tropical Shine/Realys (Huntington Beach, Calif.) “Acrylic is much tougher than a natural nail, so if you aren’t patient enough to use the multi-step approach the surface will remain dull”

Quality of Construction

While at first glance most three-way buffers look alike, Rastegar and Ervin caution that the abrasive backing and the foam core are integral to a nail technician’s ability to create a high shine. “To get the gloss out, the buffing action needs a lot of flexibility, and that depends on the file construction,” Rastegar says.

A foam center serves several purposes, Micro-Surface’s Archer explains. “The flexible layer allows the abrasive crystals to recede slightly when subjected to contact pressure. The ability to recede into the resilient backing means that all crystal tips—the cutting edges — are at the work surface at the same level.

“As the cushioned abrasive is moved across the surface, the crystals rotate slightly to cut with a positive rake. This gives a cushioned abrasive the action of a planning tool rather than the action of a chisel”

While most buffer manufacturers recommend buying a three-way with a cloth backing because the cloth backing, too, provides cushion and resiliency, Liz Robbins, sales manager of Soft Touch/Rudolph International, notes that they started making a version of the three-buffer where the coarsest grit has a paper backing. “We responded to requests for that years ago because some people use the coarsest grit to shape the nail edge and they wanted the stiffness of a paper backing,” she explains.

Nail technician demand is driving newer developments in buffers as well. While most three-way buffers come in the traditional file form and cannot be used with creams or oils, Soft Touch/ Rudolph International recently introduced Is It Wet?, a true block buffer with three different abrasive surfaces. “It’s a three-sided process made with a lightweight foam and a fabric weave cloth that can be used with creams and lotions to bring out a super-high gloss,” Robbins says. Another benefit to this, notes Falley, is that creams and oils help smooth and moisturize the nail surface during the buffing, which can also prevent scrapes and cuts on the cuticles.

The Personal Touch

While chamois and three-way buffers can be used on both natural and artificial nails, Geils says most of the chamois buffers he sells are for use with natural nail clients, especially men.

“Men don’t want to walk out with polish, and the chamois buffer gives a longer-lasting shine so guys don’t have to mess around with their nails between appointments,” he explains.

Rastegar and Robbins caution that the most coarse surfaces of a 3-way buffer should be used sparingly because even buffing can damage the nail plate. “They shouldn’t use the black or white sides very often,” Robbins says. “It depends on the grit and the type, but there is some danger of thinning the nail too much.”

For this reason, manufacturers recommend buffing the nails every few days with the gray surface to keep the nails shiny and to use sparingly the other two surfaces.

Chamois and three-way buffers are ideal retail items for clients, especially in salons that do a lot of natural nail clients. While some salons might hesitate over providing clients with the tools to beautify their nails, Geils reminds that clients won’t have the long-practiced ease of a nail technician. “The consumer will just gloss over the nail, while the nail technician is going to take the time to get it right.” And before you send a client home with a buffer, show her how to use it so that the product meant to enhance her nails doesn’t end up making them weaker and more prone to break.

Of course, retail sales begin during the service, when your clients observe your products and techniques. While many nail technicians may prefer the ease and speed of a high-gloss top coat over “old-fashioned” buffing, the high, long-lasting gloss merits a second look from nail technicians searching for a competitive edge.

Outshine the Competition

How important is the quality of the buffing in competition? “It can win or lose the competition for you,” says Tom Bächik, A NAILS Top 25 Competitor in 1994 and 1995. “I’ve seen competitors whose technical work was just average win based on a beautiful shine. The judges are judging and looking at the same old thing and then that high-gloss shine hits the in, and boom.”

With so much riding on that final touch, Bächik shares his tips for buffing in competition (they shine in the salon, as well).

“The key to a high shine is when you’re first filing the nail” Bächik advises. “Try to break away from using anything coarser than 150- or 180-grit to shape the nail because then you have to do so much filing with finer grits to get out the deep scratches the coarser grits make.” His philosophy, he says, is to do the bulk of the shaping with the brush by spending more tin le applying the product.

Next Bächik graduates to a 240-grit white “buffing” block to further smooth and refine the surface, first rolling the new block in his hands to soften the edges and prevent them from leaving deep scratches in the nail.”First I’ll do this step dry so I can see if any big scratches are left. If necessary I’ll go back to the 180-grit to get rid of them,” he says. ‘Then, it I have enough time, I’ll get the nails wet and buff them again with the 240-grit file’’ The wet sanding, he says, really contributes to a mirror-like finish.

Bächik then progresses to a three-way buffer “When I go to this step I rub two three-way files together; rubbing black against black and white against white to get off the coarsest grit” he says. He quickly uses first the black portion, then the white, on all 10 nails. When he moves to the gray portion, which gives the actual shine, he first uses a brand-new buffer “I use the brand-new buffer on all the nails, and then I go back over them with a used buffer. The used buffer is the same grit but the surface is smoother because it’s already been worn down,” he says. Another option, Bächik says, is to use the new three-way buffer on all the nails, and then rub a drop of acetone on the gray portion and go over the nails again. “Be very light and smooth putting the acetone on the buffer or it will gum up the nail,” he warns ‘The acetone smoothes the textured surface and gives a high gloss.”

The Buff Manicure

While good grooming is no longer part of a movie star’s contract with a studio like it was when her mother Beatrice Kaye, was MGM Studios’ manicurist, Ila Hirsch says her hectic schedule as an on-location studio manicurist proves that not all celebrities are into the grunge look. Here she details the “Buff Manicure” she learned from her mother. While a three-way buffer can be used, Hirsch prefers a chamois or soft leather buffer and buffing cream.

After shaping the nails on one hand, file the nails to the desired shape and length, then have the client soak that hand in warm soaking solution. Gently pat the hand dry push back the cuticles aid trim any hangnails.

Coat the undersides of the nails with a white-tipped manicure pencil and then wipe any excess white away with the dampened edge of the manicure towel.

Starting with the thumb, use the finest side of a round disc file to smooth out any ridges on the nails Hirsch recommends working from the cuticle to the free edge, using only downward strokes. “Beware of the cuticle area because you don’t want to dig into the cuticles and rough up that skin.” Smoothing the nail should take no more than four to live downward strokes with the fine disc.

Apply a small amount of buffing cream or lotion to each of the five nails on this first hand. “I prefer using buffing cream from a tube because it’s easier to apply and less messy,” Hirsch notes. She spreads a very thin layer of cream over the nail from cuticle to free edge. “Try not to get the buffing paste too close to the cuticle because you’ve already cleaned it,” she adds.

At this time, Hirsch recommends putting the client’s other hand in warm soaking solution. While the second hand soaks, Hirsch buffs the nails. Starting with the thumb, she holds the buffer in one hand with her middle finger over the top and her ring and index fingers under the handle “Begin buffing in a counterclockwise motion.” Hirsch says. “You will actually ‘catch’ the nail on the downward sweep.” In the meantime, she says, use the thumb and forefinger of the other hand to rotate the nail back and forth gently to buff the entire curvature of the nail. Continue buffing the nail until you see the beginning of a shine through the buffing paste. “Each client is different but it should take an average of six to eight rotations,” she says.

Next, give the client a hand massage, paying particular attention to the cuticle area and nail. By this time, Hirsch says, The nail is tingling and feeling really good” She quotes Beatrice Kaye, who has always said, “Buffing a nail is the most beneficial ‘nail aerobics’ you can give a client”

Dip a corner of the manicure towel in the soaking solution and wipe the excess buffing paste and massage lotion off each nail and pat them dry. Then clean the buffer by rubbing it on a clean part of the towel.”Now, to bring up the high shine, use the circular stroke again ft should take just a few strokes to really bring up the gloss”

Repeat the first seven steps on the other hand.

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