Choosing The Right Brush For Your Painting Project

Jeremy Holderness

When buying supplies for a house painting project, most people will grab whichever paint brush is on sale because it's hard to justify spending upwards of $20 on one if you don't understand the difference between them.

Is it worth paying a premium for a top-shelf brush?  I believe it is.  A good brush can make a real difference by giving you a better quality finish and even cutting down on the amount of effort it will take you to finish the job.

In this week's article I'll explain why, and try to make sense of the ridiculously large selection you'll be faced with when you go to purchase one.



Two Basic Types of Bristles

Generally speaking, there are two types of bristles that brushes are made of:  natural and synthetic. 

Natural Bristle

You will usually see these labeled as 'China Bristle' brushes on the shelf because they're made from Chinese hog hair.  You'll also find them in two varieties -- white china bristle & black china bristle.

Black china bristle brushes are used for oil-based paints, stains, and some varnishes. White china bristle brushes typically produce a smoother finish so they're suitable not just for oil-based paint, stain, and varnish, but also for polyurethane, lacquer, and shellac.

You may also run across an ox-hair brush as well.  Although not nearly as common as China bristle, the bristles are softer and thinner.

Natural bristle brushes are not generally recommended for water-based coatings because the bristles absorb water, become limp and lose their shape.

Synthetic Bristle

Synthetic bristle brushes are the preferred brush for water-based paints, though some are also rated for use with oil-based paints. The solvents used in some oil-based products will attack synthetic bristles, causing them to warp, curl, or dissolve and break apart into your paint finish. The most widely-used synthetic bristle brushes are made from either a nylon/polyester blend or Dupont™️ Chinex®️.

Chinex® is a modified nylon bristle developed by the Dupont company and used by many brush manufacturers as an alternative to natural bristle brushes for oil-based and latex paint.  It has similar performance to China bristle but cleans-up faster and easier, has longer brush-life, and holds it's shape and stiffness better.

Nylon/poly blend bristles are also great for applying water-based paint.  Higher-quality synthetic brushes have either sanded tips designed to cut an extremely sharp paint line, or have split (also called "flagged") tips that hold more paint.  

The benefit of buying a brush that holds more paint is that it will increase your productivity and cut down on the amount of times you have to dip into your bucket.

Pay Attention To The Ferrule & The Handle

The ferrule is the metal band that holds the bristles to the handle.  Quality brushes have ferrules that are made of stainless or brass-plated steel so they won't rust, and are usually screwed or riveted on to the brush rather than simply slipped-on and glued in place.

Good brushes will typically have a wood handle rather than one made of plastic.

Select The Size & Shape To Match Your Project

Brushes come in sizes ranging from 1-1/2", 2", 2-1/2", 3", up-to 4" widths.  Although you can also find artist brushes for very small areas, or large deck & fence brushes for the big jobs.

You've probably noticed that some brush bristles are flat across the end while others are angled.  Angled brushes are easier to use to get into tighter areas like corners or where walls meet ceilings on an interior painting project.  While flat brushes are often preferred when applying paint over a larger area like when you're painting the siding on your house.

If you're wondering about the variety of shapes and sizes of handles that are available, it's really a matter of personal preference.  When you're at the store feel free to pick them all up and see how they feel in your hand.

Proper Cleaning & Care

I've known painters who've had brushes that they use every day, and have had them in service for many years.  The key to a long brush life is in the cleaning and care of it.

First of all, when you're using your brush to apply paint, the closer you can keep the paint concentrated in the lower third of the bristles the easier it will be to clean.  If you fill the entire length of the bristles and get paint into the ferrule it will become very difficult to maintain.  Be sure to not let the paint dry in the bristles.  If you're going to be taking a break for lunch, wrap the brush tightly in plastic to keep it from drying out.  When you're breaking at the end of the day you need to clean it.

When it's time to clean the brush, you'll need to use whichever solvent is required for the type of paint that you're applying.  For oil-based paint you will use paint thinner or mineral spirits to clean the bristles, and for latex paint you'll use water with a pumice-based cleaner (like Lava, Fast Orange, etc.) or any other kind of liquid soap if you don't have it.

Using the solvent, work a brush comb through the bristles until all of the paint has been removed. Give the brush a final rinse or two in some clean solvent until all of the residual paint is completely gone.

Use a brush spinner to remove all of the excess liquid solvent from the bristles.  Place the newly-cleaned brush either back into the cardboard sleeve that it came in or wrap it in craft paper & secure it with a rubber band.  This will maintain the proper shape of the bristles as the brush dries.  Store the brush by hanging it up on a hook by the hole in it's handle.

Who Makes The Best Brush?

There are several trusted manufacturers of good quality brushes.  It's hard to go wrong with a Wooster, Purdy, or Corona product.  But even they make "cheap" brushes to meet the needs of folks who are just not willing to shell out the cash for a good model.  So, a good rule of thumb is that quality brushes will usually start at around $15 and go up from there.

I realize that you can save yourself ten bucks by buying a throw-away, but the trade-off is that you'll also have a lower quality finish with unsightly brush marks.  And to me that's just not worth the savings.

If you're located in the Tampa, Florida area and would like some assistance with your house painting project please give us a call at 813-570-8800, visit our 'Contact Us' page, or click on the button below to have us contact you.

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photo by:  Sweet Tea / CC BY 3.0

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