Nail Tips and Tools pt3: Tools, Household and Specialized

I've gotten lots of questions about nails so I thought I'd put together a little series of posts about some of my favorite basic products and tools, along with some tips on how I get the most from my mani. There are loads of nail blogs out there with far more detailed information as well as step-by-step instructions ranging from simple to the complex, and of course tons of nail art on Pinterest. One of my favorite nail art blogs is Chalkboard Nails, you can get to lots of others from there. A very comprehensive Pinterest collection can be found here, with a HUGE nail art board specifically found here.

Household Tools

There is a surprisingly large amount of nail art that can be done just using things you probably already have (photo #1).

Bobby pins and toothpicks are both excellent dotters, and you can somewhat control the dotting size on a toothpick by cutting it and flattening the end. Toothpicks can also be used for interesting drag marbling, where you blob on two colors of polish and then use the toothpick to swirl where they meet. Both of these can also be used when polish is a bit tacky to leave indentations.

For tape manicures (where you tape off sections to paint different blocks of colors), nothing beats electrical tape; since it's flexible it will follow your nail curve perfectly, and turns out nice clean lines all the while leaving the underlying polish in good shape. This is one instance where it's highly beneficial to use quick dry oil over the base layer and wait a few minutes to tape. For any taped layer, I will tape all fingers first and then paint and slowly remove the tape one nail at a time while the polish is still wet.

Makeup sponges are usually cut into littler pieces, and can be used for gradients, layering, or soft-edge effects like those you see in galaxy manicures. The polish can be either applied directly to the sponge or on a bit of wax paper in which the sponge is then dipped.

More Specialized Tools

And there also are, of course, plenty of specialized nail art tools out there. I'm only going to mention a couple of the most common and useful ones here (photo #2).

If you want more options than bobby pins and toothpicks provide for dots, or perhaps a bigger hand hold area, proper dotting tools come in many dot sizes. The smallest sizes can be used like a fine paint brush as well.

Extra-thin striping tape, most commonly found in gold and silver, is great for very fine striping work and can also be left on as part of the manicure. I get mine at Sally's Beauty Supply, and would guess most beauty supply stores carry some. It's somewhat specialized so you may need to order online otherwise.

Getting into the more advanced tools, a very fine and long thin brush called a striping brush (which I don't have, but you saw something similar in part two) is great for fine freehand painting.

And a stamping set is another fun option, though they take practice to get working well; there are so many cool plates available for stamping! I use an inexpensive one by Essence (you can find them at ULTA), but disliked the scraper that it came with and instead use an old credit card. I haven't done much stamping yet, but the most useful tip I can share is that you don't have to keep what you've picked up on the stamper: if you didn't get a good pickup, simply wipe it off and do it again. A great tutorial with some additional resources can be found here.

I'm happy to answer any questions, and would love to hear your own tips!

[Part one: The Essential Stuff You Don't See]
[Part two: Painting Technique and Effects Polishes]
[Part three: Tools, Household and Specialized]

This post is also published in the youlookfab forum. You can read and reply to it in either place. All replies will appear in both places.


  • Karie replied 6 years ago

    I've never thought about using electrical tape - I've used masking tape which doesn't work well because it is too sticky. I have had some success with painter's tape, but it won't curve like electrical tape will. 

    I've also tried making dots with a toothpick, but I'm too heavy handed - I always end up with an unwanted glob.

    Do you have a favorite brand of nail polish? I currently like OPI. I have found that with some of my old favorites (like Sally Hansen) the quality has become inconsistent.

  • Ariadne replied 6 years ago

    Taking notes.  Would love to see some examples of fancy nails you've done!  I have no idea what a stamped nail or a galaxy manicure looks like.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Karie, yes! I tried all kinds of tape until someone suggested electrical tape, and it's by far the best I've used. Dotting in general requires a light hand, no matter what tool you use, though a truly round shape like a bobby pin or dotting tool is easier to manage. I don't have a favorite brand, but OPI, Essie, and Orly are consistently great quality and have great brushes, and China Glaze is often quite good as well; I hear Zoya is also great quality but don't yet own any. I use a lot of drugstore brands (I have loads of Sally Hansen!) as well as make my own, and the quality there can range dramatically unfortunately.

    Ariadne, unfortunately I lost a lot of my own manicure photos a little while back when my hard drive died but am still slowly working on recovering data from it. My sister and I did an ambitious new-manicure-each-week during the football season, and she has my nails posted here and her nails posted here. Galaxy nails are pretty incredible! Check out this search for some great examples. I haven't tried one of these yet :) Here are some stamped examples online; you can get quite intricate since the stamp is the same. I'm also attaching a couple of my own stamp attempts, though I'm not very good at it yet.

  • Karie replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for the examples of yours and your sister's nails! (I'd just have to switch the colors to the Jets, or if I stay true to my Phila. roots, the Eagles, but no one likes them anyway…!)

    I have never tried Orly or Zoya, but I have a few Essie and China Glaze that are good quality. 

  • missvee replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for posting your instructions and your tips. As someone whose nail care consists of clear polish and some clippers, it's pretty amazing to see what you can do.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Karie, yeah that's the best part of those sport manis: easy to swap to your team's colors! It was a very ambitious project (we were pooped by the end!), and I'm just realizing she doesn't have our SB nails up so I need to reminder her to do that ;) If you need manicure recipes for any of those feel free to PM me and I'll tell you all the deets.

    Thank you Missvee ^^

  • Karina replied 6 years ago

    Wow this is great info! I usually do my own nails and this will amp things up quite a bit...thanks for sharing!

  • Gigi replied 6 years ago

    Dang, I didn't know about stamping. That is pretty neat! Now I'll be on the lookout for my next new toy...

    My only tool tip (and it doesn't really have anything to do with nail art) is that I use an eyeliner brush dipped in nail polish remover to clean up around the cuticle area if I applied my polish unevenly there. It really creates a nice, clean line of polish around the cuticle and can make even my amateurish nails look decent!

    I did buy some nail tip thingies for French manicures, though I haven't tried them yet (my nails have been dry and breaking during the winter...haven't been able to grow them out enough). Have you ever used these? I think they are little adhesive curved things that you put at the lower border of where you want the white tip to be. So it's kind of like precut electrical covers what you don't want painted. 

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    That's a great cleanup tip Gigi! I'm usually too lazy to do full cleanup with the make up brush (I just try to get it as pretty as possible when painting), but I will clean anything that's really obviously jagged. Anyone interested in cleanup, this is a great little tutorial about it. I use a small paint brush, but I think I need to move on to a makeup brush; the small paint brushes are usually too soft! I haven't tried any of the wraps but have heard good things about them. French manicure guides are very handy, those I have used before and would recommend, but most of the time I freehand my French tips and deal with them not being perfectly semi-circular - from far away they look good enough ;)

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