Using the right brush for a painting project makes the work go easier and faster. A premium brush will even make the painted surface look better and last longer.
Quality brushes are an investment. They are not going to be found in the dollar bins at hardware stores. Depending on the size of the brush expect to pay between $10 to $25 per brush. The good news is that most painting jobs — including painting a house — usually can be done with about three brushes, and with care they can last for years.
Natural vs. Synthetic Bristles
Natural bristle brushes are for alkyd or oil-based paints. Natural bristles are not suitable for water-based latex paint because the bristles will absorb water and the brush will go limp. Common China bristle brushes are made from the hair of a Chinese longhaired swine. White China bristles are coarser than black China bristles.
Brushes with synthetic bristles are suitable for water-based latex paints or for alkyd or oil-based products. Polyester brushes stay stiff in water, humidity, and heat and stay crisp for edge work. Nylon bristles wear longer but become limp in warmer weather or after a few hours of painting. Many professional painters use a brush with a blend of nylon and polyester bristles.
- The bristles of premium brushes have split or flagged ends to hold more paint.
- The bristles in the center are slightly longer than those at the edge so the paint goes on smoothly.
- The bristles should be 50% longer than the brush is wide. (For example the bristles on a three-inch wide brush should be about four and half inches long.
- The bristles should be separated (behind the ferrule or metal band) with wood, not cardboard, spacer plugs. The wooden spacer plugs will form the channels between the bristles to hold paint on the loaded brush.
- The bristles should be held tightly with epoxy cement (not glue) to a wooden handle with a hanging hole. No bristles should come loose when the bristles are pulled.
- The bristles should feel springy, not limp or stiff, when the dry brush is pressed against your hand.
Different brushes serve different objectives. A four-inch wide, three-fourths- to one-inch thick straight edge brush is good for exterior wall work, while its three-inch straight edge counterpart is good for interior painting. A straight edge, two-inch wide brush can be used for cutting in corners or for narrow spaces. An angled (cut diagonally) sash brush about one and half inches wide is good for trim work, window frames, and moldings. The angle allows for getting into corners and around window glass.
Preparing the Brush
Before painting, dip the brush into water if it will be used with latex paint or into mineral spirits if it will be used with oil paint. Dab it dry with a clean rag. This step will help keep the paint from crusting under the ferrule. If paint should dry against or behind the ferrule, the brush will be useless for painting because the bristles will be clumped — like a club — and the reservoirs to hold paint between the bristles will be destroyed.
Position the Brush
Holding a paintbrush correctly not only reduces hand fatigue but helps to control the brush stroke and dispenses the paint smoothly. It also extends the life of the bristles.
Painters with large hands often hold all their brushes like a pencil with the ferrule between the thumb and forefinger. Those with small hands often find they can do this only with their small brushes. Large three- to four-inch wide brushes are often held with all fingers on the ferrule and the crook of the thumb around the handle and the tip of thumb on the underside of the ferrule.
The paintbrush should feel balanced. Hold it at a 45º angle to the surface. By holding it with your hand toward the base of the handle you improve control and prevent spatter. It will also help to relieve repetitive injury to your wrist.
If the handle feels uncomfortable, experi–ment by covering it with layers of duct tape or spongy pipe insulation.
Using the Brush
Don’t waste time lapping the dipped brush against the paint can rim to remove excess paint. Instead pour a few inches of paint from the original container into a clean paint can and dip the brush into the paint — dip one-third to one-half the length of the bristles into the paint. Raise it out and tap both sides of the brush against the inside of the can. Rather then having paint running off of the brush into the can rim and down the sides of the can, it flows back into the painting can. Tapping the brush also forces paint between the bristles where it is stored until the brush touches the painting surface.
In a small area no more than two by three feet, begin painting in a back and forth method, from one side of the brush to the other. Force the brush against the surface just hard enough to slightly flex the bristles. Tip off, or feather the edges of the painted area. This is done by brushing out on the final stroke with the tips of the bristles and lightly pulling the brush off the surface. By feathering off on the stroke there will not be paint build up on the next stroke. Paint from the dry area back to the previous wet stroke (area just feathered) to further avoid lap marks caused by paint build-up.
Never paint with the side of the brush because it splays the bristles and makes it difficult to maintain a clean edge.
Start cleaning the brush by swiping it back and forth across some newspaper.
For latex paint: Rinse the brush under running tepid to warm water making sure to have the water running down the handle, through the bristles. Holding the brush incorrectly with the water running from the bristles toward the handle traps any paint debris in the ferrule causing the bristles to separate. Use a wire brush or brush comb to remove any dried bits of paint. Rub a drop or two of dish soap into the bristles and rinse under running water.
If the latex paint is extremely tacky and difficult to remove, dip the brush into a solution of a quarter-cup of fabric softener to a half-gallon of warm water. Divide the mixture into two containers. Swish the brush around for a minute in the first container. The fabric softener is a wetting agent, which reduces the surface tension of the water, helping the water to dissolve the paint. Rinse the paint in the second container.
For oil paint: Select several containers with lids that are big enough to hold the dirty brush suspended in the container filled halfway with mineral spirits. Use the hole in the paint handle to tie the paintbrush to a paint stick or ruler laid across the container of solvent. Soaking the brush for five to ten minutes softens the paint and makes it easier to clean. Wearing plastic gloves, use a wire brush or brush comb to remove any dry paint particles Move to the next container of solvent and flex the bristles so the solvent reaches into the ferrule. When the solvent turns cloudy, move to the last container of solvent as a final rinse.
Be sure to mark all the solvent containers as “Poison Mineral Spirits.” The paint residue will settle to the bottom and the solvent can be poured off and used over and over. Keep the lids on tightly and store away from heat or flames.
Wipe the clean brushes on newspaper to remove excess water or solvent. Then spin them by hand or with a mechanical brush spinner. Do this over an empty bucket or trashcan to collect the spray.
Wrap the dry brushes back in their original cardboard sleeves or make a sleeve out of the paper from a double-strength grocery sack. Secure the paper with tape. Label the sleeve with the size of the brush and if it is for oil or latex. Store the brushes by hanging them by the hole drilled in their handles.
For a short break in painting, as long as overnight, don’t bother cleaning the brush; simply put the entire brush into a plastic bag, seal it, and put it in the refrigerator. Some do-it-yourselfers put their brushes in the freezer but this is a bad idea because the freeze-thaw cycle destroys the paint on the brush — in effect — and gums up the first few strokes. If the brush has a wooden handle it can crack, and if it has nylon bristles they will become brittle and break.
The worst thing you can do with a dirty paintbrush — short of tossing it into the trash — is to stand it in a container of water or mineral spirits to prevent it from drying out. Standing a brush on its bristles will distort the bristles — think of a bad hair day or a cowlick — and the brush will not be usable for painting a clean edge.
Finally, don’t think cleaning the brush is something that occurs only at the end of painting. If the brush should start to feel stiff and the bristles seem to be saturated, gummy, or unresponsive, stop and clean the brush. Professional painters will often clean their brushes every two hours to make sure they leave a smooth, not grainy, surface behind.
The well-maintained brush will lay down a thick film of paint, improving the hiding power of the paint. And because a good brush means no thick and thin spots in coverage, the painted surface should wear uniformly. With the absence of brush marks, the sheen will be uniform and the surface will not collect as much grease and grime.
Paulette Rossi is a Certified Master Recycler living in Portland, OR.