As diverse as nail files may seem, nearly all nail files used in the nail industry today are one of three types of abrasives: garnet, a hard mineral that is typically found on tan emery boards, and silicon carbide and aluminum oxide, very hard synthetic compounds that can be ground very coarse or very fine.
Abrasives are categorized and numbered by the coarseness of their grit. The lower the number, the more coarse the grit. 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.
Abrasives come in a variety of colors. The coloring process does not affect either the board’s ability to file or its quality. 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.
When it comes to deciding what type of nail file to use on your nails it all depends on your intended use. You really could cover any and all general uses with just four boards. You would need a coarse board (or an acrylic board, something in the 100 grit range) for acrylic filing and shaping and for taking the nail down quickly.
You would also need a medium board for finer filing and for use on natural nails. This board would be in the 180-320 grit range. A 100/240 grit file will give you one side for shaping nails and the other for smoothing them. It's a good all-purpose file for both natural and artificial nails.
A third file is necessary for smoothing the top of the nail, something in the 400-600 grit range. Sponge Boards are popular for this task because their shape makes it easy to use and easy to get into corners.
Finally, you need a microbrasive, a very high numbered grit, usually in the 1200 grit range, for shining and buffing the nail. This file is particularly popular in a block.
The array of files available gives you free rein to choose the best combination for yourself and/or your clients, whether you prefer the basic four files, or an extravagant, one-of-each collection.