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.
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.