Simply the one item you cannot do without, the file is the work horse of the nail salon. There is no nail service that you don’t use if for. It is probably your least expensive tool and it’s very likely the tool every one of your clients has at home. But as nail care has become more complicated and more sophisticated, so too even the simplest of implements.

Never one to lag behind in technological advancements, the file now comes constructed of space-age materials and built to last well into the next century. But you can choose the $2.50 fluorescent cushioned board or the 14¢ wood emery board to do the exact same thing. For a clearer understanding of the files you need in your “basic file wardrobe,” you need to understand how they are built and the purposes each are best suited for.

When Joe Lupo invented the emery board in the 1920s, he was looking for a less expensive alternative to the commonly used metal file. Lupo experimented with materials and came up with the emery board, which remains virtually unchanged from its original form.


All files have three main components: the abrasive, the material that the abrasive attaches to, and the core to which the material is attached.

ABRASIVES: As diverse as abrasives may seem, nearly all abrasives used in the nail industry today are one of three types: garnet, a hard mineral that is typically found on tan emery boards, and silicon carbide and aluminum oxide, very hard synthetic compounds that can be ground very coarse or very fine. What makes the surface more or less rough is the degree to which the abrasive is ground. Obviously, rougher files are ground the least and smoother files are ground the finest.

Abrasives are categorized and numbered by the coarseness of their grit. The lower the number, the more coarse the grit. A typical acrylic file is about 100 grit, while the typical buffer is about 1200 grit, what is called a microabrasive. Microabrasives came to the nail industry by way of the aerospace industry. An engineer used buffing blocks made of this super-fine grit to remove scratches from airplane windows. That same material brings a high shine to fingernails.

Abrasives come in a variety of colors. The coloring process does not affect either the board’s ability to file or its quality. The common tan emery boards are usually garnet, while most colored files are silicon carbide or aluminum oxide. Some technicians favor colored files so they know at a glance what file to choose for what purpose.


ABRASIVE BACKINGS: Abrasives can be attached to a host of materials, and file manufacturers have shown a remarkable cleverness in finding new surfaces. The most common surfaces to attach abrasives to are paper, cloth, and film. In the film category, polyester film is the most popular. None of the abrasive backings makes a file inherently superior in its filing ability. What will be most important in choosing files is the purpose for which they will be used.

If you’re disposing of files after every client and will factor the cost of the board into your service price, you will want a less expensive file. Some manufacturers make a washable paper file, which they claim is impervious to water. However, most paper files cannot withstand prolonged contact with water.

Enjoying popularity among manufacturers is polyester film backing. The most well-known, perhaps, is Mylar. Films are washable, highly durable, and sanitazable. The material comes from its manufacturer in a variety of colors. Film files, especially if cushioned, are usually the most expensive of the files surfaces.


CORES: The abrasive-coated surface is attached to a core, which gives the file strength and rigidity. In the early emery board days, the core of all files was wood. Wood boards are generally less expensive.

At the center of most colored and cushioned boards are thin pieces of plastic (generally about 1/16 -inch thick). Some companies use what is called “virgin plastic,” which means the plastic has not been recycled from other plastic. This type of plastic, they claim, provides for greater spring-back of a file, more rigidity, and a longer-lasting file. “Reground plastic” is composed of some virgin plastic and ground plastic, all melted together. To test a file’s spring-back, put the kind of pressure on the file that it would have to endure during heavy filing.

Plastic cores come in all colors. The color has nothing to do with the quality of the file. Like colored abrasives, colored-core files may be preferred because they’re recognizable to a glance. A nail technician may simply enjoy the aesthetic appeal of colored-center files as well.

In the core of cushioned files are two layers of foam or cushion. A layer of foam (usually 1/32-inch to 1/8-inch thick) is adhered to each side of the plastic. The abrasive is then mounted on each side of that. A cushioned file may conform to the nail better than a non-cushioned file. There are nail technicians who prefer a still file without cushion for better control.

 ADHESIVES: Adhesives are used in two phases of file construction: adhering the abrasive to a surface and adhering each file layer together. Although manufacturers guard information about adhesives as trade secrets, there are manufacturers who use adhesives designed to hold up through many washings, sanitizing, and intensive filing.

COATING/SEALING: There are files that have a resin coating over the abrasive material so that the grit doesn’t come off either in normal filing or in cleaning. The coating seals the abrasive on the paper to reduce grit shedding. The resin coating can also enhance the durability and waterproof properties of a file.


BLOCKS AND BUFFERS: Buffing and filing blocks have the same components as flat files, but the center cushion is thicker. For the center, companies use ether some type of plastic foam or cushioned material. There are treatments does on the cushioned material of blocks that cause it to be water-resistant, which in turn prevents bacteria from entering the block and makes the block more durable. This type of foam is called “closed cell foam.”

DIE CUTTING: After all these materials are put together in a large sheet, the files are cut out in their final shapes. The process used to cut the files out of the material is called “die cutting,” and the cutting device is called the “die.” The die is a sort of mold, like a cookie cutter. A powerful device is set over the die and exerts pressure to cut out the file.

Some files are cut out one by one. This time-consuming process usually ensures a very clean edge on the file and a clearly defined shape. Cushioned boards are usually cut out one by one. That sort of labor obviously adds to the price of the file. Thinner boards can be cut out several at a time. This process does not degrade the quality of the board, but due to the reduced labor, can lower the file’s price.

Cutting out material as rough as abrasives quickly and seriously degrades the quality of the die. How often a manufacturer sharpens or changes a die is evident in the final product. Just as a dull-edged cookie cutter would not produce clean, straight lines, a dull die may produce a file with a “lip,” or overhang. The edge might also be ragged.

There are two types of cutting edges generally used on files. One is the straight method, one the Z-cut method. The straight method is a simple, downward cut that produces a clean edge. A Z-cut looks as though the edge is serrated or has Z-shaped marks on it. Both processes are designed to reduce the razor sharp edges that could potentially cut a client while she is being filed. However, most manufacturers would be hard-pressed to prove that either cutting method was actually “safer.”


When it comes to purchasing your “basic file wardrobe,” you have as many choices as you do in a clothing boutique. And just as in the clothing boutique, you can chose fancy and exotic clothes that serve the same function as plain and simple clothes. However, there are advantages to each style.

There is no need to tell you that files come in every color in the rainbow, as well as in every shape imaginable. Like fashion styles, boards have trends. Last year neons were popular, this year it’s buffing blocks.

If you had to live with the bare minimum number of files, you could make do and serve all your clients with just four boards. You would need a coarse board (or an acrylic board, something in the 100 grit range) for acrylic filing and shaping and for taking the nail down quickly.

You would also need a medium board for finer filing and for use on natural nails. This board would be in the 180-320 grit range. A third file is necessary for smoothing the top of the nail, something in the 400-600 grit range. Discs are popular for this task because their shape makes it easy to use and easy to get into corners.

Finally, you need a microbrasive, a very high numbered grit, usually in the 1200 grit range, for shining and buffing the nail. This file is particularly popular in a block.

There are other factors to consider when buying files. You should look for a company that is responsive to your requests. It may be important to you to choose a company whose reputation is known to you. Some companies offer guarantees on files; some also offer private label programs for files whereby, for a minimum order, you can have your salon name imprinted on the file. Personalized files have obvious PR value, especially if you retail them. Your salon name (and ideally your phone number) are constantly in front of the user.


If there is a file shape that isn’t yet on the market, you can be assured it will find its way to market soon. Manufacturers have experimented with every shape and size, tested the ergonomics of files, and watched thousands of nail technicians buff and file to see how to fill a need further.

The basic 7-inch straight file can do just about everything you need it to do. However, you may find that a block is easier to use if you have long nails yourself. Many technicians find that blocks do less damage to their own nails because of the way they are held.

Straight and curved files (sometimes called boomerangs or bananas) are good for shaping nails. They require mostly wrist movement and no change in filing technique.

Discs, squares, heart-shaped, and pear-shaped files are all designed for getting into the corners of the nail and for ease on top of the nail because they are small and fit snugly in your hand.

There are files with prongs, horns, or pointed tips, all designed to get into corners and work under the nail. This design helps technicians file under sculptured nails and shape them.


In an effort to reduce infection and disease, technicians are advised not to use “disposable” items, including files on more than one client. A conscientious technician has three choices in how to implement this. She can dispose of files after every client; store the files in an envelope for that client’s use only; or use sanitzable files. There are a variety of concerns in each choice.

If a technician chooses to dispose of the files, she will probably elect to buy the least expensive (without being lowest quality) file. She may do this to demonstrate in front of her client her sanitation conscientiousness or because she doesn’t have the room or the desire to store files. In this case she may opt for paper/wood emery boards that she can buy in bulk for around 14¢ each.

If a technician decides to store the files, she will probably want to choose a durable file. To distinguish each client’s file she may choose to color- or shape-coordinate these files. Colored, highly durable files can cost between $1-$3. You can also choose a washable or sanitizable file, which could either be stored for that client or used again after sanitizing. If you will be sanitizing your files, you need to select a sturdy, long-lasting file that is not only washable but sanitizable.


You may find the retail sale easiest if you sell the client the kind of file you use during her service. With this in mind, just as you get attention for unique clothing, you may get attention from clients when you use unique files.

Your client may be enthralled with a curved zebra board or a fluorescent buffing disk. You should stock what you are using on her. You don’t need hundreds of file varieties and neither does your client. Her file wardrobe should include a medium file for smoothing out any snags she may incur between appointments, and a buffer for smoothing and shining the nail surface.

The array of files available gives you free rein to choose the best combination for yourself and your clients, whether you prefer a basic wardrobe of four files, or an extravagant, one-of-each collection.

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