Recently, I dedicated an entire evening to my fingernails. I drove to Target to buy supplies, then headed home for a three-hour ordeal. I filed then soaked my grown-out dip-powder manicure in acetone. I waited for seven layers of nail strengthener, polish, and topcoat to dry.
Not long after, my coworker forwarded me an email about a new robot at Target that’ll paint your nails for you in 10 minutes. “I really think we should go try this … for science,” she wrote. I agreed. I booked an appointment online for a Clockwork Robot “minicure” that next Sunday.
Clockwork founders Renuka Apte and Aaron Feldstein* began exploring the idea of a robot manicure near the end of 20181. “Renuka saw that there was a pain point that she was personally struggling with,” says Mara McCune, Clockwork’s chief marketing officer. “And it was time consuming and expensive beauty services.”
She wasn’t wrong. Depending on how complicated your manicure is, it can take 30 minutes up to multiple hours to get it done at a salon. The average cost of a basic salon manicure in 2019 was $22.75. That number increases steeply for acrylic and gel polishes, not to mention nail art, hand massages, and other add-ons. That simple dip-polish manicure I’d gotten, which only involved one color, cost about $50 before tip at a local salon.
But Clockwork, which is also located in two other Fort Worth Targets, isn’t trying to compete with those types of manicures, McCune says. “We’re not comparing ourselves to a traditional manicure at a salon.”
Instead, they focus on expediency for their “minicures.” You shape, file, and prep your nails ahead of your appointment. Then they paint your nails in about 10 minutes. The service itself is cheap, too—only $10. New customers pay $8.
On the day of my appointment, I headed to the Medallion Center Target on Northwest Highway. There were already people crowded around the square black robot when I walked over. As I sat down in the chair, even more showed up. A grandmother and her young granddaughter. A teenager and her mother. Shoppers browsing the beauty aisles. “Look, she’s doing it!” they said. They asked if they could watch. I said sure. After all, this was for science.
The onsite attendant had me pick my polish. Clockwork offers 28 colors, McCune says, from brands like Essie and Salon Perfect, plus a few proprietary polishes. I chose a shimmery champagne color from OPI. Then, the attendant explained to me and the crowd how the machine worked.
It uses 3-D cameras and AI to identify your fingernail’s shape and to “safely, quickly, and accurately paint your nails,” McCune says. The robot has a hand rest with a little strap to hold whatever finger its painting still. If you wiggle or flinch, the machine stops. I stuck my thumb in first, and the machine flashed, taking photos. Then, an arm with a narrow tip came down and drew little rings of polish on my nail until it was all covered. It was mesmerizing to watch. When the machine was done with my first hand, one woman from the crowd inspected my fingers. “It looks good,” she said.
From start to finish, my appointment took about 15 minutes—I bumped my hand and had to redo a couple of nails. Plus, the attendant did touchups on my nails to even out coverage. They didn’t have a nail drying machine, common at most salons, but she added a quick-dry serum on the paint. The attendant told me it would take about 10 minutes for the paint to dry but wait about 15 minutes to put my hands in pockets.
While my nails did dry after 15 minutes, I found it took even longer for them to completely harden. The 100-degree heat outside didn’t help. They got scratched within an hour, as I ran other errands, but I was able to cover it up by molding the still-somewhat tacky polish over it. McCune recommends adding a topcoat when you get home, which I did. The machine’s manicure “can last anywhere from four to seven days, just as a regular polish would,” she says. I took my polish off after a week, when it started to chip.
Overall, I enjoyed my
science experiment experience. The robot was novel and a fun summer activity. I can see parents taking their tweens here to get their nails done—right now, you must be at least 13 to participate—instead of an expensive salon.
It’s a great resource if you need your nails painted quickly before an event—just be sure to book online ahead of time. I don’t see it replacing my love for dip-powder manicures anytime soon. It’s not the best manicure I’ve ever received in my life, but it looked nice, and it really was fast.
Ten minutes versus my three-hour ordeal at home? That’s hard to beat.
*A previous version of the story misidentified one of the founders. This has been corrected.