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December 9, 2007

Experts' Expert: How to clean and preserve your paintbrushes


There was a lot of useful information in Tim Carter's August 18, 2007 Washington Post "Ask the Builder" column about the secret to keeping your paintbrushes looking like new, even after over 100 uses.

Here's the Q&A.

    Wetting, Washing and a Quick Wrist: The Tricks to Preserving Paintbrushes

    Q. I am having trouble cleaning paintbrushes. My high-quality brushes are stiff halfway up from the tips, even though I have been using latex paint and washing the brushes with warm water immediately after each use. I have tried using products that claim they will restore paintbrushes, but they haven't worked. In fact, they seem to harm the brushes. How do you clean paintbrushes so they last for years? Is it possible, or should I just buy disposable paintbrushes and throw them away after each job?

    A. The expensive brushes are being ruined because you are not cleaning them properly. It took me a few years of experimentation to figure out a good way to clean paintbrushes, whether they're synthetic fiber for latex paint or natural fiber for oil paints. I have a few paintbrushes I have used more than 100 times. They look like new, and the bristles have no paint where they connect to the brush body.

    As for the brush-revival products, you couldn't pay me to use them. The skull and crossbones on the labels of many of these products tells me they are highly toxic. Examine the labels, and you will often see chemicals such as acetone, methanol, methylene chloride, toluene and xylene. Some of these are dangerous and can cause serious and permanent health issues. It is easier and safer to learn how to care for your paintbrushes rather than try bringing them back from the dead.

    The process of cleaning a paintbrush starts at the beginning of the paint day. All too often, I see people take a new brush or a dry one and dip it in the paint. This is a mistake. On hot, dry days, the paint on the outside of the brushes up near the handle can harden within an hour or two.

    You can prevent, or slow, the hardening of the paint by wetting the brush before you start to use it. Use water when applying latex or water-based paint. If you are using oil paint, dip the brush in paint thinner before getting paint on the brush. Be sure to lightly shake out any excess water or paint thinner before dipping the brush into the paint for the first time.

    If you take breaks during painting, you need to get the brush out of the sun. It should be wrapped with a damp rag if you are using latex paint. The rag stops the evaporation of water and other chemicals from the paint. It keeps the paint that is on and in the brush fresh. Use a rag soaked in paint thinner if you are applying oil-based paint.

    If I am painting outdoors, I will clean my brush if I stop to eat lunch. It takes only two minutes to clean a brush.

    I have seen people ruin a new paintbrush the first time they clean it. They turn on the sink faucet and then turn the brush upside down to get the water stream to shoot straight into the tips of the bristles.

    Never do this. Another bad idea is pushing down on the bristles and bending them at a 90-degree angle to squeeze out the paint. This stresses the bristles and causes premature bristle failure.

    Through trial and error, I discovered that the best way to clean latex or water-based paint out of brushes is to rinse as much of it out as I can with warm water flowing over the outside of the bristles. The next step is to take an old paint can that has been cleaned of all paint and fill it halfway with warm, soapy water. Two tablespoons of liquid dish soap works well in a half-gallon of water.

    Dip the brush into the soapy water and rapidly move it back and forth, making sure the bristles do not touch the bottom of the can. Be careful, as vigorous movement can splash some of the soapy, paint-saturated water onto your clothes or in your face. Twenty seconds of back-and-forth motion will remove 95 percent of the paint from the brush.

    Refill the can halfway with clear warm water and repeat the process. If the water turns slightly cloudy, it means you still have more paint in the brush.

    Continue the fresh-water rinsing until the water remains clear. If there is hardened paint on the handle or tops of the bristles near the handle, use a stiff nylon brush to clean it off. Scrub the bristles gently at a 90-degree angle.

December 9, 2007 at 10:31 AM | Permalink


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Kudos to the individual recognizing the fact that tossing brushes is not a environmentally good decision. 15 minutes is a rather lengthy estimate but even at 15 minutes it's a small price to pay. Also think of this...unless you live IN a paint supply store you are going to drive 15 minutes to pick up a new brush when your wife wants to touch up a few scuff marks from wear an tear. Of course this takes in consideration a scenario where you have the paint which is pretty common for small jobs and touch ups. Not the best argument in my mind even if you are Bill Gates. Time is time folks and the act of cleaning out a brush uses no gas and is less stressful than driving, parking, shopping, waiting in line, paying, driving...
Thanks for the tips. I'm going to begin spending a little more time for better results and suspect now it may take me 10-15 minutes. Time well spent.

Posted by: Jeff | Jun 4, 2008 10:19:20 AM

I've been doing a lot of painting recently and the gloss paint, though oil-based, said "Wash it hot water and detergent". It worked, too - sort of - just not well enough to /actually/ get the brushes clean. I imagine it allows them to gain some sort of brownie points for ecofriendliess, when actually using loads of hot water and detergent and then giving up and using white spirit can't be considered wonderful.

If I could have found waterbased gloss in the colour my daughter chose I've have done so.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Dec 10, 2007 6:42:21 PM

A really good paint brush is a thing of beauty. Since I use them constantly, great big ones and little fine art ones, the only thing I could add would be to preserve the shape of the brush. If the brush came with a little snap-on cover (usually cardboard or heavy paper), save that and after the brush has been cleaned and thoroughly dried (extremely important), put it back in the cover and store the brush hanging, bristles down, handle up. The way you paint will also affect the shape of the brush, and some brushes get so misshapen that nothing much will resurrect them, and that can make accurate painting very difficult.

Posted by: Flautist | Dec 9, 2007 11:29:39 AM

Let's see...

Time to properly clean the brush: 15 minutes
Value of my time: $150/hour
Cost of cleaning an $8.00 brush: $37.50

I know it's not very environmentally responsible, but i just toss the things when I'm done. Even more insane is trying to clean $2.00 rollers.

Posted by: Al Christensen | Dec 9, 2007 10:54:30 AM

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