Q&A / 

Cleaning Paint Brushes

DEAR TIM: I am having trouble cleaning paint brushes. My high-quality paint brushes are stiff halfway up from the tips, even though I have been using latex paint and washing them with warm water immediately after each use. I have tried using the plethora of products that claim they will restore paint brushes, but none have worked. In fact, they seem to harm the brushes. How do you clean paint brushes so they last for years? Is it possible, or should I just buy disposable paint brushes and throw them away after each job? Jack L., Findlay, OH

DEAR JACK: It is time for some tough love. The expensive brushes are being ruined because you are not cleaning them properly. It took me a few years of experimentation to figure out one way to properly clean paint brushes, no matter whether they are synthetic fiber used for latex paint or natural fiber used for oil paints. Believe it or not, I have a few paint brushes that have been used over 100 times. They look like new, and the bristles have no paint in them where they connect to the brush body.

You couldn't pay me to use brush-revival products. I have read their labels on many occasions, and the skull and crossbones image tells me that some of these products are highly toxic. Examine the label of these products and you will often see the chemical names acetone, methanol, methylene chloride, toluene and xylene. Some of these are very dangerous and can cause serious and permanent health issues. It is easier and safer to simply learn how to care for your paint brushes rather than try to bring them back from the dead.

The process of cleaning a paint brush starts at the beginning of the painting day. All too often, I see people take a new brush or a dry one and dip it directly into the paint. This, in my opinion, 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 this, or slow the hardening of the paint, by wetting the brush with water before using it. Use water when applying latex or water-based paint. If you are painting with oil-based 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 for the first time into the paint.

If you take breaks during painting, you need to get the brush out of the sun, and wrap it with a damp rag if you are using latex paint. This rag stops the evaporation of water and other chemicals from the paint. It keeps the paint on the brush fresh. Use a rag soaked in paint thinner if you are applying oil-based paint. It is advised to store the paint thinner-soaked rag and brush in a closed container for safety. If painting outdoors, I will actually clean my brush if I stop to eat lunch. It only takes two minutes to clean a brush, so I don't lose much time from my well-deserved break.

I have seen people ruin a brand-new paint brush 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. It is totally unnecessary. Another bad idea is pushing down on the bristles so they bend at a 90-degree angle to squeeze out the paint. This stresses the bristles and causes premature bristle failure.

An old paint can, some warm water and soap and a quick wrist is all it takes to clean a paint brush. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

An old paint can, some warm water and soap and a quick wrist is all it takes to clean a paint brush. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

Through trial and error, I discovered that the best way to clean brushes that have latex or water-based paint in and on them is to rinse as much paint out as I can with warm water flowing over the outside of the bristles, toward the bristle ends. The next step is to use an old paint can that has been cleaned of all paint. I fill this can halfway with warm soapy water. Two tablespoons of common 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 warm 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 entire brush.

Refill the can halfway with just 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 process until the water remains perfectly clear like Nixon. If there is hardened paint on the handle or tops of the bristles near the handle, use a stiff nylon brush to clean off this paint. Scrub the bristles gently at a 90-degree angle to remove the paint.

The best way to determine if there is any residual paint in the brush is to suspend it in a clear container after you think it is clean. Use a string or thin wire through the hole at the end of the brush handle to suspend just the bristles in clean water. Let it sit in the water for about four hours. If there is any latex paint left in the brush, it will turn the water cloudy. This means you have to be more thorough when you are cleaning the brush.

Once clean, hang the brush from the wire to get it to dry. Do not shake the water out of the brush and bend the bristles. Once dry, insert the brush in the handy protective cover that came with it from the paint store.

Column 686

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11 Responses to Cleaning Paint Brushes

  1. My name is Scarlett Ferrigno, I am a high school student in Texas. I read one of your Q&A's and used your website as a resource for a project I am going to create as my senior project. All I would like to know is if there is a phone number I can contact you with to write down as part of my assignment. The number will not be destributed to anyone and I will use your email rather than your adress as your contact. I know I do not have any credibility with you but it would benefit a high school student if you are willing to help me out. Please?
    -Scarlett

    • Scarlett, yes, there's a phone number at my shopping cart. Read this: your question requires lots of typing, plus I have some questions for you so I can give you the correct answer(s). I only do pithy answers here in the comment section. If you want to protect the investment you have in your house and not waste time or money *hoping* you make the right decision, you should talk to me on the phone for just 15 minutes. It'll be the best investment you've ever made in your home!

  2. I totally agree with the cleaning methods you descirbed above Tim and have several brushes that I've used for years... but what do you recommend to do with the water that I use to clean the brushes? I've been diluting with even more soap and water,.. Can I continue to safely pour down the drain?

  3. The reality of any or every situation is the truth. Thus the term; The painful truth is made abundantly clear. I too have victimized my brushes through improper cleaning, and at times not cleaning them at all. You ask a question right, you get an answer that sounds like a politically correct response that always means the person has nothing. No real painter is as diligent as cleaning the tool that much. The chemical industry have made life somewhat bearable with their research and development. Used properly that can be helpful, used other than instructed, you're heading down disaster boulevard.
    I don't want to throw away my purdy brushes, name all the chemicals you like, trying to restore to like new might not happen. You spill your milk, sometimes mopping it up is about what can be done. Krud cutter is one product that could make it useable again, otherwise consider it like a tuition you paid for you future advancement. I hope you and I as well will take better care next time out...

  4. I just wanted to thank you Tim I am newly in remodel construction and I was ruining paint brushes left and right thinking I was cleaning them right. lol, after reading your article I have used the same brush about ten times now and it still looks and acts brand new, now I know ten times is not alot yet before I would ruin the brush after about three times. So thank you for your advice.

  5. Hi I wanted to know if there was any way to save my paint brushes! i use oil paint and i just rinse them off with turpentine in a few different washes and i thought that was enough to clean them. well after a dozen times using them, the bristles have gone so hard and they've lost the softness that i once loved. help! they were very expensive and id hate to have to buy more!!

    • Suspend the brush in clean mineral spirits or paint thinner for days. Figure out how to keep the brush hanging in the jar or can of spirits so the bristles do NOT touch the bottom of the can / jar. You only want the liquid to be at the BOTTOM of the metal band that secures the bristles. After two or three days you should see paint at the bottom of the jar and the bristles should be come soft again. Then use the methods you see in my column and the VIDEO I shot about how to clean brushes. WATCH that video.

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