Expert Advice On How To File The Most-Requested Nail Shapes

nail shapes

When it comes to tools of the trade, files are about as basic as you can get. These often taken-for-granted, workhorse implements help techs conquer a variety of tasks—from softening rough edges to rescuing a product application that’s gone awry. Commonly made with a wood, foam or plastic core, all files are lined with an abrasive surface called grit. Lower grit numbers, such as 80, are very coarse and should only be used on artificial nails, while higher numbers (180 and up), are suitable for natural nail shaping and buffing.

Which file you reach for is partly a matter of personal preference. Allie Baker, global brand ambassador for EzFlow, likes curved files for working around the cuticle area and straight edges for shaping tips and perfecting contours. For techs that can be a little heavy-handed when taking down product, Elsa Barbi, brand ambassador for OPI, recommends choosing a file with some flexibility; these files are rigid enough to shape the nail, but will bend with extra pressure, reducing friction on the nail bed and saving skin from cuts.

When filing natural nails, work in a single direction from the outside edge to the center of the nail to help prevent splitting. Artificial nails can be filed in any direction, but Baker prefers short strokes, filing from side to center to achieve a nice, smooth surface and an even barrel shape. As you file, constantly check your work by viewing the nail from all directions. And don’t rely solely on sight, says Barbi. “Run your fingertip over the nail to feel for bumps.” 

While the same basic methods are used to achieve most nail shapes, specific shapes require slight tweaks in technique. Here, expert advice for achieving clients’ most-requested nail shapes:


nail shapes

Strong sidewalls and a deeper C-curve make square-shape enhancements a structurally sound choice, says Baker. To create a square nail, file the sidewalls straight out from the nail bed, then turn the file perpendicular to the tip and file the free edge straight across. This shape is a little easier to accomplish on an enhancement because the file can remain in contact with the tip as you move back and forth; just be sure not to round the tip as you blend the profile of the product. If going square with natural nails, focus on keeping the file in the same position as you lift it from the nail after each stroke to file again in the same direction. Always check your progress by holding the client’s hand upright in front of you. The hyponychium is rarely even and the tips could be slanted if you use the quick to guide you.


nail shapes

Like their square counterparts, squoval nails have strength in structure, but with the added benefit of no sharp corners, which tend to crack or chip, says Barbi. “It’s also a great shape for clients who normally wear square nails and want to slowly transition to oval,” she says. To create a squoval shape, start with a square nail and slightly round the corners.


nail shapes

Arguably the most universally flattering nail shape, an oval nail gives fingers the illusion of thinness and length, says Vicki Ornellas, global educator for ibd. Begin by filing the sidewalls from corner to center, gradually curving the file to round the tip. Alternate between sides as you refine the shape to ensure that the rounded shape remains balanced and isn’t too narrow. If working on enhancements, continue shaping the nail by holding the file at a 45-degree angle to the free edge to achieve the right profile.


nail shapes

Stiletto nails make a statement, but they come at a price. “They take some time to adjust to and are very high maintenance and prone to breakage,” says Barbi. Form placement and good product application is key to achieving this look. After building the nail, support the length of the enhancement with your other hand and file the sidewalls straight out from the nail. Then, file the nail up and over from the sidewall to the center on both sides to perfect the shape. It’s important to note that shortening a stiletto nail will cause it to lose structure and shape, says Baker. To maintain this extreme shape, the nails will have to be removed and reapplied every few fills.


nail shapes

Sometimes called a ballerina nail because it resembles a pointe shoe, coffin nails are growing in popularity. A true coffin nail starts as a stiletto. Begin by filing straight out from the sidewalls. Then, file the tip straight across into a blunt edge, just as you would a square nail.


nail shapes

Barbi votes the almond nail as today’s most on-trend look, saying, “It makes fingers look long and slender.” The most important aspect of creating an almond shape is making sure that the narrowest part of the tip lines up with the center of the nail, both from above and when looking down the barrel of the nail. (For beginners, it’s a good idea to mark the center of the tip so you file evenly.) Holding the file at a 45-degree angle, taper the sides of the free edge from corner to center until it comes to a point using caution not to file into the sidewalls. Then, gently file the nail to curve the sides and soften the tip.

-Leslie Henry is a business development executive, licensed nail technician and the blogger behind

Which of these nail shapes is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below! 

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