Your Ultimate Guide to the Emery Board

The elusive Emery Board. We’ve all heard of it, but what do we really know about it? You may even own one already – stashed away somewhere in a medicine cabinet or drawer, and are now finally ready for its greater meaning. 

Just what is an emery board? What is it for? And how do I, as a responsible human being, properly use and care for one? This Ultimate Guide will answer all of this (and more!).

What is an Emery Board?

The emery board has a way of showing and not telling. It’s mysterious. Like a siren singing to us from her shores she has a way of hooking us in, begging for us to unravel her deeper truth. Her nonchalant nature and casual handiness make her the perfect item for everyone to own and recognize but not know extensively about.

It’s 2021 it’s about time we get to know this old household friend and this is where I come in. As an 18-year owner of an emery board I’ve recently become quite fascinated by her and have therefore spent copious amounts of time researching into all things emery boards. It’s time I share this knowledge.

*Note- I sometimes refer to emery boards as “her” for storytelling purposes, though I stand by the fact that emery boards do not subscribe to any specific gender.

An Emery Board by Definition

First patented by J. Parker Pray of New York in 1883, the Emery Board is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a cardboard nail file covered with emery.”

Doesn’t mean much to us yet, right? Again, she throws us a line, asking us to bite the bait and follow her down the winding path of her history and uses. If we want to truly understand what an emery board is, we must first dive deeper into definitions of “emery” and “nail file”, and so we shall.

Let the adventure begin!

  • Emery, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is “a dark granular mineral that consists of corundum with iron oxide impurities (such as magnetite) and is used as an abrasive. 
  • Nail File, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is “a small narrow instrument (as of metal or cardboard) with a rough or emery surface that is used for shaping fingernails.” It’s a tool used to gently grind down and shape the edges of nails, often used in manicures and pedicures after the nail has been trimmed down using nail clippers. Nail files can either be emery boards, ceramic, glass, crystal, plain metal files or metal files coated with corundum (a crystalline form of aluminum oxide). 

We have our first clarification! An emery board is not itself the nail file but is instead a specific type of nail file made of its own unique material, so if you call an emery board a nail file, you’re not wrong. It is a flat and long object, both abrasive and flexible, used in fingernail and toenail care.

emery board
14-pack of Emery Boards on Amazon

Why Use an Emery Board?

You may be wondering if you need to have an emery board to care for nails properly and if there are  alternatives that can do the same thing. The answer to this depends on your intention. If you’d like to simply shorten your nails you could utilize nail clippers-  or if like many in our society you suffer from anxiety, you may already be in the habit of biting your nails and keeping them short in that way. In this case the emery board is not necessarily needed.

If your intention is to take a more precise approach to shaping the nails in a certain way, you could utilize an emery board as well as a different kind of nail file made of alternative materials (metal, ceramic, glass, etc).

Glass nail files, as an example, are gaining quite a bit of popularity lately as quoted in Cosmopolitan because the “grit on glass files is super finely sanded down, so you’re able to create a clean, smooth, “sealed” edge on your nails rather than a jagged, torn edge, which means less peeling and chipping for your manicure.” Cosmo and other sources prefer glass files to any other type.

If, however, your intention is to care for nails in a simple, economic, and sanitary way- keeping them at a certain length and shape, an emery board is what you want. 

emery board
3-Pack of Glass Emery Boards

Are they bad for nails?

It is important to presence here that the only way to ensure that emery boards are a more sanitary option if you are disposing of them after each use, as “Infections in or around the nail can be caused by bacterial, fungal, or viral organisms, typically introduced by contaminated equipment through skin breaks during a procedure. This can occur during home manicures/pedicures with equipment inadequately cleaned between uses as well as during professional manicures/pedicures where there is improper care of instruments between clients or where the operator is inexperienced.”

If you are to use an emery board, it’s important to understand how to keep them clean. More on this later in the article.

Other Uses for Emery Boards

In addition to nail care there are many other uses for an emery board, like a sports tool! Emery boards have actually been used for scuffing the outside of baseballs and cricket balls as the roughness can offer more grip and hand control for the players. Additionally, the surface scratches also alter the ball’s aerodynamics making it more susceptible to spin and movement when in flight.

This has been considered a form of manipulation and cheating in baseball.

There was even a case of pitcher ejection in Major League Baseball back in 1987 when “Twins pitcher Joe Niekro got tossed from a game against the Angels after he was discovered scuffing the ball with an emery board and sandpaper in his pockets” writes author Jon Taylor of Sports Illustrated. As we can see here, the mystique underbelly of the emery board runs far deeper than nail care.

Additional uses (besides sports manipulation) of emery boards include:

  • As a sharpener for colored pencils, lip liner, and eye liner
  • To remove fuzz pills on clothing
  • To remove super glue from fingers
  • To rub dead skin off of dry, scuffed heels
  • To clean rust from tools and knives
  • To help seeds sprout faster and absorb more moisture (by rubbing the coating off of the seed with the emery board before planting)
  • To clean a pencil eraser 
  • To sharpen small items such as sewing needles, X-acto blades, and tweezers
  • To add a distressed quality to cardstock when scrapbooking!

What is an Emery Board Made Of?

As stated earlier, emery boards are a type of nail file and what makes them unique is the materials they’re made of.

Parts of the Emery Board:

  • Cardboard, wood, or thin plastic (the base)
  • Emery paper (the covering, which is a type of sandpaper)
    • Sandpaper- a mixture of corundum and magnetite that is used in powdered form 
  • Various grits (more on this below)

Broken down even further…

Raw Materials of the Emery Board:

  • Cardboard, wood, or thin plastic 
    • Plastic being made of cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and crude oil
  • Corundum 
  • Magnetite 

Is it Natural or Synthetic?

Likely, an emery board you come across online or in-store contains some synthetic materials because, “the supply of natural emery is limited and inconsistent. Manufacturing and scientific applications of the substance require much more precise compositions for a uniform grit, the level of abrasiveness in a substance. By mixing high-quality magnetite with varying quantities of aluminum oxide, or corundum, manufacturers can create synthetic emery.” 

Let’s look once more at the raw materials that make up an emery board:

  • Corundum (part of the synthetic emery paper)
  • Magnetite (part of the synthetic emery paper)
  • Cardboard, Wood, or thin plastic (the base)

Corundum and Magnetite

While Corundum and Magnetite are themselves naturally occurring, they are fused together synthetically to create the emery paper used on emery boards.

Cardboard 

Cardboard is made from natural materials, so it’s actually compostable. This means that it breaks down into only natural elements and doesn’t leave a carbon footprint.

Wood 

Wood is traditionally viewed as a natural material (ie. grown as a tree or bush), however, if you want to ensure the wood products you use are natural, you must use wood “which has not been chemically treated. This can include chemical drying, painting, pressure treating, or any other form of artificial modification to the wood beyond simply drying and cutting.”

Thin Plastic

Venturing into the realm of plastic strays farther and farther from naturally occurring. While the raw ingredients of plastic are considered natural (cellulose, coal, natural gas, crude oil), plastic is synthetically created and poses destructive threats to environmental and human health.

As the Plastic Pollution Coalition writes, “plastic never goes away and affects human health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.”

Stay away from plastic, if you can.

In summary, the emery paper you’re likely to find was synthetically produced but when selecting the base of your emery board, you have the freedom to choose either synthetic (plastic, chemically treated wood) or natural materials (natural wood or cardboard).

emery board

The Coloring Process

You may be wondering what the emery board coloring process is all about and if a colored emery board can expose a person to artificial dyes. You may be curious to know if these dyes can get into the bloodstream somehow and expose us to chemicals. When we speak about the coloring process we are referring to the abrasives aspect (the emery paper grit).

Abrasives come in a variety of colors. The common tan emery boards are usually garnet, while most colored files are silicon carbide or aluminum oxide. Some technicians favor colored files so they know at a glance what file to choose for what purpose.” If you’re planning on using a colored emery board (other than the natural tan or red-colored), you’ll be exposing yourself to a very small amount of silicon carbide and aluminum oxide.

Can this leach into your bloodstream and cause harm to your health?

In large quantities, yes, as aluminum has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier. However, with the radically lower amount of exposure with emery board use, you’re probably OK.

To play it 100% safe, however, stick to the naturally tan and red-colored emery boards.

The Subject of Grit

So what is grit? Grit, or level of abrasiveness of an object, plays a key role in the emery board’s functionality. We’ll go into the details of grit and why it matters, next.

What Grit Does an Emery Board Have?

The legendary American icon John Wayne once said “True Grit is making a decision and standing by it, doing what must be done. No moral (wo)man can have peace of mind if s(he) leaves undone what (s)he knows (s)he should have done.”

In accordance with Mr. Wayne’s statement, we benefit greatly from adopting discipline and follow-through with our actions. Along these lines, the decision of which grit to use on our emery boards matters folks.

And it matters greatly.

What is Grit?

Grit is defined as the level of abrasiveness of an object, and in this case- the paper or material that covers the base of the nail file or emery board. Emery boards, as well as other kinds of nail files, come in a variety of grits for a variety of uses. 

Navigating Grit Numbers

The number of the grit corresponds with its coarseness. The lower the number of grit the more coarse it is. A typical acrylic file is about 100 grit, while the typical buffer is about 1200 grit, what is called a microabrasive. Microabrasives came to the nail industry by way of the aerospace industry. An engineer used buffing blocks made of this super-fine grit to remove scratches from airplane windows. That same material brings a high shine to fingernails.” 

Woah! Herein lies a link between nail maintenance and interstellar travel! Our journey continues.

Why Grit Matters

When choosing your grit it would behoove you to first determine what you want it to do with it.

  • Are you simply shaping your nails for aesthetic purposes?
  • Do you have a profession that requires a certain length and shape?
  • What kind of nails are you shaping?
  • Do you have artificial or natural nails?
  • How is the health of your nails?
  • Are you really into risky experimentation and get a kind of psychotic kick out of filing away all of your nails?
  • What is YOUR why?

For Shaping the Nail:

  • Artificial nails need a grit of 60, 80, or 100. They’re rougher than the higher number grits so they get tons of material off. I
  • f you have hard and coarse natural nails you may love 100 grit.
  • For natural nails that aren’t too coarse and hard, try 120, 180, 240. A good place to start is 180 grit and you can go coarse or finer from there.

The Top of the Nail:

Buffing nails out on the top will create a smooth, shiny finish. Steer clear of using any grit below (coarser than) 240 grit. This might take off too much from the top of the nail.

  • For the tops of nails, opt for a fine grit of at least 240. You can always go coarser if you need to buff out deep ridges.
  • To buff nails out, go for grits of 1000+
  • To get nails extra shiny, go for grits 2000+.

Tips for Choosing Emery Board Grit:

  • 80-180 is very coarse is only for artificial nails.
  • 180 grit is the lowest grit you can use safely on natural nails.
  • 240 grit is the coarsest buffer you can use on the tops of nails
  • 500-2000 grit is best for most types of natural nails
  • 2000+ grit is best to make nails super shiny

Professions Involving Grit

For some professionals, the coarseness of grit on their nail file is not just a luxury but a critical decision. 

Musicians

Some musicians, such as Classical or Flamenco guitarists, have strict regimens for the length and shape of their nails in order to work effectively. In these cases, choosing the right grits and having a wide collection of grits is imperative. 12-year Flamenco Guitarist Kiel Siler of Santa Cruz, California has to keep his left hand nails as short as possible to avoid collision with his guitar fretboard, and needs a large regimen of nail files and buffing blocks to maintain a precise length and shape of the nails on his right hand.

Kiel can typically be found using anywhere from 4-6 different size grits up to 3 times per week when regularly playing guitar. His advice to other guitarists when choosing their grits and files?… “Get yourself a good variety of grits and files, and make sure to get some specifically tailored for buffing. Buy plenty, as the grit runs out fast when it is your only way of nail shaping.”

emery board

Kiel also thoroughly enjoys nail files that include buffers said to naturally increase nail shine. Rather than for the shine, Kiel prefers these for their ability to help his nails “move across the strings better.” For this, Kiel recommends the Kiss 4-way Ultra Shiner for smooth, shiny nails. 

Non-nail Uses For Grit

For uses not involving nails, what level of grit is ideal? As presented earlier in the article, there are a variety of non-nail uses for emery boards from scuffing a baseball and rigging a Major League Baseball game outcome, to removing fuzz from sweaters. With such a wide variety of uses, it proves difficult to recommend just one grit. We advise starting with a medium grit range (100 -240) and experimenting on your own with what works for you.

What is the Difference Between an Emery Board and a Nail File?

To be or not be a nail file? That IS the question.

Most people think that emery boards and nail files are the same thing but this is technically false. As we covered earlier, an emery board is a specific sub-category of nail file made from wood, cardboard, or plastic and covered in emery paper or sandpaper Nail files are a broader beast and come in a variety of materials including glass, metal, ceramic, and crystal.

  • Emery boards are generally less abrasive than metal nail files
  • Emery boards generally take longer to file down nails
  • Emery boards are typically less expensive than other kinds of nail files
  • Emery boards are typically more flexible than other kinds of nail files
  • Emery boards can and should be disposed of after one use to meet FDA nail sanitation requirements

Pros and Cons of Nail Files and Emery Boards

Certainly, both emery boards and nail files have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on one’s situation and intended use. There are cases where a nail file might be better than an emery board and vice versa. 

Pros of Crystal Glass Files

For example, many folks ascertain that using a type of crystal nail file is the most hygienic nail files. Because it’s glass and free of dips and grooves, bacteria does get lodged into crevices which causes massive growth for the next unsuspecting soul who uses it. Both emery boards and metal nail files work in a way that leaves the nail “open” meaning dirt and water can leech inside the nail itself causing chipping, cracking, peeling and weakening of the nails.” They claim that the crystal glass file is more hygienic, economically viable (when looking at long-term use), environmentally sustainable, and kinder to nails than emery boards are. 

Pros of Buffing Blocks

Re-visiting our conversation with Flamenco Guitarist Kiel Siler, we hear about the pros of buffing block nail files over emery boards. When asked about his experience with emery boards for maintaining his nails, Kiel answered, “My experience with an emery board is that the grit was so heavy that it lacked the precision I needed, and took out more of the nail than I wanted, even sometimes damaging my nails. To be honest, I find emery boards a little barbaric.”

Pros of Emery Boards

Emery boards may not be the sexiest nail filing companion, but they are many peoples’ dependable classic.  You can get the job done and, with the right grit, they do a good job. You might say they are ‘the people’s file’.

How to Use an Emery Board

If you take its seductive bait (imagining again the image of the emery board siren beckoning us towards her shores) and decide you want to use an emery board, you best use it properly. Here’s the complete how-to for emery board use.

  1. Light a candle, honoring the spirit of the emery board and all others who worked with her before you and will work with her after you (different emery boards of course).
  2. Breathe. Relax. You got this. 
  3. File your nails only when completely dry 
  4. Start with the softest grit side (highest number)
  5. File in one direction only, working your way towards the center
  6. Go for a simple oval shape, following the natural curve of the cuticle at the base of the nail
  7. Avoid over-filing, especially at the sides of the nail (this can weaken your nails)
  8. Finish with the heavier grit side of the emery board (lower number) to smooth any hard or rough areas of skin on the fingertips 
  9. Soak your nails in warm water (optional)
  10.  Dispose of your emery board (highly recommended) or at least clean it thoroughly 
  11. Blow out your candle. Especially during fire season.

Tips and Tricks

Here are some handy tips and tricks to make sure you’re doing it right for your natural nails.

  1. Avoid filing your nails after a long soak in the bath. You’re nails will be much too soft leaving them open to breakage.
  2. Avoid using a zig-zag motion. This can cause them to peel and chip.
  3. File your nails before you remove old nail polish. This protects them more than when they’re bare.
  4. If you’re emery board is too hard, but you’re sure it’s the right grit (maybe it’s just brand new?), sprinkle water on it to make it more gentle on nails.
  5. Only use emery boards once to avoid infection
  6. Never share emery boards! Gross!

How to Clean an Emery Board

As mentioned, it’s important to properly clean an emery board to prevent infection, keep it working more efficiently, and help it to last longer. When you go to a nail salon, it needs to be clean one. If they aren’t tossing emery boards with every use, they need to at least be sanitizing them properly.

Infections in or around the nail can be caused by bacterial, fungal, or viral organisms, typically introduced by contaminated equipment through skin breaks during a procedure. This can occur during home manicures/pedicures with equipment inadequately cleaned between uses as well as during professional manicures/pedicures where there is improper care of instruments between clients or where the operator is inexperienced.”

Infections can occur both at home and in salons. In this regard we are all subject to proper emery board care and sanitation procedures.

FDA Regulations on Cleaning Emery Boards

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specific protocol for keeping our emery boards properly sanitized, and that is to throw them away after use. Period. But, we do know this isn’t always reality, especially at home.

So, here’s the ways to clean it right.

Cleaning An Emery Board (should you choose to Reuse)

Here are detailed, step–by-step instructions on how to clean an emery board:

  1. Wipe off any obvious debris from your emery board
  2. Wash it with soap and water
  3. Disinfect by 70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol and a fresh cotton ball
  4. Air dry completely
  5. Store in an airtight container

Choosing a Cleaner

While there are seemingly no specific products made for cleaning emery boards or nail files, you could choose to purchase an anti-bacterial, liquid soap or detergent to wash your emery boards (using the steps above).

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far on our journey around the emery board, I applaud you. We’ve covered all of our bases, to bring back the Joe Niekro story, and covered the definition of an emery board, it’s history, what it’s made of, why we use it, how we use it, it’s distinction from other kinds of nail files, how to choose the right grit, the risks involved and pros and cons of emery board use, and how to properly clean and care for one. I can now confidently confirm that if you’ve read this whole article, that you are just as much an expert as I and should feel comfortable to buy, use, and clean your very own emery board.

To end, I’ll quote revered British author William Shakespear who once said; “What’s in a name? That which we call an emery board by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

Okay, so maybe he may have said “rose” instead of emery board, but the message here is the same. No matter what you call an object, its beauty still exists all the same. This is true of the emery board as well. Whether you refer to it as a nail file, filing stick, a manicuring board, or it’s true name- the emery board, it’s handiness and functionality remain the same. Like the story of Romeo and Juliet, we hope now that the story of the emery board will live on in your hearts forever.