How to Paint Your Nails




About: I work at instructables by day, and turn into a stitch witch by night. follow me on instagram @jessyratfink to see what i'm working on! ^_^

How to paint your nails - this is something everyone knows how to do, right? Nope!

This is a skill I only recently learned how to do properly. I've never been too into painting my nails, but I think that was because I was going about it all wrong. ;)

After extensive months of googling, youtubing and practicing, I feel confident enough to share my nail painting knowledge. :D

Once you know how to paint your nails the right way you'll probably want to do it more often!

Step 1: What You'll Need:

  • nail polish
  • base coat (if using a dark or crazy color - this will keep you from dyeing your nails!)
  • clear top coat
  • fingernail clippers
  • cuticle trimmers/stick
  • a file
  • cotton swabs/rounds
  • nail polish remover

As far as nail polish, I really love Covergirl, Essie and Milani. They're the brands I use the most often. Sephora also has a nice line of polishes called Sephora by Opi.

I always use Opi's Natural Nail Base Coat for the base - it goes on smooth and dries fast! Lately I've been using Sally Hansen Insta-Dri top coat and loving it, too.

Also, if you haven't tried glass files, you should! They last forever and work quickly. They're all I've used for the past few years. :)

Step 2: Tips for Painting Your Nails

Keep in mind that what you are about to do is going to take forever - give yourself at least an hour. Before you start this endeavor, do the following things:

  • eat a snack
  • use the restroom
  • if you have long hair, tie it back
  • make sure you have a nice beverage nearby
  • find something to entertain you that won't require you to touch things
  • convince your cats they are not allowed to help you paint your nails

Seriously. If I don't do these things I almost always mess up my nails by trying to accomplish these things. :D

This time was especially precarious due to camera operation.

It's also always best to paint your nails on a well lit, clean and flat surface. I never have any luck painting my nails when my hand is not resting on a flat surface. You get the wobbles, which leads to getting nail polish alllll over your finger.

Step 3: Prep Work!

Before you paint your nails, you need to do a little prep. If you're currently wearing nail polish, take that off before starting this step.

First, push back or trim any excess cuticle. If you do this right after a shower it works best! You could also soak your hands in a little warm water to ease this process.

Then trim and file your nails. (make sure they're completely dry, otherwise you could damage them!)

FInally, go over your nails with a little nail polish remover - this will clean and prep them for painting.

Step 4: The First Coat

You will be tempted to put on a thick coat of nail polish to speed up the process. Don't do it! The thicker your coats, the longer they will take to dry. A thick coat of polish can take up to 20 minutes to dry, while a super thin coat can dry within 5-10.

I am a huge advocate of three thin coats of polish instead of one lumpy thick one. :D

Now here's the major thing I learned about painting my nails properly:
DO NOT take the polish all the way to your cuticles or the skin at the sides of your nails.

Leave the tiniest amount of space around the bottom and sides of your nail unpolished. They will look nicer, chip less, and require hardly any cleanup at the end. You can see in the photo above that the polish is very thin and ends before it hits any of the skin surrounding the nail.

Step 5: How to Check to See If Your Nail Polish Is Dry

After you've put on a coat of polish, you'll probably want to keep touching your nails to see if they're dry.

Instead, try this trick:
Touch your polished nails together - if they stick to each other at all, they are not dry yet. If they don't feel tacky at all, they're dry and ready for another coat!

Just be sure to do this with a light hand - pressing too hard can smudge them, too!

Step 6: Additional Coats

Chances are you will need at least two coats of nail polish. Sometimes you'll need three! For this polish I always do three.

You can see above the difference one coat of polish makes. :D Hence me encouraging you to do thin, even coats instead of gloopy ones!

Make sure that your additional coats are thin, that the polish does not touch the skin, and that you give them enough time to dry before adding more polish.

Painting over polish that's not entirely dry can lead to smudges, bumps, and dents later on!

Step 7: The Top Coat

I like to use a top coat if I want to keep the polish on for a while. When I don't top coat my nails, the polish never lasts as long - 2-3 days tops before I see chips.

When I top coat my nail polish, it can last a little longer - more like 5 days. :D

You'll only need one coat of top coat. Make sure to completely cover the polish. Also - make sure to take the top coat over the edge of your nail. I also cover the polish with top coat first and then swipe the nail polish brush across the end of my nail. It helps seal the end which will keep the polish there looking nice for longer.

Step 8: Clean Up!

Once you're done, you can clean up any nail polish on your skin by dipping a q-tip into nail polish remover.

Now go sit somewhere for a little while longer without touching anything. Smudging your nail at this point is a really upsetting thing to do. I should know, I do it almost every time. :D

You can also use an eyeliner brush for even faster cleanup! Click here to learn how to clean up your manicure.

Step 9: Additional Tricks

  • if you smudge a nail badly, try pressing down on the polish with a clean but wet finger. Sometimes you can flatten out the smudge and let it dry and cover with one more coat of polish.
  • my mom swears by spraying cooking oil onto wet nails if you need them to dry pretty fast - she does it all the time! So if you find yourself in a pinch, try that!
  • I like to run my nails under cold water instead - they don't harden as fast, but it's less messy.
  • if you're going to do be painting your nails a really dark color, it's always a good idea to use a clear coat before applying the polish. It will lessen (if not prevent!) the staining that can occur from dark polish.
  • on the other side of the spectrum, if you're going to be applying a bright polish, start with a white base coat.
  • make sure to go easy on the nail polish remover! Removing polish all the time can cause your nails to get dry and brittle. Even non-acetone remover is nasty stuff. It's the only downside to frequent nail painting!
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    31 Discussions


    2 years ago

    You're not Ever supposed to use a nail clipper on you natural nail. It may cause a spit in your nail they you may not want. I would just use the glass nail file. It gives you the right amount of precision with the right amount of pressure.

    Erica key

    3 years ago

    It is coll make it on paper.


    3 years ago

    Thank you so much!

    I have to attend a party and my nails aren't looking that attractive!

    I will surely try this!


    3 years ago

    Dip q tip in remover when you are done with polishing to remove extra polish that might have gotten on skin.


    3 years ago

    You don't use a base coat? I always use a clear base coat. That way I can get away with two coats instead of three.

    I also do the rim tips of my fingernails to seal the edge.


    4 years ago

    Tried 2 brands, and was a little sloppy around the cuticles, but then, this WAS a first try.

    1 reply

    4 years ago

    THANK YOU ! This has a lot more detail than what I was finding on youtube. Pics to follow


    5 years ago

    Great tips i love it!!!!


    6 years ago on Step 9

    This is a great step-by-step description. I never thought of 3 coats before, but it's a good idea. And the tip about an initial clear coat before applying a dark nail polish is excellent - I hate those stains after removing the polish. Thank you ! I'm going to invest in a glass nail file 2moro.


    6 years ago on Step 2

    I just have to say, I really like the picture of the lady with the big red lips!!

    1 reply

    6 years ago on Introduction

    " convince your cats they are not allowed to help you paint your nails " hahhaha so funny, but so true! It is also true for dogs :)
    I loved your Instructable, big hug from Argentina to you and your lovely white cat!


    6 years ago on Step 9

    I was just wondering, does using binding help at all with chipping? I am deciding whether or not to purchase some. Thanks!

    star folder

    6 years ago on Introduction

    HI, yes, great information and good photos. I LOVE the OPI products. I begin with 'Chip Skip', and it realllllly makes a difference. In between the coats, I use another OPI product called, 'Drip Dry' drops put on with an eye dropper ( that comes with it), and within 5 minutes a second coat can be applied. And then with a top coat, my polish will last up to 10 days, with housework and yard work. Next time, I will try having my hand on a flat surface - that I haven't tired, and I do get some smudges on the edges. Lately I have been using a dark color with very fine glitter in it. (I use a base coat first, too), but the removal has been hard. However, I have found a very handy way to remove the polish. It requires 5 of the cotton swabs and 5 pieces of aluminum foil about 3 x 3 inches. Soak all of the swabs with remover and put one on each nail of one hand, and wrap each finger with the foil, making sure there is good contact with the nail. Wait at least 5 minutes, and remove, and it's like a fake nail coming off! Use the other side of the swab for the other hand. Very little touch up of remover in needed. Maybe you could make an instructable of this.


    6 years ago on Step 4

    You have GORGEOUS nails, just thought I'd say :) Thanks for the 'ible; it's great! <3