The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of hand instrumentation using traditional stainless steel K-files and nickel-titanium K-files on the final shape of curved root canals. A total of 24 moderately curved canals in the mesial roots in extracted human mandibular first molars were randomly divided into two groups. These were instrumented manually using either stainless steel or nickel-titanium, K-files with the stepdown technique. The cross-sectional shape of each canal at three different horizontal levels were captured, before and after instrumentation, into a computer for comparison using image analyser software. Three parameters at each level were evaluated: (i) amount of dentine removed; (ii) least remaining dentine thicknesses on mesial and furcal aspects; and (iii) the amount and direction of canal transportation. The results showed that the two file types removed similar amounts of dentine at all three levels examined. The nickel-titanium files left a thicker layer of dentine on both the mesial and furcal aspects than stainless steel files. However, the difference was not significant (pooled T-test, P > 0.05). Both types of files transported the centre of the canals but the nickel-titanium instrument seemed to be safer because of the reduced amount of transportation towards the danger areas.