The answer? Do it yourself! I do, and you can too with a few tools and tips!
Easy steps for a manicure:
1. Remove old polish
2. Trim and file
3. Remove cuticle and moisturize
5. Clean up is optional, but I do so I've included it here!
1. Remove old polish
I prefer pure acetone and cotton balls. It gets the job done swiftly and for me it works better than non-acetone removers and those diluted with glycerin or water. Pure acetone is actually less harsh of a chemical than non-acetone removers. You can always add a few drops of perfume oil or small amount of glycerin to your acetone if you prefer to keep it from turning some of the dead skin a white color. I do this with my clean up jar of acetone. I also use a plastic pump bottle designed for acetone, and it has saved me many a spill! (The pump pictured in the foil method article)
If you're wearing glitter don't fight it, the foil method is the best way to remove glitter without a fuss.
You might also check the entry from becacine about a Peel off base coat - I rarely use the foil method now that there's a great alternative.
2.Trim and file
Files I use:
For natural nails, a fine-grit cushion file is gentle yet effective. Basically, the higher the grit number, the smoother the file. Fine files (240-600 grit) are best for removing small bumps, ridges or discolorations and for shaping the free edge of natural nails. Ultra fine files (600-2400 grit) are used for buffing and shining all types of nails.
Files come in a variety of materials including padded cushion files, glass, mylar and ceramic. Avoid metal files as they are harsh and can tear or even split nails.
The file that I use is Soft Touch from Sally's available for about 69 cents, with a club card. Its a cushiony disinfectable file with fine and extra fine sides. I find that it works perfectly to file down and shape my nails.
I buff my nails very rarely, but when I do I like to use a foam block that has a very fine grit - it almost feels smooth to the touch. I sometimes use it on the free edge as well when I need more smoothing after filing. The best part, Sally's carries them for less than a dollar!
Clippers / nails scissors:
I do use nail scissors and/or clippers on occasions when I need to get rid of length or even up a break before filing. A lot of nailgals swear against clippers but if your nails are not dry and brittle then clippers will not make them crack and split. I like the big sized ones for ease of use, any ol brand will do. Mine are generic and from a general retail store.
3.Remove the cuticle and moisturize
Quick update 11/30/2015 - this step is completely unnecessary and in fact may make your nails peel and split. Soaking them in water is bad for them. It can be done to pamper yourself but do not soak for more than about 5 minutes. Afterward apply moisturizer and let your nails fully harden before you do anything else with your hands or nails. Read, watch Tv etc.
Please read this linked article first!
I love and use both Blue Cross (from Sally's) and Sally Hansen Cuticle removers. Both bottles have an applicator tip which allows for placement of cuticle remover right where its needed. I start with Blue Cross remover and place it on each finger of one hand and then go back to the first finger and start removing the cuticle. Afterward, I rinse and apply the SH Gel in the same manner, working fairly quickly. I use a metal cuticle pusher for removal which is the best tool, but requires care as it can damage the nail plate if used incorrectly. The best implement to use when fairly new to this process is a birch stick or a plastic pusher. When you feel comfortable with the pressure that's needed and know what results to look for, definitely switch to metal.
I have written some very important information about the cuticle that should be read before doing this step. Please do read it, it can prevent a lot of pain and suffering. :)
I use two, a lotion for frequent use on my hands throughout the day and then a balm/heavy moisturizer for the cuticle area daily.
For frequent use lotions, I use anything that smells and feels good - I especially look for those with known skin loving oils in them. One of my favorites is Haus of Gloi's Pumpkin Butter, its creamy, full of skin loving ingredients, absorbs fairly quick, and feels great on my hands. Not only is it vegan friendly, they don't test on animals and its Britton's very own recipe which she makes from scratch. I love their other products too, in fact the emulsifying scrub is wonderful to use for the handwash after cuticle removal.
For daily balms, I use either pure lanolin (Lansinoh), Burt's Bees cuticle balm, an oil, or a whipped shea butter. All of these work well, and it's fun to alternate since they all contain different ingredients.
For an intense treatment, my favorite combo is a tiny amount, smaller than a pea, of Lanolin blended with Amlactin Ultra and then applied to cuticles and hands. It's an amazing combo to get supple looking cuticles and skin.
If you plan to polish after moisturizing, be sure to swipe the nail with acetone or alcohol first. This action will remove the excess oils which can cause polish to chip or peel.
Base Coat/Top Coat:
The most important part of keeping your polish on for a long time is the base and top coat. When you find the perfect combination of these, nail polish brands won't matter to you any more. Even the .69 cent cheapie brands of polish will not chip as fast, I promise!
I tried different combos to figure out what works for me and what doesn't and finally found my holy grail combo: Gelous for my base coat and Seche Vite for my top coat. I also use Gelous as a glitter tamer just before applying my top coat. Both are available at Sally's Beauty Supply and with a club card, they have the best price in my area.
Update 11/30/2015: I am making the switch from Seche Vite to KBShimmer's Clearly On Top. I find it to be glossier, just as fast to dry, not as stinky, and longer lasting in the bottle (SV gets goopy about 2/3 through). Plus it's indie, so why not?
I typically leave a drop of polish on the bottom side of the brush. I do this by swiping one side of the brush against the bottle, and then swiping only the top half of the other side of the brush. This leaves a perfectly sized bead/droplet of polish on the brush. I start in the middle of my nail near the eponychium but not touching so that the drop doesn't flood the cuticle area. I gently push closer to the eponychium but not quite touching and then pull the brush toward the free edge. I then do the same on either side of the center stroke. Reloading the brush with a drop of polish as needed. I usually do one hand and then start over on the same hand with the second coat.
Second coats can be tricky especially if the polish is a pastel, holo or other streak prone color. The trick for those is to use a very light touch and as few brush strokes as possible. If its still a challenge, I will let the first coat dry really well before attempting the second. Top with Seche Vite, let dry maybe five minutes and do the other hand.
5. Clean up
I use a bright desk lamp with a daylight bulb so that I can see really well when I paint and it helps to keep clean up at a minimum, however; it is usually a necessary evil. I like to use a short stiff brush dipped in pure acetone which I store in an old bath scrub jar that I cleaned out. The jar has a wide base so no tipping, and the lid that keeps the acetone from evaporating. I add just enough acetone to the jar so that when the brush is dipped in, only the bristles get wet. I also add a drop of perfume oil to this so it smells good and prevents the dead skin from turning white.
My favorite clean up brush is the Elf concealer brush due to the small size, oval shape, and stiff bristles. Plus, the brush is super cheap at $1 when they get frayed it's not expensive to replace.
I think that pretty much wraps things up, please comment if I've left something out or if you have questions!