Mastering the Art of Nail Filing: A Comprehensive Guide for Nail Techs

Whether you're helping a client who's after a classic oval or a daring stiletto, filing nails is an essential part of a nail technician's job. The filing process might seem simple, but the way you file your client's nails can significantly impact the overall look and health of their nails. In this guide we’ll go through the art and science of how to file nails effectively and safely.

Filing correctly also ensures your client's manicure will last. Similar to if you were redecorating your home and you wanted to gloss your skirting boards, you would sand these down first and then gloss – this allows the gloss to adhere to the wood and works well for adhesion. Etching the nails correctly will allow the polish to adhere to the nail plate.

1. Choosing the right grit nail file

HONA Nail Files

The lower the grit number the more coarse the file. To  file the free edge int your desired shape we recommend using a 240 grit file.

To prep the nail plate, you’ll need to use a lower grit file, we recommend a 150 grit file or buffer. When etching the natural nail plate, no pressure should be applied – we simply place the file on the nail plate and etch until we have created texture – we do this so the gel has texture to adhere to.

If you need to remove the bulk of previous nail enhancements, you could use a 100/120 file.

2. Preparing the Nails:

  • Sanitise your clients hands before you start. It is recommended that you spray both of their hands and arms with a hypochlorous sanitiser like PureClean, then pop on some nitrile gloves.
  • Dehydrate the clients nail, scrub the side walls, under the free edge and ensure all oils/residue has been removed before continuing with the next steps. Dehydrating first will ensure oils are embedded in the nail plate.
  • Push back the cuticle: holding the tool the same way you would a pencil, gently push back the cuticle area using a cuticle pusher to remove non-living tissue from the nail's surface. Let the weight of the tool do the work for you.

HONA PureClean Sanitiser

3. Understanding Nail Shapes:

Take some time to familiarise yourself and practise with different nail shapes such as square, round, oval, almond, or stiletto. Each shape requires specific filing techniques to achieve the desired look.

Square: This shape is perfect for those with long, narrow nail beds. Start by filing the nail to the desired length. Then, using a 240 grit file, file from the left towards the centre and then the right towards the centre until the desired shape has been achieved.

Oval: Oval nails are universally flattering and work well on wide nail beds. File from the side towards the centre in one direction, creating a smooth, rounded free edge that mirrors the shape of the base of the nail.

Round: This shape is similar to oval but the free edge is more rounded than the base of the nail. It's great for shorter nails. Start by filing the sides of the nail towards the centre, and then round off the free edge.

Almond: To achieve this shape you’ll need to file the nail at an angle from each side, making sure they meet in a peak at the middle of the free edge. The result should be a shape that resembles an almond.

Stiletto: This shape is not for the faint-hearted! Stiletto nails are long and pointed at the free edge. File the sides of your nails into a point in the centre, similar to the almond shape, but file the free edge to be even sharper. Be warned, this shape can weaken nails.

Coffin: Start by filing both sides of each nail into a tapered point (like you would for a stiletto shape). To do this, take your nail file and place it underneath the corner of your nail. Then file in a single direction towards the centre, doing the same for the other side. Once you've achieved the tapering, square off the tip of your nail. You can do this by holding the file perpendicular to the nail tip and filing in a straight line.

Remember, the key to successful filing is using a gentle touch and filing in one direction to avoid splitting or damaging the nail. Make sure to also regularly check the nail's shape from different angles while filing to ensure an even result.
  1. Filing
    HONA Nail Filing

  • Hold the nail file at a 45-degree angle to the nail's edge for optimal control and precision.
  • File in one direction (from the sides toward the centre) to avoid weakening or splitting the nails. 
  • Do not use a sawing back-and-forth motion.
  • Use gentle, smooth strokes, applying even pressure. Avoid excessive force that can damage the natural nail.
  • Shape the nails gradually, checking the symmetry and balance regularly. Take breaks to assess the progress and make adjustments if needed.
  • Follow the client's preference regarding nail length, but offer professional advice on practicality and maintenance.
  • If you’re a new nail tech you may find it useful to mark the centre of the nail to help guide your filing. You can find the centre of the nail by finding the centre of the cuticle area, then follow to the free edge of the nail and mark the area with a nail art pen or a dot of cured gel.

Filing Steps:

  1. File the free edge using a 240 grit nail file to shape the nails. File in one direction heading towards the centre of the nail. Then repeat this starting from the other side of the nail and back to the centre. This is to prevent the nail from breaking and splitting.
  2. Etch the surface of the nail plate using a 150 grit file/buffer. Applying next to no pressure and stopping as soon as the nail is filed, you will be left with a roughed up surface for the product to hold onto. Make sure the top of the free edge, the cuticle area and the side walls aren’t neglected - these need to be etched too.
    1. Dusting off

    Then you’ll just need to dust off, dehydrate and finish your manicure.


  • Always keep your tools clean and sanitised.
  • File in one direction to prevent nail damage.
  • Understand the desired nail shape before you start filing.
  • Use the appropriate grit file for each stage of the filing process.
  • Don't over-file or over-buff the nails.
  • Hydrate the nails and skin after filing.
  • Continually communicate with your client to ensure they are comfortable and satisfied with the process.

With this guide, you should be able to professionally file nails with a high standard of care, giving your clients beautiful, healthy nails. Remember, practice makes perfect, so keep honing your skills to become a master in nail filing.

Looking to improve your etching skills? Check out our tutorial on how to etch like a pro!