Emery boards are flexible strips coated in emery, an extremely hard ground mineral. Essentially, they are like sandpaper for the body, and they are most commonly used to shape and trim nails. Most drugstores and beauty supplies carry emery boards, as do salons, and they can be very useful tools to have around the house.
The base material for an emery board is often cardboard, although other materials may be used. The primary advantage to the flexibility is that the emery board can be bent and used in a variety of ways, unlike a metal or glass skin and nail file, which remains rigid. The disadvantage, of course, is that emery boards will eventually break down and require replacement.
In addition to being used on the nails, emery boards can also be used to file down calluses. Learning to use an emery board is quite easy; the trick is to use very light, even strokes, and to run the emery board in a consistent direction across the nail or callus. Because emery is so hard, it typically takes only a few strokes to smooth and shape a nail, or to file down a callus, so it's a good idea to check after every few strokes to see how things look.
For people who perform manicures and pedicures professionally, emery boards are very useful tools. Although they can be reused at home, they are inexpensive enough to be essentially disposable at salons, allowing stylists to use a fresh emery board on each client to reduce the risk of passing on diseases and infections. These boards may be used both before and after a manicure or pedicure session, to roughly shape the nail and file down calluses and then to add a finishing touch.
In addition to being useful for hand and foot care, emery boards also have other uses around the house. They can be very useful for removing stains from certain leather goods, especially suede, when used gently, and if you don't have sandpaper handy, an emery board can file down a sharp corner in a pinch. At home, emery boards can last quite a while, until the emery starts to crumble off or the board becomes bent so much that it is not usable.