More than just a clump of furry fibers, matching the brush to the finish can make your project shine.

When choosing a brush to apply a finish to your project, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the choices. Diane Shattuck, a professional finisher with decades of experience, provides these tips to help you choose the right brush. Turn the page to find out what characteristics to look for in a brush to lay down the best finish your project deserves.

It's all about the bristles

The bristles work by wicking up the finish when dipped into the container. Use brushes with finer bristles for applying thin-viscosity finishes to facilitate the wicking action. Diane recommends dipping the brush no more than 14 " into the finish to keep the finish from wicking up into the ferrule (the metal band that binds the bristles to the handle), making the brush difficult to clean. As you move the brush across the project, the brush should release a nice, even film. Different types of finishes require different types of bristles [Photos A–D, Sources].

Natural A.jpg
Natural bristles, as the name suggests, use hair from animals such as hogs, oxen, badgers, and others. Natural-bristle brushes work best with oil-based finishes and shellac. Their fine bristles hold more finish to lay down a smoother film.
Natural B.jpg
Synthetic bristles are usually made from polyester, nylon, or a combination of both. Synthetic brushes work best with waterborne finishes that cause natural bristles to lose their stiffness.
Hybred C.jpg
Hybrid brushes incorporate both synthetic and natural bristles to bring the best features of each bristle type. Follow the manufacturer's recommendation on the finish type. This brush features an angled handle for comfort.
Foam D.jpg
Foam brushes come in varying degrees of quality. The better ones (left) have denser foam and a high-quality glue securing the foam to the stiffener. A good foam brush will stand up to either oil-based or waterborne finishes.
Chisel Brush.jpg
Brushes trimmed to a chisel shape at the tip provide a smoother flow of finish from the brush.
Anatomy of bristle.jpg

Invest in quality

Look for these three bristle characteristics in a good brush: a chisel shape for better flow of finish, tapered profile to hold more finish, and flagged tips for a smoother brush stroke. These result in a more even finish.

When shopping for a brush, consider it an investment. Better brushes cost more but pay off with better results and less frustration. A good-quality brush, well-cared for, should last for years.