Adventures of Designing a Universal Toenail Clipper

Written by: Rebecca Helbraun. Posted: June 26, 2017. 


Recent Ithaca College Occupational Therapy Student Rebecca Helbraun discovers the challenge that toenail cutting poses for older adults; does some research; and invents, designs, and prototypes a new solution. She shares her journey here.



"Simple" Problems Can be Very Important

Throughout my life, it has been my intention to do good, offer help, and be a resource for whoever needs. Because of my inner drive and experiences growing up, my life has lead me to the field of Occupational Therapy (OT). OT is a profession in which therapists aim to enable clients to participate in meaningful ‘occupations’ or activities of daily living.

Based on my studies to become an OT, I have come to understand many problems that exist in the world due to consequences of natural aging, as well as health conditions including disease, disability, and other illness or disorder. As individuals age, they may have problems that are as complex as pursuing independent transportation when they are unable to safely drive independently, or determining ways they can speak to others, when they are unable to produce autonomous speech.

Through my personal interactions and continued studies, I discovered that while many human problems seem simple, they actually pose complex dilemmas for individuals who try to solve them. Furthermore, society often forgets about these problems that seem ‘inherently simple,’ resulting in drastic challenges for individuals who can’t get past them to achieve their daily tasks.


Reaching & Cutting Toenails: It's a Real Problem

One class challenged me to think critically about these human problems, in hopes of provoking us students to find ways solve them.

As I thought about these issues, I became aware of one particular problem that many individuals have. This is the inability to reach and cut one’s toenails independently. Many believe that simple daily tasks such as cutting toenails are not a big deal. Yet, while this task may seem to be a small dilemma, it poses a big problem for much of the world population including older adults, individuals with arthritis, pregnant women, and those who are obese.

Thus, cutting toenails is a bigger issue than one may imagine. First, overgrown toenails can be detrimental to one’s health. Additionally, one of the most frequent causes of older adult falls is secondary to overgrown toenails. Further, overgrown toenails can cause irritation to the feet and can result in toenails falling off. These conditions can cause infection, and in drastic cases, amputation of the toe, foot, or leg.

It is especially important to acknowledge the occurrence of this problem in the United States because, as a country, our culture values people who are independent. As a result, many individuals choose not to ask for help with these everyday tasks because they are too embarrassed, or feel that they are a burden to others.

It is necessary to recognize that as the Baby Boomer Generation grows, the number of people unable to cut their toenails will continue to increase.

It is true that if these older adults wish to receive professional assistance for self-care tasks such as this, they must pay for visits to professional podiatrists. In drastic cases, older adults may need to be relocated to nursing homes due to falls or foot infections, to receive daily, and skilled individualized care.

Therefore, solving this problem is essential to give individuals a new sense of independence, while preventing injury and decline.


The Toenail Clipper Design Project

My universal toenail clipper project began as a class group design project.

As we students put our brains together, we aimed to come up with the best solution to this large problem. We began by searching for solutions that already existed. We also considered user information, such as those presented on the Tech-enhanced website, courtesy of the Longevity Explorers.

After searching online, through a plethora of sources, our group found the few products that were on the market. Each of these products were fairly similar in that they all had toenail clippers on long metal structures to reach the toenails. Several of them had magnifiers attached to see the foot at a greater distance. Additionally, many of the clippers had hand squeezing mechanisms, allowing for an individual hand squeeze on the top part of the metal structure, resulting in a clip at the bottom.

Our group, as well as the users, found several flaws with these types of models.

We knew that there could be a better way to create a clipping mechanism, to reduce any strains on the internal muscles of the hand. Additionally, we believed that there could be improvements made to increase the precision of the toenail clipper.

All the current models we found were on a long stick, yet had no way to be secured to ensure that there would not be a safety hazard of cutting the skin near the toenails. Thus, these existing options seemed to have a commonality in that they had problematic mechanisms to cut the toenail and had a sense of instability when following through and cutting the toenail.


Prototype Design # 1

To combat these shortfalls, my group sought out ways to better secure the toenail clipper, thereby increasing precision.

We also tried to find new and easier ways to mechanically cut the toenails. In order to find the most efficient way to do this, we sought advice from physics experts at our college and at the local maker space. This interdisciplinary group, put all minds together to come up with the best design. The result was successful in solving the main problem, by making the clip mechanically simpler.

The first prototype: Prototype I, had the toenail clipper placed on a long wooden pole that reached down to the foot, which was connected to a foot plate.

The foot plate was an angular attachment that allowed for a locking mechanism for the toenail clipper, and an easier way to execute the cutting mechanism. The clipping worked in a way that once the clipper was locked in place, a user would simply use their large arm muscle to bring the wooden pole towards their body in a downward motion, thereby achieving a successful toenail cut. The locking mechanism that allowed the cutter to attach to the foot plate provided an increased sense of precision, allowing the user to be sure they cut their toenail and not their skin.

Attaching a magnifier to the device added to a successful outcome, by allowing the user to have a closer view of their foot when cutting their toenails.


Universal Toenail Cutter Prototype #1
Universal Toenail Clipper Prototype #1

This two component design of the toenail clipper was a great solution for us. Yet, after initial testing we found that this prototype still had flaws.

Prototype I proved difficult to use. The clipper part of the device did not quite reach up to the tip of the toenail and therefore could not necessarily achieve the cutting mechanism it was intended to do. Further, the prototype was bulky, heavy, and inconvenient. It was a product that was made as a school project, that ended up being rushed to finish.

So, while this product was a great idea, it needed more work in order to achieve its goal.


Prototype Design # 2


Toenail cutter prototype 2 view a
Prototype #2 without the magnifer


Despite the group assignment ending, I still believed that the product had great potential to help individuals with this ongoing human problem. I did not want to leave this project with a prototype that was not fully successful, and believed there was a way to create an even better prototype. As a result, I began my own adventure to create Prototype II.

I worked with other helpers from the local maker space who I knew could assist me with the product. The Ithaca Generator was a huge help for me.

This creative team showed me how to create something out of nothing using a toenail clipper, PVC, wood, and nails. With the help of my new friends, I learned how to create a prototype the way I wanted and believed it needed to be. I went back to the drawing board, listed pros and cons, and eventually printed, glued, and screwed my product together.

After completing the second version, I was overjoyed when I saw that it was successful. This new version was much smaller and more convenient for the potential user. It was the shape I wanted it to be and was much lighter than the previous version.

Prototype II also adjusted for the height differences of toenails on each toe.

Another benefit to this version was that the toenail clipper was removable from the PVC pole, allowing it to be less bulky than Prototype I.

This product still had a magnifier, however it was disconnected from the main foot plate, allowing both items to have increased mobility and making sure it would not get in the way of an individual’s leg when they were clipping their toenails.

This was a product I was proud of. Prototype II was usable, light, and well made, especially for a novice such as myself.

Toenail cutter prototype 2 view b
Prototype #2: The Magnifer portion


Prototype Design #3

I am still looking to make Prototype III in the future.

While I am pleased with the current version, I believe that further action can be taken to make the product even better and more user friendly.

Still, I believe that this is a unique product that can potentially go to market to help individuals with this need. I would love to create change through this product, allowing individuals to have increased independence to cut their toenails without needing the assistance of others.

I believe that someday, this product can be on the market to help people and change lives, providing independence for those who cannot perform this essential, sometimes overlooked occupation.



Would You Like To Help Rebecca?

When thinking about this product’s next step, I am interested in some assistance.

In order to make this product truly successful, I require those experienced with funding and marketing to help this universal toenail cutter become a reality. I believe that with collaboration, this product can be out on the market and make its way to individual’s homes, thereby creating independence for those who are in need.

To contact Rebecca, use this contact form and mention you are reaching out to Rebecca.







Reader Comments: "Adventures of Designing a Universal Toenail Clipper"


from Judy Winn-Bell (unverified) at July 05, 2017

I'd love to try out Prototype II--it's hard to make helpful comments without trying what you've done so far. Having said that, though, two considerations come to mind: elders' toenails often thicken, and not to the same degree on each toe. Also, the toes tend to curl more, which means they may need to be approached from different angles--at a time when knees and hips don't necessarily bend as they used to.


from beccahelbraun (member) at July 18, 2017

Hello Judy, 

Thank you for your response! I have thought about the thickness of older adults toenails and as a result, have been using a toenail clipper from a brand that has extra sharp clippers. I also tried to find wider clippers to use, however I was unable to find this on the internet. If I were to go further with this, I may try to engineer my own clippers to solve this problem. The current prototype does also address clipping the toenails at different angles. As the clippers are on a track, the clipper itself can stay stationary, however tilt from side to side, addressing nearly all angles needed. Further, I created a wooden piece to go beneath the clippers, near the track, in order to address heights of different toenails. Thus, by moving the clippers along the track, it can address heights in addition to angles with success. Let me know if you have any other comments or suggestions! 


from Anne Eichenberger (unverified) at July 05, 2017

You proabably know this but those on medicare can have their toenails clipped at no cost to them. Podiatrists can employ lower paid employees to do this task. A couple of my clients have this done in their homes. Thus you might want to find out, if possible, how much Medicare pays for this service. I perceive that you will need an expert in Medicare data to see if that data exists.
As a product developer myself, I alway think about the question of who's turf will my product/service threaten or usurp. This brings up the question about whether these services are a major source of revenue for some podiatrists. I would imagine that some podiatrists make calls on nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Also there was a recent article in the New York Times or Washington Post about the American Dental Association's extreme opposition to dental therapists, persons with a lower level of training that would allow these new type of dental providers to clean teeth. Given that I am no longer in Government Affairs for a major trade association, I can't tell you how strong the podiatrist's association is.
My comments may seem way off the path of what you are trying to achieve, but I perceive they are worth investitgating.
Also, I perceive that it would be very easy for a company to copy your product with only minor variations. You would have little or no protection against anyone doing this. But I am sure you have considered this aspect of your product.
none-the-less, your idea is fabulous. I believe it would save Medicare funds.
I suggest that you do a few telephone or one-one interviews with practicing podiatrist if you have not done so already.


from beccahelbraun (member) at July 18, 2017

Dear Anne,

Thank you so much for your comments! You make an interesting point regarding saving money specifically in terms of Medicare. When pursuing this project, I had solely thought in terms of the client perspective, and not in terms of any providers. However, it is interesting to think that podiatrists may want to sell this product in order to save funding for themselves. In addition to this, it can grant clients independence and save them time and possibly money in the long run. 

Thank you for your help and suggestions. These give me some new perspective to this issue.

Rebecca Helbraun 


from Rick  (unverified) at July 11, 2017

I really appreciate this effort and your design results.
I offer a combined request suggestion on version 2, and then a question for version 3.
For version 2, can you enlist the help of someone who can give us a step by step design template for building them, until they come onto the market? This would include materials, and step-by-step construction. Many of us are (still) quite handy with tools, and I'd love to build one to use myself.
For version 3 ... what are the problems that you encounter with version 2? If we know those problems, perhaps we can add our suggestions to help with the next design step.
Again, thanks for this great project.


from beccahelbraun (member) at July 18, 2017

Hello Rick,

Thank you for reading my article! Providing a design template is an interesting idea. I can consider this for the future, however I have not determined exactly what my next step will be if I did want to manufacture this product. For Prototype III, I hope to work out kinks that exist and make the product even more polished. I also have some ideas to add additional components to the current design, possibly including lights, a mirror, or even a sock donner. I will consider creating a design template and will get back in touch with you if I choose to go down that path. Thank you for your great suggestions!



from Andrea Schwartz (unverified) at August 28, 2018

Rebecca, I'm a geriatrician in Boston and just came across your great idea for toenails! Check out a piece I wrote with a colleague on the topic -

Toenails as the “Hemoglobin A1c” of Functional Independence—Beyond the Polished Wingtips
Published in
JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2018
DOI 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.0099
Pubmed ID
Ariela R. Orkaby, Andrea Wershof Schwartz

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