Caring for Natural Bristle Brushes

Susan Hudson

Susan Hudson

I can hear my mother now telling me to invest in a good pair of shoes, or one nice dress, or a fine piece of furniture. Not me, I always put my money into the tools of my craft, my art. A good natural bristle brush is an investment as they are expensive, but worth the money.

A good brush makes your work easier, more comfortable, and produces the best results.  It is similar to your well-worn shoes, your thread bare but comfy bathrobe, or your favorite pair of jeans…you just can’t replace em.  I don’t know about you, but when my favorite pair of jeans start to fray and wear, it is then that I start to nurse them along, wash them by hand, hang them to dry, treat them better.  If only I had been kinder to them in the beginning they might have lasted a little longer. I know it is going to be difficult, at best, to replace them. This applies to your art tools as well, especially your brushes. We all have our favorite brush, whether it is one for painting trim, furniture, or fine art.  A good brush is like a best friend, you need to treat it with care from the beginning so it will last a lifetime.
Recently a customer asked me how I care for my Annie Sloan Brushes.  She had watched a video about brush care on the internet (not an Annie Sloan produced video). The woman in the video instructed her audience to soak their brushes overnight in hot soapy water and then rinse them in the morning.  I gasped; not only is that wrong, it will ruin your brushes!  If you follow this practice, one morning you will wake up to find a tub of bristles separated from the handles. Never SOAK your brushes in hot water, especially in hot soapy water, as this will soften the glue holding your bristles within the ferrule.brushes 2

Another misnomer is to put your brush in a plastic bag and freeze it between uses. NO! You can certainly bag your brush while you take a break, eat lunch, etc. but never freeze your brush as you are freezing paint into your brush. If you need to leave your project for a while simply bag the whole brush, or wrap the head of the brush in cellophane and rubber band it around the handle. You can even bag a brush over night, but not continuously, everything eventually needs a bath to be at its best.

The following steps should be used for the care of your natural bristle brushes when used with water based paint. If you follow these practices your brushes should be in your hand for a lifetime.
Caring for Natural Bristle Brushes used with Water Based Paints
1. Always wash a new brush before you use it.  I use Dawn Liquid Detergent in the shop, but you can use most any detergent that doesn’t contain bleach.  Bleach will dry out your bristles. I squeeze the detergent into my hand and then carefully mash my brush bristles into the soap. Rinse with cool water. This will help remove any loose bristles before you begin to paint.  This step will prevent those pesky hairs from ending up on your canvas, chair, or trim.  Once you have washed your brush smack it on the palm of your hand or on a table top to loosen any stray hairs.
2. When you finish painting for the day try to remove the majority of the paint from the brush onto your work before you start to clean the brush. The less paint in the brush, the easier it will be to clean.  Rinse the brush holding it by the handle with the brush end pointing down into the water stream.  Do not hold the brush head under the water with the bristles pointing up as this will push the paint down into the brush.  Pour some detergent into your hand and gently mash the bristles into the soap, working them up into the brush. Repeat this step till the water runs clear when you rinse out the soap.

3. Always condition your natural bristle brushes after washing. Once my brush has been washed I squirt a small amount of inexpensive hair conditioner into my palm and work it into the brush just like I do when I condition my own hair. Rinse with cool water and shape the brush.

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 4. Hang your brushes to dry. Do not dry your brushes upside down.  If there is any residual paint in the brush it will settle down into the bristles close to the ferrule and will eventually cause the bristles to break.  I prefer to hang my brushes over the sink to dry.  You can use some wire to create “hooks” and hang the brushes off the faucet, thus allowing any water to drip into the sink.  Once dry, the brushes are returned to the brush board.  For my fine art natural bristle brushes, I wash them as I have described and lay them on a shop towel to dry. Once dry they are returned to their proper containers for storage.
Lastly, if you paint a lot you might consider investing in a brush “comb”.  You can find them in any hardware store.  This tool helps “comb” the paint out of the interior of the brush.  It should also have a half circle cut side that is used to clean paint rollers.  Just run that edge down your paint roller and you will be surprised how quickly the paint comes out.  This tool cuts my cleaning time by half.
Hope these tips help you with the care of your brushes.

Happy Painting!Susan Hudson