Nail Care for the Guitarist
Reinforcement for Fingerpicking

This is a discussion of one approach to nail reinforcement, which I've been using for about ten years. I play about 12-15 hours per week, on medium strings (at least .011 - .052). I hardly ever use picks of any kind, and my nails are never too short.

The approach involves gluing an insert underneath the nail, and a strong coating on top of the nail. This allows for picking with an upstroke on one or several strings using fingertip and nail, and also for a brushing type of downstroke using the back of the nail. These types of picking strokes are suitable for both classical guitar and "finger picking" styles such as country blues or other acoustic playing.

I use this on my picking thumb and three fingers. The inserts hold for about 10-14 days, and often do not come loose until the nails get so long I have to file them down. It takes about 15 minutes to remove all material from a nail and another 10-15 minutes to reapply it fresh.


You will need the following:

  • Acetone or plain nail polish remover. Do not begin anything without some of this available.
  • Krazy Glue also known as Super Glue. The "original" formulas work best for me. Some of the newer gels are made for special uses; specifically, you need ethyl cyanoacrylate. It is very strong and it dissolves in acetone so it is safe.
  • Ping-pong balls - this is an ideal material for this. They dissolve in acetone and their curvature is about the same radius as most fingernails.
  • Baking Soda. Have a box of this ready with a spoon in it.
  • Nail scissors. I use the kind which do not have blunt edges, with curved blades. I've also used cuticle scissors, which are lighter but less durable.
  • Nail File. Get the metal kind with a shaping side (rough) and a finishing side (fine).
  • Emery Cloth. This is a very fine sandpaper with a black abrasive surface. I use 400 grit for smoothing after using the nail file. I cut a full 8" x 10" sheet into 1" squares and it lasts several months.
  • A Round File. I'm using a 1/4" diameter file with a rather fine cutting surface, which was sold for sharpening chain saws. A slightly larger diameter would work also.
  • Manicure Tweezers. These look like scissors, but instead of cutting, they press surfaces together like little pliers.

In addition to getting all the proper equipment, you can meet some very interesting people in the manicure section of your local cosmetics store. I am sometimes moved to tell people I'm a guitarist so they don't think I'm playing dress-up, but I don't think they really care.


  1. Soak your nail in acetone, long enough to remove all glue. This will take up to 15 minutes for a complete cleaning. Even if this is the first time you've done this, soak it anyway. The acetone will soak into the nail and improve the adhesion. Use tissue and the rounded edge of the nail file to remove old material after it is softened up by the acetone. Make sure the underside of the nail is clean and smooth.

    The cap to the bottle of nail polish remover is a good container, and is about the right size for soaking one finger. I keep an extra cap so I can cover the bottle while soaking, to reduce fumes in the house.

    You can't fit much acetone into these caps. Sometimes it gets saturated with whatever it's removing, and you need a fresh shot of acetone, especially when doing more than one nail. I need two shots to completely clean the thumbnail because it's bigger and has more stuff on it.

    Alternate between acetone and regular old soap and water. There is almost nothing that can't be dissolved by one or the other. For me, two or three soakings of 3 to 5 minutes in both acetone and soapy water (separately) get the nail really clean.

  2. If you need to shorten the nail, file it after soaking off old material. There will be less to remove, and the nail will file better when it is soft from soaking. Soak again briefly after filing to remove powder.

  3. Cut and shape an insert. This is done in a few steps:

    1. Cut a piece out of the ball. Allow about 1/4" extra material (5-6 mm) for handling as you apply it to the underside of the nail. Try to get the bottom curve of the insert somewhat closely matched to the quick (the point beneath the nail where it meets the skin.) You will soon notice that all of your fingernails do not have the same shape.

    2. File and/or cut the inside of the insert to match the curve formed by the skin under the nail. Fit the insert under the nail to check the fit. This will prevent pinching and some minor pain later. Not much worse than that first D7 chord felt at first, but the pain is worth avoiding.

      Well, it can be a bit worse. Bamboo shoots under the fingernails was a famous type of ancient torture. It worked because the finger is very sensitive there. So think like a sculptor and file the inserts to match the "quick" and you will like this process better.

    3. Cut the sides to the width of your nail and bevel the back corners. This will prevent you from snagging the nail on fabrics. You don't need a huge bevel; the one in the picture is eggagerated. Just cut enough bevel to avoid a sharp point at the outside of the nail's edge.



  1. Open the Krazy Glue and make sure it is running smoothly. Squeeze some onto a folded paper towel to test the smooth flow of the glue. Have the tweezers ready.

  2. Holding the insert in place, with a gap between insert and nail, squeeze about 2 drops of glue between insert and nail. Open and close the gap once or twice to spread the glue evenly. Point the finger upward to help the glue flow toward the quick.

  3. Then squeeze the insert toward the nail, pressing on the pad of the finger. If you've used too much glue, and if it has run over the finger, there is a chance of gluing fingers together at this point. (You can avoid this sometimes by holding the hand so the glue flows away from the pad of the finger.) Even if the fingers get stuck together, it will not cause harm, it will only use some extra time. See Cleanup below.

    Wipe off the excess glue with a paper towel. Tissue or Kleenex is sometimes too soft for this and may leave fibers on the nail.

  4. Within a few seconds, set down the glue and pick up the tweezers, then pinch the insert and nail together. Move across the nail and squeeze each part, wiping excess glue by blotting the nail against a paper towel. Sometimes glue gets below the insert, by the finger, especially if you've used too much. You want the glue above the insert, by the nail. Pry gently and sometimes the insert will separate from the skin below, if you're quick enough, and then you can get the tweezers in there to squeeze. If it starts to get hard, sometimes you're better off soaking it all in acetone and just starting over.

    Squeeze the insert and the nail together for about 30-45 seconds, going back and forth to get a good bond across the whole nail.

    The trick to this is in the first few seconds. If you get the insert positioned right, and squeeze it tight to the nail while the excess glue can still flow out, and if you never move the insert after it is initially set, it will stay for up to two weeks. I think it would stay for longer, but old nail cells come to the surface and weaken the bond. But that is quite long enough, because the nails have to be filed back by then anyway.

  5. Now cut the insert close to the nail, and file to get the shape you want. It's okay to have the insert longer than the nail, especially if you reinforce the back.

    Back Coating

  6. To add a hard coating to the back of the nail, simply squeeze some glue onto the back of the nail, pointing the finger downward to let the glue flow toward the end of the nail. Use the tip of the glue applicator to spread the glue evenly, to the end of the nail. Then use a spoon to pour baking powder onto the glue. Cover the nail generously with the baking powder, and let the excess fall back into the box.

    Don't add too much glue on one application. After the first coat dries, it is easy to put on a second coat to add more strength or nail thickness.

    There will be a mild heat reaction when the glue and baking powder first come together. This is a short thing, especially if you don't use too much glue. The heat indicates a chemical reaction, in which the glue and baking powder form a very strong cover on the back of the nail. This will last for many hours of playing.

  7. The cover will be rough at first, and that's where the emery cloth is used. Sand the surface until it is smooth. You may want to use a file if there are "high spots" on the covering. These can be avoided with practice, and by not applying too much glue on one coating.

  8. Let the whole thing harden for 20-30 minutes before playing too hard. This stuff adheres very quickly, but it takes some time for the acetone to totally evaporate and for it all to harden throughout the entire thickness.


The most common mistake is using too much glue. The next most common mistake is trying to remove glue from skin areas without acetone.

The worst case is to glue your fingers together, and that is easily fixed by applying acetone to the glue. A tissue, a cotton ball or a cotton swab ("Q-Tip") will soften the glue enough to pull the fingers apart gently. It will take a few minutes, but it's worth the time to avoid tearing skin.

A more common cleanup is getting glue off the cuticle, where the back of the nail meets the skin on the finger. This can be done any time, but is slightly easier within 10 minutes of getting the glue on there in the first place. A cotton swab with just one drop of acetone is enough, because the acetone will spread outward toward the end of the nail, where the insert is. We want to keep the acetone away from that area, especially as the glue is hardening.

Just keep putting one drop of acetone at a time at the back of the cuticle, keeping it wet, and the glue will soften in a few minutes. Use tissue paper to remove the softened glue.

The next most common mistake I've made, after the two above, is trying to salvage a badly cut insert. If the insert you've cut out is not matching up well with the inside contour where the skin meets the nail, it's faster to just throw it away and cut out a new one. If there's not enough surface area for a good bond, covering the whole inside of the nail, it won't stay on very well.


The way I play, I need to apply more of the covering to the back of the nail every few days. I don't want to soak the nail before doing this, because I don't want to lose the insert. Instead, I can just sand the back of the nail (just the covered part) with the emery cloth to roughen up the back covering, and rinse with soap & water to remove any powder from the sanding. Then the glue/baking soda seems to apply and stick very well.

When the inserts begin to come loose, you can feel them move under your nail. Until that time, I can't feel them at all. It is tempting to fiddle with the insert and try to remove it without acetone. This works fine sometimes, but you can tear a nail doing this. It's better to break off the insert and leave the part that won't come off, or simply leave it alone. I have played for several hours with a loose insert without damage to the nail.

Even if you do break a nail, this method works well to repair breaks, and allows you to keep playing afterward. The reinforcement holds a torn nail in place and prevents further tearing while the nail grows out.

Tip: If you eat shortly after applying any of this, do not lick your fingers. Most nail polish remover (at least in the U.S.) is sold with a "bittering" agent which keeps small children from tasting the liquid more than once. It is truly bitter and can ruin the most delicious pastry. I know this.

Tip: Don't do this on the day of a gig. Do it the day before. The time it takes is somewhat variable, and it does not pay to hurry. Plus, an extra day allows time for a loose fit to become apparent.

Tip: Get a real push pin from a bulletin board (the non electronic kind) to use in the tip of the glue container. It has a bigger pin than the ones that come with the glue and keeps the air out better. The glue lasts longer that way.

Tip: If you ever needed reading glasses, this is the time to wear them. I do this under a bright light with the clearest focus I can get. This helps mainly in avoiding excess glue. Obviously you need enough, but it's time-consuming to clean up excess glue if you've overdone it.

Tip: Don't cross international borders with an open container of baking soda or any white powder. Buy some when you get there and throw it away before you leave.

The whole process of reinforcement takes about 20-30 minutes per nail. By combining steps, I can do the thumb and three fingers in about 90 minutes. It is a small amount of time to spend every couple of weeks, in exchange for nails that can stand up to a lot of guitar work.

I think that my playing has also improved, because I know I don't have to be babying these nails. I can beef them up whenever I want to, so there's no need to hold back. It feels good to bite into the strings (when appropriate of course). Also, I like using the heavier strings like .011's or .012's because they have a much better tone, even on electric guitars. Normally these strings would wear out my nails in a day or two.

Well, that's my little description of what I do to keep nails on my fingers and still pick hard. I would be interested in feedback, preferably by email.

Thanks, and go play some music now.

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