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How To: Clean Paint Brushes

Learning how to clean paint brushes is first thing every experienced painter learns. They know how important it is to have a clean and well cared for paint brush since that leads to better paint jobs in the end.

It may sound surprising to many homeowners, but a good paint brush can last decades. Sure there are disposable brushes like chip brushes but those should largely be used for cleaning not attaining a nice finish paint.

Start by picking the right paint brush and follow the steps below to keep it clean and you’ll be well on your way. As a bonus there is a video and some steps for bringing a paint brush back from the dead if it has turned into a brick of hardened paint at the end of this post. There is hope!

Anatomy of a Paint Brush

The first thing you need to learn is the anatomy of a paint brush so you know what and how to keep things clean. It’s nothing complicated but every piece is important since they all work together to create a quality paint brush.

Anatomy of a 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 – 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 and makes transporting your brush without damaging it much easier.

Keeping Clean Paint Brushes

It’s easier to clean paint brushes when you use them than it is to resurrect them from the dead (we’ll cover that later). So, regularly cleaning your brushes is key to keeping them working properly.

What does “regularly” mean? For me that depends on if I’m painting in hot weather or painting in cold weather. Am I outside or inside? Lot’s variables, but at minimum I clean my brush when I am done painting for the day. As soon as the paint is back in the pail and the lid is on I clean my brush. I’ll go over the steps in just a minute.

The end of the painting day is the minimum, but you may also want to clean your brush if you notice paint drying on the bristles. Take a quick break from painting and clean your brush thoroughly. Dry it off and you can go right back to painting.

Pro Tip:

To take a quick break while painting without cleaning paint brushes put your wet brush in a plastic bag, wrap it up, and place it in the refrigerator (not the freezer). Then pull it out and begin painting when you’re ready if it’s less than 12 hours.

When painting it’s important to keep paint off the handle and ferrule. Only dip your brush deeply enough in the paint to cover the toe and about half the bristles max. Any further up and you will have paint drying too quickly on the bristles.

If you do get paint on or in the ferrule or handle, stop and clean everything up before it dries then start over.

Clean Paint Brushes in 6 Simple Steps

The biggest mistake most people make when cleaning paint brushes is not cleaning enough. Rinse you brush until the water runs clean or your brush will slowly get more and more brittle. Use these steps below to make sure you get it throughly clean.

Cleaning Latex Paint

  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.

Bonus! Condition Your Brush – After heavy use the bristles may dry out and need some conditioning. There are brush conditioners you can buy or you can use some watered-down fabric softener and let the brush soak for a couple hours before rinsing it to get a softer brush with fewer flyaway bristles.

Cleaning Oil-based Paint

  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 scrapping 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 kind clear, but CLEAR) then the brush is clean and you’re finished cleaning.
  4. Dry the BrushOnly do this is 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.

Cleaning a Dried Paint Brush

So you did some painting and forgot to clean your paint brush? It will take a little work, but you’re not sunk yet. You can bring a dried paint brush back from the dead with some paint stripper and a little patience whether it had latex or oil-based paint.

  1. Soak in Paint Stripper – Fill a ziplock bag, or other container with enough paint stripper to cover all the dried paint and let it sit overnight.
  2. Scrub the Brush – Grab a metal bristle brush and scrub the paint brush clean under running water trying to break up the dried paint. Make sure you rinse all the paint stripper off the brush thoroughly.
  3. Repeat Until Clean – Depending on the severity of the condition of the brush it may take several soakings and it helps to work the stripper into the bristles as much as possible so it can do its magic.
https://youtu.be/K8-nKPI00bI

After saving a dried brush there is a good chance you’ll need some brush conditioning because the process is so stringent. It’s important to avoid getting stripper up into the ferrule because there is glue in most brushes that hold the bristles in place and the stripper can dissolve that too.

Now you’re ready to tackle almost anything concerning paint brushes! Check out my earlier post about picking the right paint brush and partner that with the information here on how to clean paint brushes and you should be able to keep that perfect brush for decades instead of weeks.

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