how to manicure at home

I’m no stranger to a good manicure, but I can’t afford to have a manicure in a salon once a week, so I do mine at home.  A really good salon manicure takes a handful of steps to get it right, but your nails will thank you in the end.

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nail polish

I have a manicure/pedicure box I keep handy with all the supplies I need so when it’s time for my Saturday night manicure I’m ready to rock and roll.

What?  That’s not weird.


Here’s what you need for your manicure at home:

  • Nail Polish
  • Clear Top Coat/Base Coat
  • Nail File
  • Cotton Swabs
  • Nail Polish Remover
  • Cuticle Oil
  • Orange Stick
  • {optional} rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle

how to manicure at home
Step 1:

Soak nails in a small dish of warm water to soften up the cuticles.  After about a minute of soaking, remove all nail polish.

push back cuticles

Step 2:

When the nail beds are nice and toasty, remove your hands from the water and apply cuticle oil at the base of your nails.  This stuff makes it easier to get rid of all those long cuticles.  Let the oil soak in for about a minute or two.


Step 3:

Take the orange stick, {that’s the little wooden poky stick} and press in your now soft cuticles.  You’re going to shove them back where they came from so they won’t bother anyone anymore.  Once you’re done with that, give your nails another soak to recover from the trauma.


Step 4:

This step is optional, but it makes the difference between a salon manicure and a chip-off-by-tomorrow-morning-manicure, so I highly recommend not skipping this one.  {I fill up a cheap Dollar Store spray bottle with rubbing alcohol and keep it in my nail kit.}  Spray your nails with the alcohol and rub it around.  The alcohol will dissolve all the oils on your fingers,  and you want to get rid of as much oil as possible because this is what prevents the nail polish from sticking.

filing nails

Step 5:

This is when we start to get fancy.  File your nails with the nail file traveling ONE direction.  The back and forth filing motion we all do weakens the nails and allows them to break more easily, so only file one way.  File them into a squoval.  I know it’s a made up word, but take the advice of all the salons in downtown Chinatown and make a nice shape that’s the combination of a square + oval.  Square tops + oval edges = sassy pants.


Like so.

See, I have really short nails but when they’re shaped nicely it makes all the difference in the world.


Step 6:

Now you’re ready to get busy. Paint one coat of clear base coat on your nails.  Start at the cuticle and paint down in one stroke to the tip of your nail.  Three swipes of base coat should cover the whole nail.  Let that dry for at least two minutes before you move on or you’ll end up with smudgy nails.

nail polish

Step 7:

This step is really important.  Another one that will make the difference between long lasting or a cheap at home manicure.  Take the bottle of nail polish you’re going to use for color and ROLL it between your hands.  If you shake it to mix up the color you’ll end up with bubbles in the polish and your manicure will go to pot.  Roll it back and forth quickly instead to swish around the color and you’ll end up with perfect nail color.

how to paint nails

Step 8:

Finally, it’s time to paint!

Start at the base of your nail and swipe the polish all the way to the tip of the nail.  Dip the brush again and repeat two more times until your entire nail is covered in polish.  Then take a quick swipe along the tip of the nail to make sure it’s covered in polish; this will slow down the chipping process.

Repeat on all your nails.

how to paint your nails

Don’t they look fancy?

Now let them sit for at least 20 minutes.  Seriously.  Watch your favorite show, read a book, sit on your porch and watch the world go by, but whatever you do don’t touch your nails.

polish remover

Step 9:

Very, very carefully clean up the extra nail polish around the edges of your nails.  Wrap a tissue around an orange stick, dip it into a tiny bit of nail polish remover, and clean up the errant nail polish.  BE CAREFUL or you’ll ruin your manicure.

nail polish

Step 10:

This is one of the most important steps, but also one of the most hurried and therefore ruined.  After your nails have dried for around 20-30 minutes {really} put on a top coat.  This will protect your color and make your nails look all shiny and happy.  Do only one top coat now, but every couple of days give your nails a new one to make sure they stay fresh.

There you go!  I know it seems like a lot but it really doesn’t take long once you practice, and your nails will thank you.  Polished nails go a long way to making you look pulled together.

{F.Y.I. the color in these photos is O.P.I. ‘You’re Such a Kabuki Queen’.  It’s one of my favorites sent to me by O.P.I. last summer}

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Hello there! I'm Allison Czarnecki, founder + editor of Petit Elefant, a blog all about style on a budget for every part of your life: style / home / travel / family. I do a lot of how-to beauty + style tutorials, travel posts, easy recipes, home remodel projects, and cool DIY crafts you totally want to try. I'm super happily married (to a hot Polish immigrant) and am the mother of two kids, a daughter and son, all of whom are featured here on the regular. We live in the country but we're a little bit rock + roll. Welcome!


  1. Alicia @ Alicia's Homemaking :

    Allison dear, you’re amazing. Love this post. :) You would cringe if you saw my homemaking nails right now!

  2. Jenny :

    I’ve been skipping a couple important steps, like WAIT 20 MINUTES. Which is why my nails looked way more awesome in high school and college than they do now. I am going to do this when my kids are in bed tonight instead of folding all that laundry. You’re the best.

  3. Kara :

    I like to do my nails about an hour or two before a shower. Then all the nail polish around my nails on my fingers and toes just comes right off. No nail polish remover “touch up” needed.

  4. Qui :

    another swipe of nail polish remover cleans off the nail beds too–in case you’re out of rubbing alcohol. and q-tips work well for cleaning up the edges as well. although maybe an orange stick would provide a better edge. i’ll have to give that one a try! LOVE opi colors–Big Apple Red and California Raspberry are my go to colors :)

  5. Emily :

    You’re a pro! Thanks for sharing your tips (and fingertips)! Love the word squoval too.

  6. Liz Lemon :

    I’m not sure fingernails could do the herculean task of making me look pulled together. Nope. I’d probably need an actual shower and sleep for that.

    Love your tip Kara. That’s the kind of world I live in.

  7. Amanda :

    I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve always done my own nails, but I’ve apparently been missing some essential steps. The rubbing alcohol is genius–I’ve always wondered why my manis don’t last as long as the salons.

  8. The Mommy Therapy :

    This makes me think I might actually be able to do my own nails. Very thorough. Now if I could just find a time in the day when I am ok with sitting still for that long without having to touch one of my children. I’m determined though….fantastic tutorial!

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Donna :

    I enjoy my home manicures. It’s a quiet, relaxing, pamper myself time. All these years I have been shaking the bottle! I will be rolling from now on.

  10. katrina :

    When I “clean” them up I use a very tightly woven QTip, the generic kind are the best, b/c they have no fluffynesses to them. Dip in acetone and go.

  11. Jill @babyrabies :

    I have that color and love it! But it never looks that good on me. I need to step up my manicure game. Good tips!

  12. Hannah :

    Love this! I learned from a makeup artist that your nailpolish should never touch your skin/cuticle. Leaving a small space of nail will keep the polish from chipping/peeling away.

  13. Kristi :

    Thanks for the tutorial, my neglected nails need some sprucing up. I’m going to have to try the alcohol trick as I always chip my nails. Another tip I got recently was to use a small paint brush dipped in nail polish remover instead of a cotton ball or q-tip to clean up the excess polish. My clumsy self always manages to get cotton in my polish.

  14. Jill :

    So you don’t put on two coats of color? I’ve always done that but am happy to skip the step/save some time (especially if that would mean an extra 20 minutes (really!) of not touching my nails… am trying it right now on my toes…

  15. anonymous :

    Is this a joke? Your nails look horrific and if you send me your address, I will send you some money to go get them fixed. Your NAILS should be painted…not your cuticles.

  16. L :

    I’m sorry, but I agree with some of the other comments. Just like when you get a professional manicure–no paint on the cuticles. No need to clean them up afterwards. If you paint carefully inside the line of your cuticles, and leave an unnoticeable but small little gap, your nails will look perfect and nail polish remover will never touch your new manicure.

  17. M :

    Sorry but I’m going to have to agree with the above too. As a professional, this manicure really looks bad. The polish shouldn’t ever touch your skin and require cleaning up afterwards. And unlike a commenter said above, if you really have to do a clean up, use nail polish remover, never acetone. Acetone is for removing acrylic nails and I would never use it on my natural nails just because. Also be sure to buy acetone-free nail polish remover. Your nails will thank you.

  18. Laura :

    If you ever don’t want to or don’t have time to wait 20 minutes, try Seche Vite top coat. It’s a quick-drying polish that you apply while the polish is still wet.

  19. dee :

    I want to send my KUDOS to you for not censoring the negative comments above–I’m finding it all too common for craft/design/art blogs to remove any criticism (however fair or even-handed) from discussion, and I find it suffocating and unrealistic. Thank you!

  20. Jessa :

    I personally love this tutorial. I have a 10 month old and one thing I love doing (when I get the time) is a manicure. It’s an instant pick-me-up to see pretty nails, and anything to make it last longer is wonderful!

    I don’t know how many busy moms have the time to make sure there is a millimeter of space between the cuticle and the color–I just slap it on and clean it up later as well!

    Thanks for sharing this, I am new the site and really love it.

  21. mollysusie :

    I’ll admit now I do a really bad job on my nails. But when I do paint them, I usually do 2-3 coats. Should I wait 20-30 min between each coat? Or is the first one the most important?

    • Allison :

      YES! Wait at least 20-30 minutes or you’ll get smudgy sticky nails. And I do a top coat the next morning too.