How to Cut Fingernails Properly

A simple task done well is its own reward. Not just proverbially — literally! There’s a rush of happy brain feelings that accompanies accomplishments, even little ones. This rarely accompanies the act of trimming nails though.

The default modern tool (cheap drugstore clippers) and the routine associated with them (snipping off angled sections of nail after a shower) are hard to use, bad for fingernails, and all-around guaranteed to make finger and toenail grooming an unpleasant chore rather than a satisfyingly simple achievement.

Take heart — there is a better way. Gents, today I’m showing you how to cut fingernails properly and upgrade your grooming routine. The reward? Healthier nails, a cleaner look and a more satisfying experience every time.

Why Is Cutting Fingernails Important?

man clipping his nails

Fingernails aren’t a particularly glamorous subject to read or write about. That doesn’t mean you should neglect them, though.

Sex Symbols

Typically the last thing you think when you hear “fingernail clipping” is “sexy.” But don’t be fooled. Well-groomed nails, on both men and women, are part of a sexy look.

Women’s nails are obviously beauty symbols; ask anyone who’s strolled through the nails section of a beauty products or drugstore. (In fact, the effect is so pronounced that medical and artistic references require their nude female models to have plain fingernails — if they wore polish, some governing boards would deem the images pornographic!)

Men’s nails may not be as dramatically highlighted most of the time, but flip through any paperback romance novel and you’ll probably find a reference to the hero’s hands. They’re almost always described as strong, sometimes as elegant — and frequently as having “clean, neatly trimmed nails” or some very similar phrasing.

At the very least you should believe in the potential negative effect of badly-trimmed nails. If it’s really too much to believe that nicely squared-off fingernails are sexy on a man, you can still accept that long, snaggly, uneven nails look creepy and a little terrifying. That’s not going to add to your sex appeal.

Don’t discount the practical side to all this beauty talk, either — no one wants a loving caress from sharp or torn fingernails that are going to scratch the skin!

Health and Happiness

Anyone who’s torn a nail or suffered an infected hangnail knows how quickly small injuries around the fingertip can ruin a day — or a week, or a month.

For a worst-case scenario, you can even consider the cautionary tale of a British man whose nail-biting left tiny open wounds that turned septic and killed him — or the oft-told story that Jack Daniels, of whiskey fame, kicked his safe in frustration one day, tore his toenail, and died later of blood poisoning from the wound.

Most nails, no matter how ill-kept, won’t ever get that bad, of course. But you can still put yourself through a lot of needless pain and suffering if you’re letting them tear, biting them, or trimming them with dull clippers.

The actual nail itself is like hair — cutting it won’t hurt, and won’t hurt you. But, just like hair, it connects to the skin, and damage there can be just as painful as ingrown hairs, or as having your hairs pulled out. Trimming regularly and properly can head off a lot of painful accidents down the road.

A Job Well Done

Finally, and by no means least, a good fingernail trim is a pleasant and pleasing experience! Hard for most guys to believe, but consider the mani-pedi spa: they exist for a reason.

Knowing how to care for your nails saves you time and money because you don’t have to go to a spa or local barbershop anymore to get it done. When you do go, you can appreciate their expertise more.

Treating your nails well feels good and if you’re the one doing the treatment, it comes with the added satisfaction and self-confidence boost of a job well done.

5 Mistakes Men Make When Cutting Fingernails

man biting nails

Nail Cutting Mistake #1: Improper Hygiene

Health, rather than beauty, is the number one reason this stuff matters.

Nails and cuticles are part of the body. As such, they’re also potential entry points into the body, just like the rest of your skin, pores, etc.

That means anything on your clippers can get into your body. Using the same clippers on your toenails and fingernails is a great way to spread fungus and bacteria, resulting in bad smells and potentially painful infections. In one extremely rare case, a woman from Brazil even caught HIV from her cousin’s manicure set.

The takeaway lesson here:

Own your own set of nail care tools, with separate devices for feet and hands, and wash the implements regularly with a disinfectant.

Even if you’re just using fingernail clippers (something we can hopefully get you to improve upon), make sure they’re washed out before and after use. Gross stuff gets under fingernails.

Trim them with clippers, and now that gross stuff is on the clippers (bite your nails, and it’s in your mouth!). If you leave it in place, bacteria will grow and multiply, waiting to jump back to your body the next time you use the clippers.

Nail Cutting Mistake #2: Relying Exclusively on Clippers

The default manicure for most American men isn’t a manicure at all. It’s a quick pass down the hand with compound-lever clippers (those little springy ones with the jaw-like blades and the lever that swings up and around).

Compound-lever clippers are cheap, portable, and convenient, all of which appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, they’re also terrible for your nails.

The mechanism is physically brutal. To improve your grooming, don’t smash the two wedges down on your nail and sever it. Since most cheap clippers are made from soft steel, the edges dull quickly, which means you’re smashing two blunt wedges down — it’s basically a miniaturized version of slamming your nail in a doorjamb!

The blunt-force trauma tears the nail and almost guarantees uneven regrowth. That in turn means more frequent trimming, using more strokes of the clipper to even out the shape, which compounds the problem during the next growth cycle.

Instead of mashing away with the same old pair of clippers, invest in a decent manicure set with multiple clippers (plier type as well as compound-lever), and more importantly, multiple sets of nail scissors. Scissors cut from an outer edge, expanding the cut in a straight line, rather than clamping down and smashing through top-to-bottom, which is easier on the nail and allows for more precise cutting.

Nail Cutting Mistake #3: Using Low-Quality Steel

If you don’t have a manufacturing or metallurgical background, you might think of steel as a single, consistent metal, but it’s actually a blend of iron and carbon that can be formulated many different ways, resulting in many different properties.

Manicure tools work best when they’re made from steel with a high carbon content. Since the tools usually can’t be sharpened or adjusted after manufacture, they only last as long as their edge stays sharp — after that you’re effectively trimming your nails by clamping a pair of dull pliers down and yanking, which is more like a torture method than a manicure.

Unfortunately, carbon steel is susceptible to rust, which is a bad trait in tools that frequently live in bathrooms. The cheap solution is stainless steel, which resists rust but also doesn’t hold an edge for long. The expensive solution is high-carbon stainless steel — expensive to produce, and only made in a few places, but perfect for manicure sets.

It’s natural to balk at paying $20-50 for a tool that you can find in drugstores for under a buck. But you get what you pay for.

The expensive, high-quality steel tools can be used over and over again without harming your nails, while the cheapest steels will dull quickly and turn into torture implements before the year is out. European steels will be higher-quality with a higher carbon content and longer lifespan than their Asian counterparts.

Nail Cutting Mistake #4: Using Machine-Finished Tools

Human nails are fragile things. There’s a very small window of pressure that cuts through them cleanly. More than that and you’re applying crushing force, rather than cutting; less and you’re just holding the nail in place while you rip it off with lateral force.

Neither is good. You want to be in that sweet spot where the cutting edge is actually shearing through the nail in a single, cutting stroke. And that’s not a level of precision that mass-production machinery is capable of reaching.

The best manicure tools are hand-finished.

Each one is individually adjusted, measured, and readjusted as needed until it operates at the right level of pressure.

This is called the tensioning process, and it makes the difference in both quality and price: a hand-tensioned screw made by a trained craftsman will last upwards of 20 years (assuming the steel is good) without any change in performance.

You can usually tell an individually tensioned set of nail scissors or clippers by the screw.

A gold-plated screw that contrasts with the steel blade proves that the blades were completely finished before tensioning and that the tension adjustments were the final part of the manufacturing process.

Nail Cutting Mistake #5: Trimming Without Filing

There’s a reason professional manicures — as in, the kind you pay a decent chunk of money for — always finish off with a filing.

Just trimming the nails leaves them cut at angles. The nature of blades is that they cut in straight lines. The bigger the blade, the longer the straight cut, which can lead to squared-off or pointed nails.

A file rounds the finished shape of the nail off and lets it grow in a smooth, natural arc. That’s better looking, and it’s also healthier — a rounded nail is less likely to grow under the skin at the corners.

Go over nails after any sort of trimming (or tearing) with a nail file. Work either from left to right or right to left, but don’t saw the file back and forth. That splinters the nail rather than smoothing it, which can lead to cracks that spread down the surface of the nail.

A good, quick brush in one direction with a file keeps everything shaped up and growing smoothly.

What Are All The Tools In A Nail Kit Used For?

nail grooming tool explainer

The number one reason most guys couldn’t care less about clipping their nails, or actively dislike it? The go-to tool frankly stinks.

Nail Cutting Tool 1. Compound Lever Clippers

compound lever clippers

Good clippers need to be strong, hard and sharp because the sharpened edges compress against each other.

For clippers, there is no “cutting board”. The only solution is to use the best possible quality steel so the sharpness stays clip after clip.

Dulled clippers risk cracking and breaking the nail. Nail clippers should be:

  • Small, compact
  • Easily portable.
  • Inexpensive and readily available.
  • Easy to use in either right or left hand.
  • Familiar to use

Types of Nail Clippers

a. French Style – Excellent for car glove box, pockets, wallets, popular with gadget minded individuals. Compact and flat construction. Perfect touch-up tool.

b. Standard – The best ones are assembled with a nearly unbreakable hinge-pin construction (where a narrow pin is inserted through the lever and the base rivet) and are ergonomically contoured to fit well in the fingertips and/or palm to provide maximum leverage.

c. Ring Lock – This is a new innovative design takes advantage of technological advances in materials and construction. The joint on this clipper is Teflon coated and extends the width of the handle so it never requires adjustment and is impossible to misalign.

What To Look For When Buying A Nail Clipper

1. Tension – Give the tool a test squeeze to check the flex resistance. Too much flex in the steel when squeezing causes an excessive crushing action which will dull the blades.

2. No Gap – Each sharpened edge should meet fully when closed. Hold up the clipper to the light and gently close it. Clippers with gaps do not fully cut and might even rip or tear the nail.

3. No Overlap – Close the clipper and glide your fingertip vertically across the closed blades. Can you feel an overlap? Do the clippers have a “double-click” feel when compressed? A double-click is what happens when one blade slides over top of the other. Nail clippers with an over or under bite perform poorly.

Nail Cutting Tool 2. Plier Clippers

This tool looks like a pair of pliers or wire cutters, but make no mistake, these are NOT hardware store tools.

Nail nippers are shaped with either straight or concave blades with a hairline gap in-between. Purchase quality steel tools.

Steel for nippers is not as hard as that of nail clippers because the edges must be filed by hand to sharpen and create the hairline gap. The softer steel does not affect the performance because the steel is tempered to add strength.

  • Performs many tasks other tools can’t. (Specialty nippers exist for unique jobs)
  • Better than clippers – less risk of breaking or cracking the nail.
  • Longer cutting edge trims more nail at a time
  • Palm grip – easier to use for painful or weakened hands (arthritis or carpal
  • tunnel)
  • Strongest tool for cutting thickened or fungal nails and hard toenails
  • Well suited for right or left hand use

Types of Nail Nippers

a. Nail nipper – A regular nail nipper is smaller than other types, and is best suited for difficult fingernails or normal toenails.

b. Toenail Nipper – The longer, stronger handles and blades of a toenail nipper increase the size of the tool and provide additional cutting leverage for thickened and extra tough nails.

c. Ingrown Nail Nipper – An ingrown nail nipper is a bit different due to the straight cutting edge and narrow pointed tip. This point fits neatly into nail corners to allow cutting the corners to release pressure.

d. Specialty Nippers – For the toughest nails there are other things such as a double jointed nail nipper and front cutter, but these are specialty tools for special toes.

What To Look For When Buying A Nail Nipper

1. Blade Gap – Hold the tool up to light and apply gentle pressure until barely closed. Look for a hairline gap between blades. Now slowly squeeze more firmly. That gap should gradually disappear as you increase the pressure.

2. Handle Length – Choose a longer tool to get added leverage for tougher nails.

3. Blade Edges – Curved edges are required for most general nail nipping, straight edges are only required for ingrown nails.

4. Handle Grips – Textured grips are important if you’ll be using the tool in damp environments like the bathroom right after a shower.

5. Joint – Overlapping handles is called a lap joint and it is durable but inexpensive. When one handle threads through the steel of the other handle, this is called a Box Joint and indicates a much higher level of craftsmanship.

6. Spring – Double springs and barrel springs provide the smoothest friction-free squeeze action, and lever or single springs use friction to press against the opposite handle.

7. Assembly – Nail nippers should not be stiff, but they should not exhibit any kind of “wiggle”. Loose blades in a nipper mean the edges are misaligned and they risk damage to the nail.

Nail Cutting Tool 3. Nail Scissors

nail scissors

In a manicure set with more than one scissor, the nail scissors are the scissors with the longest and widest type of blades.

Scissors provide a smooth shearing cut with very little risk of damage to the nail.

In a shearing cut, the sharpened edges never touch each other, only the flat of the blade ever touches the opposite side; the sharpened edge only touches the nail.

When a well crafted scissor is cared for and properly used, there is no danger at all.

Scissors do have moving parts, however, and they will require occasional lubrication.

  • The best tool for cutting nails.
  • Almost no risk of cracking or chipping the nail.
  • Virtually indestructible if used properly.
  • Lasts for decades.
  • Nail clippings do not fly off in random directions.
  • Manufacturing process allows for much harder steel. Holds edge indefinitely.
  • Much smoother shearing type of cutting action.

Types of Scissors

a. Nail scissors – Easier to control than nippers, nail scissors allow a much more precise trim of the nail.

b. Toenail Scissors – For thicker and stronger nails and toenails, look for a specialty scissor with short thick blades and long shanks to get extra leverage.

c. Nizzers – This is a unique tool that combines the benefits of the scissor shearing cut with the nipper style handle to maximize leverage. This is one of the strongest scissors currently available.

Due to its ambidextrous design, nizzers are frequently called a universal nail scissor because they are well suited for left hand, right hand, fingernails, toenails and toughened/hard nails!

What To Look For When Buying Scissors

1. Rounded off edges – Some tools are shaped after assembly and this is a sign that shortcuts have been taken. Look closely at the shank and joint area. Is it overly rounded?

Are the two halves too perfectly matched and shaped? Does the shape and finish of the screw perfectly match this curved handle?

2. Sound – Hold the scissor close to your ear and listen while you open and close it. A properly crafted scissor will have a gentle, smooth, almost melodic susurration sound. The noise should not sound gravelly, hitched or rough.

3. Feel – Scissor blades glide on the flat sides. If it hitches or feels grindy, the cutting edges are probably touching and that means the scissor tension or curve adjustment may be incorrect.

Scissor tension should never be adjusted at home! Scissors that are too loose while cutting may bend or rip the nail. Scissors that are too tight will dull quickly because the blades will wear down as they grind against each other.

4. Looseness – Properly tensioned scissors will have some looseness to them when they are fully opened beyond operational norm. This looseness disappears once the scissor is no longer over-opened.

Make sure that scissors are not too loose by holding one scissor loop so the scissors are vertical. Raise the other loop to its highest point and let it drop.

Well-crafted scissors will only close to the cutting point (the point where the blade flats begin to touch) and no further.  Open the scissors to the widest and look closely at the sharpened edge. Take note how closely this sharpened edge extends toward (or even beyond) the joint.

Nail Cutting Tool 4. Nail Files

nail files

Types of Nail Files

The texture on a metal triple cut file consists of grooves cut into the steel of the file itself, first diagonally, then diagonally again in the opposite direction like an X and then horizontally. Because the texture is part of the file itself it will not wear off, chip or peel.

What to Look For When Buying Triple Cut Nail Files

1. File Texture – Check that the cuts are even, closely spaced, and uniform.

Poorer quality imitations may have this texture adhered to the surface of the steel rather than cut into the steel itself, or the grooving may be uneven.

Texture adhered to the surface may peel or chip and uneven grooving can damage the nail with the resulting uneven texture.

2. File Thickness – Thicker nail files are useful for tough and thick nails because the steel will not flex.

Thinner nail files have more flex to them so they don’t take off nearly as much nail in each stroke and are well suited for normal to soft nails that may be damaged by a thicker nail.

3. Shape of the file tip – Most triple cut files have texture to within 1cm of a pointed tip.

The smooth and pointed tip makes it easy to use this kind of file for dual purposes: cleaning the nail as well as filing. For those who don’t need to use a file for dual purposes, triple cut files also come with texture to the end of the file.

3. Glass Files – This tool provides the best action because it does not sand the nail down, it scrapes it.

Scraping the nail with a crystal file in either direction or both will not harm the nail because the nail fibers are scraped to a smooth edge in either direction.

Because glass will never absorb moisture or develop rust, and the texture will never wear off, these files are superb for professional use and ideal for sterilization.

What to Look For When Buying Glass Nail Files

1.  Hologram Label – Genuine crystal files are only available from the Czech Republic, and marked with a holographic label indicating the manufacturer and the patent number.

2.  Surface – These files are shaped then chemically etched to provide the scraping surface.

Imitations often have this texture sprayed on, or even applied to clear paper that is glued on the glass like a sticker.

Because the texture is part of the glass itself, genuine Czech crystal will never wear out.

3.  Thickness – For strength, a well made crystal nail file is 3mm or more in thickness. Imitations are much thinner and run the risk of breaking during normal use.

4.  Strength – The files are specially tempered so the glass is difficult to break without huge amounts of force, much like the side and rear windows of a car.


You might wonder why a tweezer is always part of a manicure set. Tweezers are instruments used to pick up small objects. The most common use is to pull out hair. But they can be used in several ways like picking up tiny parts for nail art. But for men, another use of tweezers is to take out splinters or thorns from the hand.

How To Cut Fingernails Properly

A good manicure set, with its multiple scissors, clippers, and files, can look awfully intimidating once it’s all unpacked and ready to use.

Don’t panic. A proper at-home manicure is maybe five minutes of work, tops. Your basic routine should look something like this:

nail brush

1. Clean the Nails

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a shower or any other kind of soaking to soften up the nails. You actually want some firmness to them. Too soft, and they’ll tear past the cuts you’re making, leaving you with ragged edges.

You do, however, want to give your hands a quick rinse. If you’ve got dirt under your nails, brush it out. Most full manicure sets have a soft brush for the purpose, or you can buy one separately for a few bucks.

This is an important step, both for your nails and for your tools. Embedded grit can cause blades to slip, tearing the nail, and it will dull the cutting edges over time as well.

2. Trim with Scissors or Clippers

Using either scissors or clippers, trim the tips of your fingernails off. For most men, the best stroke is a flat, horizontal cut straight across the top of the nail, with small angled clips at either corner to create a slightly rounded oblong shape.

Alternatively, you can make a long angled cut up from each side, and then trim the point where they meet off to prevent a sharp tip, but this will give you a more elongated, feminine shape.

In either case, be sure you’re only trimming nail that extends past the tip of your finger’s flesh. Don’t dig under the nail to cut at the soft nail bed where it rests, and don’t come down the finger to trim the edges of the cuticle (the soft, curved rim around the base and sides of the fingernail).

It’s better to work in a few crisp strokes than to try and round everything off with lots of tiny clippings. If you have some pointed angles left over, that’s all right — you’ll file them off in the last step.

nail file

3. File

Using a fine nail file, smooth out any leftover corners or rough edges. Only stroke the file in one direction, rather than sawing it back and forth. The former smooths, while the latter abrades, leaving you with damaged nail tips and potentially splitting down along the nail.

Dust your hands off on a soft towel and you’re done, unless you want to add a polish or clear hardening treatment (good for men with cracking-prone nails).

Your upgraded fingernail trim should be a minor change in your life: the purchase of some higher-quality tools, and maybe the addition of the cleaning and filing steps when you trim. It shouldn’t take more than a few heartbeats longer than a quick trim with lever clippers, but by using the right tools and the right cuts, you end up with a much better look and much healthier hands.

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