Nail Art 101 – Water Decals

We’re taking things one step at a time here, for the sake of those new to nail art. Because of that, I felt that to open my Nail Art 101 series, we’d start with one of the simplest ways to make your manicure looking gorgeous and complicated! There are two main types of water decals: ones that are small and that I lovingly refer to as Partial Decals. There are also options that cover the entire nail in a print, and I call these babies Wraps.


Wrap Decals
Wrap Decals

Water Decals are super fun and easy to use. Nine times out of ten you’ll want some form of a base color to put the decals on top of. I want to make sure when I say “Base color” in this excerpt I am talking about a base coat and at least two coats of the desired nail polish. Especially if you are using a partial decal. If you are using a wrap it in part comes down to the wrap itself. I’ve had one or two that were opaque enough that they didn’t necessarily need a base color, but by adding a base color it can change the mood of the design. Something like a simple white can bring it to a bright and vibrant life. Black and dim things down to an extent, or something like a grey is great for cooling it off. Etc., etc., etc. Other wraps require a base coat, usually a white in those instances, at least to acquire the effect displayed on the packaging.


To apply a nail decal, once you have your nailed polished, you’ll need:

  • A small cup or bowl of warm water (warm water always works best, but if it is cold out side, it will be very difficult to get the decal to come free with cold water).
  • Tweezers are usually a good idea to have on hand incase you need them, depending on how thin the decal is once it comes free.
  • A paper towel or napkin. Ideally I would avoid a tissue because it will come apart if it gets too wet, and leave parts of itself behind on your mani, and cleaning that off can cause some issues with the placement of the decal shifting.
  • Nail File – Depending on whether it is a wrap or a partial decal or a wrap, and
    Partial Decals
    Partial Decals

    where the decal is going, you may require one to clean up the free-edge of your nail.

  • A Clean-Up Brush – These you can either get a small squared off make-up brush, or they usually come in groups of Nail Art Brushes. The links below will take you to a few pages where you can buy some if you need them. These are just a few, there are tons of options out there!
  • A bottle of 100% acetone. When it comes to clean up around the edges of your nail, removing parts of the decals that are on your skin, you want pure acetone. Polish remover is not pure acetone because it does not have to be, but it will not do such a clean job of removing stuff from your skin.
  • Scissors

Now that we have everything we need to get going, shall we? Take a look at your decals. usually, they are sorted and ordered along the page by size, so it is easy if you want the size of the decal to correspond to the size of your nail. But feel free to mix and match them! This is your mani after all. You have complete control so you an get exactly what you want out of this.

Pick a decal and cut it out of the sheet of decals. Be very careful not the snip the decals around it. If you hold the page up to the light, usually you will see that there is a clear or white border around the decals, that is difficult to see without the reflection of light.

Once you have your decal cut out, pinch it in the tweezers and plunge it into the water. Normally I try to grasp the edges of the paper cutting that do not have the decal on it, simply so that if the decal should come completely off in the water, the tweezers don’t accidentally tear it. But sometimes that is not an option, so you just have to be vigilant.

Normally it takes anywhere from 10-20 seconds for the decal to become loose enough that you can slide it off the paper. I usually check it and lightly rub it between two fingers to see if the decal while shift for slide at all. If not: then back into the water with it for a few more seconds. If the decal does slide: great! Note: Don’t peel the decal off the paper if you can avoid it. Peeling the decal off the paper opens it up to many opportunities to tear. Instead, slide part of it off the edge of the paper and use the tweezers to gently grab it and slide it the rest of the way off.

Next you want to place it on your nail. Just a heads up, some decals stick in place very well after you dry the water off of them, and some of them won’t stick in place well until they are top coated, both of which can pose tricky situations, so just be ‘ware. Make sure that you get the decal as close to the correct positioning as possible when you lay it down. Once it is on the nail I like to start with the pad of another finger and press it firmly into place. This will press any water between the nail and decal out and allow the decal to – hopefully – become fixed where you have it. Some decals are nice and while you have your other finger pressed on it, may allow for some gentle adjustments in placement.

Once the decal in pressed into place, use the paper towel to gentle absorb the rest of the water off your nail. Make sure you get all of it, otherwise the water will bubble under the top coat. Don’t top coat just yet though.

If part of the decal is hanging over the free edge of your nail, use your nail file and at a 45-90° angle, file the excess off. Should come away super easily. If part of the decal is hanging over the skin around the nail bed, use your Clean-Up Brush, dipped into your 100% acetone, and clean it up. Make sure that your Brush doesn’t have too much acetone on it so as to flood your cuticle. If it happens it’s not a super big deal, but it can mess up the edges of your mani and you will want to make sure to douse your cuticles in oil once your mani is all done.

Once the edges are all dialed in, now you can sweep your Mani with a Quick Dry Top Coat. And off you go! And make sure to be proud of that mani. You just did that yourself, and I bet it looks awesome!


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