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How To: Clean Paint Brushes

clean paint brushes

The paint brush is a tool that is largely misunderstood by most homeowners and DIYers. We all know it’s a basic tool for applying paint and finishes, but what people miss is just how effective and long lasting a paint brush really can be if you learn how to clean paint brushes and care for them properly.

I see a lot of DIYers use a paint brush for a couple jobs and then trash it because it’s “worn out” or caked with paint from improper cleaning. Let’s be clear, waste is wasteful. Buy the right brush, learn to clean it properly and you’ll save money and be less wasteful.

As a professional painter and restoration contractor a quality paint brush is one of the key tools in my arsenal. In this post, I’ll teach you how to clean, store, and maintain your paint brush so it can last generations. That’s right, generations! If you clean paint brushes properly most folks won’t have to buy a new paint brush in their lifetime and I’ll show you the specifics below.

This post was sponsored by Purdy and I was glad to partner with a quality brush maker like them since I have been using and recommending their brushes for years before they were sponsor. When you’re ready for a high quality paint brush check them out here.

Paint Brush Anatomy

Let’s start by learning the parts of your paint brush.

  • Handle – Good for holding the brush and smacking Smart Alec’s on the job site. Keep the handle clean and you get a better grip and keep your hands clean. You want something that fits comfortably in your hand.
  • Ferrule – The ferrule is the metal casing that binds the bristles to the handle. It imperative to keep this clean on the inside. It’s hard to see, but paint gets in there and can ruin the flexibility of your brush.
  • Bristles – The workhorses of the paint brush that get the job done. There are natural bristles and synthetic bristles as well as blends. You need the right bristles for the right type of paint. For example natural bristles are better for oil-based paints and synthetic bristles are better for acrylic paints.
  • Toe – The end of the bristles is a bit different. The bristles essentially have split ends to hold more paint and give a smoother finish. If you trim this off, wear it out, or rough it up you will suffer with subpar paint results.
  • Husk (Keeper) – A lot of people throw this away, but that is a big mistake. Keep this for as long as you can because it keeps the bristles neatly arranged when stored and makes transporting your brush without damaging it much easier.
anatomy of a paint brush

The brush in the picture above is one I’ve used for years. I’m a big fan of Purdy’s XL line of brushes because of their versatility. They use a proprietary tipping and flagging process on the toe so I can cut in a very tight line as well as get a smooth finish free of brush marks.

How Often Should I Clean My Paint Brush?

The short answer is early and often. Paint dries quickly and if you don’t keep your brush wet then the paint will begin drying in the bristles. Keeping the paint only in the bottom half of the bristles (closest to the toe) will keep the paint from being carried up into the ferrule and drying there.

If you’re painting in one color for hours then you don’t need to clean your brush as thoroughly as you would when you are switching paints or colors, but a quick rinse and wipe off will keep the bristles moistened enough to prevent dried paint in your bristles.

Here’s a few tips to keep that brush going strong

  • Clean paint brushes more often in hot weather or direct sunlight
  • Prep your brush before painting by moistening it lightly with water for acrylic paints or mineral spirits for oil-based paints
  • Keep a cup of water nearby for quick rinses during painting then squeeze the brush dry in a rag
  • Wrap your paint brush in a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator if you don’t have time to clean it immediately
  • Don’t leave a brush with paint on it unattended for more than a couple minutes, clean it first

How To Clean Acrylic Paint Brushes

Most people today are working with acrylic paints which makes cleaning much simpler than oils. The process is much the same as with cleaning oil paint brushes but you get to use water which is cheaper and easier to dispose of than mineral spirits.

When cleaning acrylics paint brushes you can also use simple dish soap as a part of the cleaning process.

  1. Remove Excess Paint – Squeeze the excess paint out of your brush on the edge of the paint can to clean out and save as much paint as possible by scraping it on the side of the pail or can.
  2. Rinse With Water – Run your brush under water moving the bristles all around until the water runs clear from the brush.
  3. Clean the Ferrule – After the bristles are clean hold the brush upside down so the water runs deeply into the ferrule to clean out any paint that has seeped into it. Also run the water until there is only clean water coming out.
  4. Scrub With Soap – Holding a couple pumps of dish soap in your hand, scrub the toe and the bristles clean with the soap and rinse with water until they are completely clean.
  5. Dry the Brush – Spin or shake the brush until the majority of the water is out and then gently dry it with a cotton rag or paper towel. You can use a brush comb to straighten any bristles too.
  6. Holster Your Brush – Make sure the bristles are aligned the way they should be and put it back in the husk so it dries the right shape and is protected.

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes

Sometimes you’ll still need to use oil-based paints or finishes and those finishes require a different cleaning process. I prefer to keep my oil brushes for oil and my water-based acrylic brushes for acrylic. There are brushes that can be used for both types of paints like Purdy’s XL Nylon/Polyester brushes or brushes specifically for oil-based paint and stains like a China Bristle brush.

Never try to clean oil-based paints, primers, or finishes with water! This is a great way to ruin a brush and make one heck of a mess. Always use the right solvent for the right paint. Check the can or ask the paint store what solvent you should use if you are unsure.

You can use either mineral spirits or paint thinner to clean oil brushes safely. Mineral spirits are more refined than paint thinner and slightly more expensive, but both do the job equally well. You can also find “Odorless” mineral spirits which are certainly nice to keep the fumes down, but you’ll pay a couple bucks more.

When the spirits are truly past their useful life you need to dispose of them properly at a hazardous waste site. Do not pour them down the drain or in the backyard.

  1. Remove Excess Paint – Squeeze the excess paint out of your brush on the edge of the paint can to clean out and save as much paint as possible by scraping it on the side of the pail or can.
  2. Rinse With Spirits – Pour some mineral spirits, paint thinner or other oil -based brush cleaner into a small container and work the brush into the cleaner for a minute or so. You want the cleaner to get up into the ferrule as well as the bristles to ensure everything gets clean.
  3. Repeat With Spirits – Pour the used spirits into a metal bucket and repeat Step 2 above with another batch of clean spirits. You will likely have to do this at least three or four times until the spirits are clear after the brush has been worked into them. If the spirits are running clear (not cloudy or kinda clear, but CLEAR) then the brush is clean and you’re finished cleaning.
  4. Dry the BrushOnly do this in a well ventilated area away from heat or flame because mineral spirits are flammable and have strong odors. Spin or shake the brush until the majority of the spirits are out and then gently dry it with a cotton rag or paper towel.
  5. Holster Your Brush – Make sure the bristles are aligned the way they should be and put it back in the husk so it dries the right shape and is protected.

How To Store Your Paint Brush

Everything about your paint brush is on purpose. From the design of the handle to the husk or “keeper”. Some people think that the husk is like the packaging on a new toy and once they get their paint brush home they throw the husk away. This is a HUGE mistake!

Save the husk. Keep the keeper. After cleaning your brush put it back in the husk and keep it there until the next time it’s ready for use. The husk is designed to keep your paint brush protected and keep the bristles trained in the correct alignment. Without a husk your paint brush can quickly look like your hair does after a road trip in a convertible. It’s not good for dating or painting!

The other feature many people overlook is the nail hole at the top of the handle. Hanging your brush while it’s stored allows gravity to do your work for you and draw your bristles straight down. Laying your paint brush flat on a table results in lopsided bristles. Storing it upright…well, we’re back to the convertible analogy again. Put the husk on and hang it. Trust me.

For pros who need to transport their brushes all the time, Purdy does have a new Painter’s Backpack that provides some great storage opportunities not only for your brushes, but for other paint tools you need on the job.

Purdy Painter’s Backpack

Essential Paint Brush Cleaning Tools

To clean paint brushes you’ll need a couple basic items for the best results. Sure you can get relatively clean paint brushes with just your hands and a few rags, but using the right cleaning tools will always yield better results and once again extend the life of your paint brushes.

There are a ton of “miracle” tools for cleaning paint brushes and you’re welcome to give them a try but there are really only two things that I need to keep my paint brushes clean.

  • Paint Brush Comb – Get those bristles straight and clean during the rinse process and right after by using a comb. It helps release tangles, re-align the bristles, and get deep into the bristles where paint can get stuck
  • Brush Conditioner or Fabric Softener – If your brushes bristles get dried out or are splaying out then using some brush conditioner or an overnight soak in fabric softener may reinvigorate your paint brush

Ultimately this all starts with picking the right paint brush. There is no need to clean and protect a cheap brush that will give you poor results. Purdy makes high quality paint brushes that will go the distance for you and get you professional looking paint jobs for years if you care for them and follow the steps above to clean paint brushes regularly.

Go check out Purdy’s selection of paint brushes and other paint tools to help you get the job done the right way. Then it’s up to you to keep it clean.

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3 thoughts on “How To: Clean Paint Brushes

  1. Hi Scott, great advise and I agree, Purdy makes the best brushes. One thing I learned is when your brush is throughly clean, to knock the top edge of the brush (the square part of the handle) on the bottom of the front of your shoe -NOT on the toe. That will hurt a lot! You will be surprised by how much water comes out of the “dry” brush. Then shape, husk, and hang it. Great brushes deserve great care. Some of my Purdys are over 20 years old and still look like new, even with constant use.

  2. I enjoy your comments. As an artist, I have often wondered if it was toxic to rinse my acrylic brushes in the slop sink under running water. cna you comment on this.
    Paula Schiller

  3. As a pro, I applaud your good advice here. I just want to add that after cleaning my brushes every night, I let them soak overnight and clean them again in the morning. Just make sure the ferrule is above the water line.

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