All About Brushes: How to Paint the Town the Right Way

Associated Expert

Brushes With Destiny:


Pig or Polyester? Choosing the Right Brush for your Paint Project

Whether it's a modest touch-up of the guest bathroom or a complete redo of your cathedral-ceiling living room, the right tool for your next paint job can go a long way in determining the end result. You may say, "It's a brush, how hard can it be?" The answer lies in this simple analogy: the difference between an adorable finger-painted masterpiece and an exquisite watercolor of your favorite scene. Given all factors being equal (skill, age, paint)--the tool--makes all the difference in the world. And while we love finger paints, sometimes the job calls for a more precise application.

The simplest and most critical difference among brushes is the type of material used for the bristles: synthetic or natural hair. A brush is made of three parts: the handle, the bristle and the ferrule (we'll bet you didn't know that last one, did you? Go ahead; use it in your next Scrabble game.)

BRISTLES: Unlike your own hair, brushes with split ends are better due to the increased flexibility at the tip. Also, look for bristles that are tapered longer in the center than at the edge. Bristles should be bound with enough space and a dividing reservoir to hold paint (especially in larger brushes).

Natural Hair: Usually made from hog bristles or ox hair, these brushes have been traditionally imported from China making it common to find natural hair brushes referred to as China brushes. For oil-based paints, natural hair brushes are considered the best. They are softer and generally apply paint more evenly and smoothly. Hog bristles are stronger and stiffer than the softer ox or sable hair brushes.

Synthetic Fiber: Usually made from nylon or polyester, these brushes are used for water-based paints, as the natural brushes will absorb water and lose their shape. Some manufacturers have created multi-use brushes from a variety of filaments, which is a good option if you want a single brush for all types of paint. An assortment of brushes kept specifically for the type of paint is recommended practice.

SIZE & SHAPE: As you might expect, different sizes and shapes of brushes are also determined by the surface of what you want to paint. Choose an angled, smaller brush (1 - 1.5" width) for trim and moldings; a medium-sized 2 - 2.5" for general use (straight edge for broader surfaces, angled tip for more precise application); and a larger 4" straight edge brush for wide surfaces such as walls or decks.

FERRULE: Often nickel-plated, the ferrule is the bridge or metal clamp that binds the bristles to the handle. Look for a rust-resistant ferrule to preserve the life of your brushes.

HANDLE: Don't forget to consider what the handle is made of when selecting your brush. Most professionals prefer natural wood handles as they don't slip. Usually cheaper brush handles are made of plastic. Consider the shape and feel of the handle when choosing your brushes, as a comfortable fit is important, especially when you are on the 17th window trim!

The Bottom Line:

As with most things, paint brushes can vary widely in price. A package of assorted brushes can cost under $10 while an individual 3" brush can cost you $25. Why the difference? Not only is the material used for the bristles, handle, and ferrule important in determining the price, but the way the bristles are bound is critical to determining how your finished painted surface will look. The initial investment in a higher quality brush is often evident from a more professional result and the longer use of the brush itself.

Take our word for it: this is definitely a case where you get what you pay for. Brushes can be costly, but consider how long you may be looking that wall, window trim or door frame. Poor quality brushes usually result in shoddy paint jobs with thin spots, strands from the brush in your paint, or long streaks and ridges that allow mildew to grow.

To Brush or Not to Brush?

As we already discussed, the first determining factor in finding the best brush is to know what type of paint you will be using. If you're not sure, look into what paint sheens will work for your particular project.

The second factor is the surface you want to paint and the end result you want. Brushes will provide the most control and precision over the amount of paint and where it is applied. Rollers are a popular option when painting large surfaces such as a ceiling or entire room, however you will still need brushes on hand to accurately finish the trim, edges, and corners.

ROLLERS: You can't talk about applying paint without covering rollers. Here's a little about them:

Cover Type: As with brushes, the type of paint should factor in the material of the cover. While both synthetic and natural covers are available, choose lambs wool or a higher-priced synthetic to avoid pilling or fuzz left on your surface. Also, avoid covers with obvious seams to ensure a smoother application.

Nap Length: (No, this is not an afternoon respite; we're talking paint here!) The nap length of your roller cover should be determined by the type of surface you are painting. For smoother surfaces such as plaster, wood or metal, a shorter nap (1/8") works well. For more porous or textured surfaces (concrete or brick), use a longer nap (3/8" to 1").

CARE & STORING: Like fine wine, brushes improve with age, as long as they are taken care of! Generally, brushes will last longer if you rinse them immediately after use. As you might expect, there is a different process for cleaning brushes used with water-based paint versus a solvent-based paint. Remove as much excess paint as possible by wiping the brush on newspaper or by scraping it off with a paint mixer or another hard edge.

Water-Based Paint (usually synthetic brushes): A simple process: start with placing the brush in a bucket filled with warm water and detergent. Finish by running under a tap or hose until the water runs clear. Some water-based paints actually have additives that may require an extra rinse with mineral water to fully remove all residues. Finish with the warm water/detergent combination again and let them air dry.

Jane Tip: Some brushes are sold with a cardboard cover. Save them and place back onto the brush after cleaning. This will help extend the life of your brush and help retain its shape.

Oil-Based Paint (usually natural hair brushes): Don't use water as it can cause the bristles to become brittle and inflexible. Use 2-3" of paint thinner in a bucket to remove all traces of paint. Wrap brushes in wax paper or aluminum foil and dry by hanging them up rather than lying on their side. For extra-special care in keeping the bristles soft, use a bit of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on the bristles before storing. Just don't forget to rinse with thinner before your next use.

Jane Tip: The best way to tell when your brushes are clean (no matter what type of paint you used) is when the water runs clear while rinsing them. Use a wire brush to remove dry paint on the handle, ferrule, or bristles.

So now you know. Now you just have to select a color. Before tackling your next paint job, make sure you have the right brush whether it's made from a pig or polyester. Decide the type of paint, the surface and just how precise you want the end result to be. And finally, don't forget this is one purchase where the better quality the brush, the better quality the result.

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