Brush Up on Brush Care

A little extra time keeps your brush in perfect shape and protects your investment.

From chisels to tablesaws, it pays to buy quality tools. The same can be said for brushes. Sure, a cheap finish applicator might get the job done, but you’ll need a top-notch brush to achieve a high-end finish.

Better paint brushes can cost upwards of $30, and to protect that investment, you need to properly clean and care for them. We talked with professional finishers and painters, who typically use their brushes for several years, to uncover their secrets for making them last.

Match the brush to the finish

As a general rule, use a natural-bristle brush for oil-base varnishes and stains, and save synthetic-bristle brushes for water-base finishes or latex. Why? The solvents in oil-base finishes can soften synthetic bristles; natural bristles absorb water if used with latex finishes. 

For varnish, our pros prefer oxhair over china (boar) bristles because the finer, softer oxhair makes it easier to flow out the thinner finish. Likewise, our experts prefer nylon bristles over stiffer polyester for applying water-base polyurethane. They also dedicate each brush to a particular finish. This helps avoid cross-contamination and gives consistent results from one job to the next.

Bring on the clean

Whether cleaning a natural or synthetic brush, follow a similar process. Use mineral spirits for cleaning natural brushes, and warm water and soap for synthetics.

First, brush out as much excess finish as possible on a flat surface. Pour an inch or so of solvent into a clean container and dip the brush in it. Tip the brush bristle-end up and work the solvent down into the bristles toward the metal ferrule [Photo below]. Repeat this sequence 10 times, occasionally using a brush comb [Opening photo, photo above] to help separate the bristles and work solvent through the entire brush.

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Use multiple rinses with clean mineral spirits to remove all traces of finish, separating the bristles as you go. Take care to keep from bending or breaking bristles—just let the mineral spirits soak the finish out of the brush.

Dump the dirty solvent, pour in some new, and repeat the above sequence. Dump the solvent and repeat the cleaning a third time. Thoroughly rinse a synthentic brush with water to remove any remaining soap suds. To remove excess solvent, hold the brush down inside a receptacle and spin it [Photos below]. 

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Spinning the brush between your hands uses centrifugal force to fling the solvent out. Confine a natural-bristle brush inside a trash can or other bin. Excess water from a synthetic brush can go down the drain in a sink.

Use the brush comb to realign and smooth the bristles into shape. Return the brush to its original package or wrap the bristles in craft paper until your next finishing job [Photo below].

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Storing the brush in its original package protects the bristles and helps them retain their proper shape.

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