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First off, prevention is better than cure. Learn to open doors, gates, locks and any other metallic items with your fretting hand; this will save you a lot of breakages. Also, try to avoid the 'macho' notion that long nails are essential; for many people, nails can be shorter and perfectly good, and thereby less prone to snagging and breaking. If your nails break all the time you may need to pay attention to diet, (or you may be just careless!), in which case consult qualified advice.
Also bear in mind that nails can be more brittle when it is cold, and so wearing gloves or better still mittens, not only protects your nails physically but reduces the tendency for brittleness, which can strike even when you are back indoors. Wearing gloves also means you can play again sooner when you get home! (worth bearing in mind on your way to lessons etc. But I digress).
Secondly, never ignore even slight nicks on the nail surface - treat them immediately to prevent their getting worse. Even a small nick in the nail will start to snag on wool or cotton and get bigger. This may well mean carrying a rescue kit with you, certainly if you go out to play somewhere, or even when you go away on holiday. Be prepared!
Once a nail is broken you need to consider; is it worth repairing it? It may be possible to leave it unglued, and let it grow back. This avoids the tendency for the nail to become glue-covered perhaps for months. This is normally only an option if the nail is not too heavily disrupted, and if you do not have performance commitments within the month; and usually I find is only realistic with the thumb nail.
The materials I use to cope with nail breakages are; i. nail glue; this is basically superglue but it's not so unkind to nails, and should be easier to unstick if you glue yourself together. Available from larger chemists separately or in kits (see iii.) ii. ping pong ball bits. If I have to use extensions, artificial playing surfaces or supports, I use segments of table tennis ball, cut out with manicure scissors and stuck on with the glue. iii. tissue paper/special nail repair kit silk strips; this is used to support the glued-back section of nail - glued on top of the nail and covering both sides of the break.
Assuming the nail is to be repaired, consider the following scenarios;
i. The nail has cracked across, not quite detaching itself.
This is perhaps the easiest to deal with. The segment is still hinged somewhere along the length of the crack. Prepare a suitable sized piece of tissue/silk, return the broken segment in place and lay the material on the nail, covering both sides of the crack. Then put drop/s of glue onto the material until it has soaked up the glue and there is no 'dry' material left. Don't over-soak it or you will be putting more than you need; this is not only bothersome until it dries, but unnecessarily bad for the nail.
You may find that another layer of material applied after the first is wise. When it is all really dry (many hours later) you can then sand down the rough surface; the nail kits usually come with an abrasive pad for the purpose.
ii. The nail has cracked and detached itself.
Similar process but you may have to do more to support the segment in place, possibly using a small piece of table tennis ball, depending on your nails and your dexterity in the repair process.
iii. The nail segment is lost. This is not unusual, and often happens if the break occurs out of doors. Some people cultivate their fret hand thumb nail so that if the thumb nail is lost, they can transfer it over. Don't bother with toe nails; they're too thick (I tried!). If you are having to use a completely new nail segment-substitute, you have to decide where on the nail you are going to stick it. The alternatives are a. under the nail b. on top of the nail c. right on the broken edge.
This is a personal matter and experience will tell. I only ever stick it on top, but I have know people do the others with success, though you can only stick under the nail if there is enough nail protruding for your segment to be able to stick there.
To stick on top I cut a shape taking some care for the portion which will lie on the nail; you need enough for the glue to have something to hang on to and to counter the considerable stresses imposed on the segment by string contact. But don't cover the whole nail because this is unlikely to be necessary and will mean you have plastic and glue on your nail for longer than necessary.
Cut the segment so that it respects the curvature of your nail; you won't be able to force the plastic to take a sharp curve suddenly and still stick. Super glue isn't that strong!
Put some glue on the nail and put the segment in place (rehearse this first with no glue!). Hold it in place for as long as necessary, and clean off any surplus you can.
After it has dried firmly you can start to shape the playing surface, first cutting it roughly with scissors and then arriving at your customary shape by your usual method. You may find the shape is different from usual because after all it is a different material, thicker, and in a slightly different place.
You can keep on shaping the new segment down until there is very little left. If you have a very small amount left and an important performance imminent, beware. It may well be better to take it all off and prepare the natural surface underneath rather than risk it flying off in mid-concert. However, you must be EXTREMELY CAUTIOUS in taking off a plastic segment that has been glued to your nail. If it offers resistance, leave it. If necessary go on stage prepared to re-do you nail in situ. On NO ACCOUNT force a glued surface off your nail. If you do there is a real and proven risk of the glue proving stronger than the internal structure of your nail; in other words you can tear a strip of nail away with the plastic, leaving a thin and weak sliver of nail behind; or you could even tear your nail of completely, leaving you in real trouble (and probably considerable pain!). So only remove the plastic when it wants to come off. This may be easier after a hot bath. When there really is little plastic left it will usually come off easily enough.
** About glue ** I have always found that the age of the glue is important. If I have not broken a nail for a long time, the first stickings with the old glue in my rescue pack will not last for long. When I buy some new glue, it lasts forever (it seems!) As a result, when I think about it, I aim to buy a new pot of nail glue every year (dating them as I go). (Any modellers out there want to buy a dozen partly used glue pots?! :-)
iv. Small nicks can often be treated with a small drop of glue on the nick and left to dry; this is then sanded back. If the nick is larger a tiny bit of silk or tissue can be used to fill the space, get in with the glue, again sanded back when really dry.
** At all times remember that the glue is bad for your nail and so do not use more than you have to. **
So remember the key points;
· Prevention is better than cure.
· Stop small nicks growing.
· Be Prepared.
· Use the minimum of glue.
· NEVER force the repair material off the nail.
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