How to Cut Your Nails

A Man’s Guide to Getting It Right. 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.

For most men, that firmly satisfied feeling is never going to accompany the act of trimming his nails.

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. Upgrade your grooming routine to get healthier nails, a cleaner look, and a much more satisfying experience every time you trim.

Why Bother?

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 people to believe, but consider the mani-pedi spa: they exist for a reason. Getting your nails treated well feels good, and if you’re the one doing the treatment, it comes with the added satisfaction of a job well done.

Tools of the Trade

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

Compound Lever Clippers

The ubiquitous “compound lever style” of nail clipper — two jawlike blades that close down by means of a lever mounted on top of their opening — originated back in the 1880s, and while we’ve managed to move away from most other medical innovations of the Victorian era (for good reason), that one has stayed with us virtually unchanged.

These are cheap and easy to manufacture, which is why you can get them for a few dollars at the drugstore. But the mechanism means that, unless the blades are extremely sharp (and few stay that way for long), you’re essentially crushing through your fingernails with two heavy arcs of metal. It’s the same mechanical treatment as biting your nails.

That’s not to say that compound lever clippers are always bad. There are some very fine ones that work along that basic mechanism. But you need high-quality steel (to hold the edge) and precision manufacturing (so that the lever exerts enough force to trim a nail, and no excessive, crushing pressure beyond that). Most mass-produced lever clippers don’t live up.

If you’re going to use a lever-style clipper, make sure the cutting edges are made from a high-carbon stainless steel. That’s a more expensive material than the basic stainless steel commonly used, but it holds its edge much longer, meaning that you’ll actually be cutting your nails instead of tearing them.

Plier Clippers

While they look intimidating, plier-style nail clippers use roughly the same mechanism as lever clippers. Rather than cutting from one side to the other (like scissors do), plier clippers offset the two cutting blades and bring the whole length of them together at once.

Unlike the flat lever-style clippers, however, plier-style clippers make it easy to come at the nail from one side or the other, which gives you more control over the angle you’re cutting at.

The same cautions apply as with lever clippers: make sure your steel is high-quality, with a high carbon content to help hold the edge, and look for hand-adjusted models that will apply the right amount of pressure. Beyond that, it’s mostly a difference of access, angle, and ease of use, which plier clippers provide at the expense of a slightly bulkier build.

Nail Scissors

Unlike lever and plier clippers, nail scissors (also sometimes called shears) trim the nail by cutting into one side and shearing along that angle in a linear motion, rather than shearing from the top and bottom.

That’s a less traumatic way of severing the nail, which can help control splitting or cracking on delicate nails. It also gives similar control to the angle of approach as the plier-style trimmers, while allowing for smaller, more precise trimming.

With scissors, however, one has to be careful not to bend the tool, and thereby the angle of the cut, as the nail is trimmed. That will pull and tug on the nail, tearing rather than cutting cleanly.

Nail Files

Don’t overlook these tools as a cosmetic frippery, because they’re not.

Trimming the nails, even in small strokes, leaves angled corners where one cut ended and the next began. A nail file gives you a tool for smoothing those out without cracking the nails.

Additionally, files let you round off the edges of your nails, which helps them grow straight out from the finger instead of digging into the flesh at the edges of the nail beds. That helps prevent ingrowths, hangnails, and infections.

There are several varieties of file available, but you want one of the finest, smoothest styles: triple-cut metal (with three different sets of grooves across the file face, resulting in a fine crosshatching), sapphire, or crystal glass.

What to Look For

The most important keys to a good nail tool are the sharp edge and the precision cutting.

The former is achieved by steel that holds an edge longer, as well as, obviously, by the honing of the blades in the first place. Look for a high-carbon or a heat-treated steel that will hold its edge for a long time. Plain stainless steel is soft, and will dull quickly, so if you’re going to use those two-dollar drugstore clippers, plan on replacing them every half-dozen uses or so.

Precision cutting is achieved by hand-adjusting the scissors or trimmers. Machine adjustments can’t get precise enough to hit that sweet spot where you’re effortlessly shearing through human fingernails, but not applying overwhelming force that will radiate through the rest of the nail and nail bed.

Hand-adjusted tools will usually have the finishing screw that holds everything in place marked with a separate color or finish, to prove that it wasn’t assembled with the rest. Look for gold-headed screws — those are often a reliable sign of hand adjustment. Of course, many hand-adjusted tools will often say so on the packaging or promotional materials, as well.

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:

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.

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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