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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cut and shape an insert. This is done in a few steps:
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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
Thanks, and go play some music now.