True Grit: A Guide To Nail Files

It was either "True Grit" or "Persistence of Emery."
Publish date:
August 29, 2013
manicures, nail tools, nail files, buffers, emery boards

I have a warped sense of femininity based on cartoon imagery absorbed as a child. This broad Cleo from the show Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats was SO cool and sexy. In addition to her badass '80s pink legwarmers, I remember so vividly a scene where she slinkily filed her claws while purring some seductive, sweet nothing-or-other. I wanted to be HER when I grew up.

The image of a woman filing her nails just screams: "LEISURE!" Or "ALOOF RECEPTIONIST!"

Think of M.I.A. stuntin' like her daddy on top of a car while flicking a pink Swiss Army file over her nails in the video for "Bad Girls." It's a powerful image. She can stick you with that file or sharpen her nails into Hell-Cat Maggie battle claws. The action of filing one's nails is feline, decadent, intimidating.

Before I started nail school, I had very little knowledge of the technique or science behind nail care. I approached nails as a painter, an artist. Since I’m a little bit magpie and a little bit drag queen (DRAGPIE: I just made up this word, know it--use it), I love shiny and pretty things, so I bought these fabulous big gold nail files from a beauty supply store.

My nails in their natural state are weak and peely. I blame my aggressive three-finger hunt-and-peck typing style, and constant exposure to nail polish remover. But the way I was filing them was jacking them up even further.

Nail file grits are like body-piercing gauges: the smaller the number, the bigger and scarier they are. The lovely gold file I was sawing away at my shreddy corpus unguis with was a very hardcore grit of ONE HUNDRED. This type of file should be used for artificial nails only--to shape acrylics or tips ONLY. Oopsy.

So here’s a basic introduction to the different types of files...


The classic copper-and-putty colored emery board is what you get as a promotional item in your company's team-building retreat gift bag. This is totally fine for use on natural nails.

Emery is a very hard rock that is ground into an abrasive powder which is used to make the boards. The grit is usually 150 - 180, but they vary.

I don’t use the small ones often when I work on clients because there’s not enough, uh, fulcrum? Leverage? I can't whip it around enough, and it makes my hand cramp. But it's great for at-home use.


Metal nail files are gnarly, difficult to use, and may tear up your nails. Would not recommend messing with that ish. (I know, I just showed you M.I.A. using one. She's not one to shy from controversy.)

They’re pretty much only cool as pieces of jewelry. See this dope Nail Jerks and Cubannie Links collab:


The 180 side is fine for natural nails; the 100, not so much. They make a lot of disinfect-able types, which are great for saving money, etc.

Sometimes, when the 100 side is ground down a bit, I use it on natural nails. These are made mostly for professionals who are applying artificial enhancements. At the nail supply shop you can get files in different grits with all kinds of crazy animal names that sound like either Mac operating systems or beachfront restaurants. Snow Monkey. Sand Shark. Killer Whale. White Tiger. Zebra.


Oh, HELL NAW. Probably don’t even touch this unless you’re a pro or seasoned acrylics wearer.


I have one for personal use--I like it OK. Bonus: it’s disinfectable. Bummer: it’s breakable.

It does an OKAY job, but to me feels a bit like I'm scraping my fork against my teeth. And maybe not as quick of a job if you have a lot to file.


These come in as many grits as the other files. The traditional three-way (or four-way) buffer is a very, very high grit and is used to buff or shine the nails. A lot of them come with the steps conveniently labeled on each side. Many come in 240 which is nice for someone with very thin, weak, dainty or damaged nails.


Wouldn't recommend for home use. Those things have a kick to them and take some getting used to. Think about the challenge of painting your dominant hand. Now think about using a tattoo machine/electronic toothbrush/vibrator to do that.

Improper use can cause serious damage, even at the salon! There's a painful condition known as "rings of fire" caused by unskillful use of the e-file. Do not want.

Finally, a tip: Remember to never saw back and forth, and use one stroke at a time in the same direction! Happy filing!