05 May 2011

How to Save Your Paintbrushes!

It's happened to the best of us. We've all gotten lazy or forgetful or have had to run out of the studio at a moment's notice. For me, it was senior year and somebody came into my studio at school while I was in class, stole my brushes, used them and then returned them without cleaning them out....but at least they were returned to me, right?

Two years later I found my bundle of ruined brushes and lamented once again over the loss of my nicest paint brushes. But then I thought...there has to be a way to save these.

First off, I must stress: DO NOT USE SAV-A-BRUSH ON NATURAL BRISTLE BRUSHES!  Any hardware store will recommend you use a product called "Sav-A-Brush." Right on the back of this product, however, it cautions you not to use it on natural brushes or artist brushes. Now, I have used it on synthetic artist brushes and they survived but when I used it on natural bristle artist brushes (without reading the back), the bristles swelled up like pasta and broke like a handful of over-cooked angel hair. So, again, DO NOT USE IT ON NATURAL BRUSHES.

In my quest to save my brushes, I came across several techniques on how to save your brushes. Many of them require knowing the kind of paint that is stuck in your brush. This was a problem because I don't know what Rude McAsshole used on my brushes. So after some trial and error, I came up with a technique that will save any brush caked with (almost) any material. I've been able to free up oil, acrylic, mystery paint and glue so far. Make sure to watch my video below (coming soon) where I purposely destroy some brushes just to show you how easy it is to save them.

What You'll Need

White Vinegar
Murphy's Oil Soap (or X-brand equivalent)
Lava Soap (or X-brand equivalent)
Bucket (or other water container)
Sauce pan and stove
Your preferred brand of brush cleaner/preserver (if you use it regularly)
Comb (preferably sturdy metal, fine tooth, but plastic will do)
Ruined brushes

What You'll Need to Do

Step 1: Break up the paint

     The first thing you need to do it break up the paint a bit so that the chemicals you're going to be using can get into the brush. Use your hands, a comb, anything to just break up some sections if you can. If you cannot, your brush is still salvageable, it will just take a bit longer.

Step 2: Soak in Vinegar

     Put enough vinegar in the sauce pan to fill the bottom 1-2 inches. Now place your brushes, bristles-first, into the vinegar and let them soak for at least an hour (longer if they are severely caked in paint or if you were unable to break the paint up). Vinegar is actually quite a strong and versatile acid capable of breaking down many things if given the time. I actually use it to clean just about everything in my house including my stove top.

Step 3: Simmer in Vinegar

     This step is a bit...aromatic to say the least. Remove your brushes from the vinegar and set them aside. Add some water to your vinegar in the pan to make it a 1:1 dilution and turn the heat on the pan to a simmer, just below boiling. While it is heating up, take the time to loosen up the bristles some more by hand or with a comb. When the solution begins to simmer, place a few of your brushes into the simmering pan. Let them sit in the simmering vinegar for a bit and then begin to move them around, bending them against the bottom, swishing them, etc. Concentrate on one brush at a time.
     Periodically take a brush out and rake it out with the comb. This step is going to vary depending on how badly caked your brushes are, so work accordingly. When it looks like all the paint is out of one brush, you can remove it and set it to the side to cool.

**Be careful here with synthetics as some of them may melt at high enough temperatures. Stay vigilant! (Also, be careful with plastic handles touching the sides of the pan and watch out for the piping hot ferrule!)

Step 4: Scrub

     Silly you, you think that all the paint is out of your brush. Well, I have news for you: It isn't! Now what you're going to do is get your bucket and fill it with fresh water and plop your brushes in it. Then, break out your bar of lava soap and go get comfortable. Spend a good 2 minutes or so scrubbing your brush by working it in the lava soap and then scratching at it with your nails, combing it and rinsing it and repeating. This is going to remove any paint residues, glue residues, the wonderful smell of vinegar and it's just going to start breathing the life back into the bristles.

Step 5: Soak in Murphy's

     When you have finished scrubbing and rinsing all of your brushes, dump the water out of the bucket and pour some Murphy's Oil Soap into it. You're going to use a 2:1 ratio of Murphy's to water and you're going to fill it high enough to come up to the ferrule of your brushes. Now toss your brushes in and let them soak for at least 24 hours. I left mine in for about a week and when I took them out, the paint stuck on the ferrule peeled off like a post-it. So it's really up to you and your judgment on how badly your brushes need saving. If you are going to leave them for quite a while, make sure to turn them periodically so as not to alter the curvature of the bristles (but I will tell you how to undo that if you forget).

Step 6: Rinse, Scrub, and Rinse Again

     When you remove your brushes from the Murphy's, go ahead and rinse them out in fresh water. Rake them with the comb if you need to. Then, repeat step 4 (the scrubbing with lava soap step). This is going to get all of the oil residue from the Murphy's out of your brushes and loosen any last bits of paint that might be hanging out. Rinse a final time by swirling each brush violently in fresh water. The violence is because you need the water to separate the bristles to remove any paint that might be chilling all up in there.

Step 7: Condition and shape

     Now that your brushes are paint-free, if you're a fan of brush conditioners, this is where that comes in. Go ahead and slather the hell out of the bristles and shape them accordingly. If your forgot to turn your brushes in the Murphy's, don't skip this step; this is where you correct that mistake (and after a few days, rinse them out and shape them again just to drive the point home to those ornery bristles).

Step 8: Enjoy!

     Enjoy your freshly saved brushes!

Watch the (coming soon!) video.

**Note: I have NOT tried this on the homemade brushes and do not recommend doing so unless you have perfected your tying technique and have used an epoxy to glue the joint in the ferrule. Otherwise you may ruin your brushes. I will try eventually, though, and let you know how it turns out.**


See those up there? I made those. Quite quickly, actually. This is my first batch of brushes from 4May2011 and they can only get better from here on.

Now, I'm an oil painter (mostly) so I prefer stiffer, coarser brushes. So the first thing you need to decide is: What kinds of brushes do I need? (You can decide on the shapes later)

If you're a watercolorist, chances are you'll need a softer brush. Acrylic painters will probably need something stiffer but not quite as coarse as the brushes that oil painters tend to prefer.

Next you need to decide if you want synthetic or natural. There are certainly benefits for both, but I prefer natural simply to avoid the risk of melting my brushes in different solvents. Also, there's something about the feel of natural brushes. Also, the hairs on many brush-preferred animals then to have ends that are advantageously split and so they grab the paint a bit better. All of these are things to consider and I will go through each of these (and have videos soon!) as far as materials, methods and tips and tricks go.

Anatomy of a Paintbrush

The first thing we must understand before attempting to make something is its anatomy--or how it is made. Chances are, if you're a fine artist interested in making your own brushes, you already know the anatomy, but let's just recap if anyone out there needs or refresher (or is new to paintbrush anatomy).
There are 3 main components to the modern paintbrush. The bristles, the ferrule and the handle.

So let's start with the easiest thing--the brush handle.

The purpose of the handle of a brush is...well...so you can handle it. You need something to hold on to, don't you? Here you have room to get really creative and cool. As of the original posting of this, I have only used dowels but I will be trying out natural sticks very shortly (and I will edit this post accordingly as I experiment with different things). Bones may also be used.

So let's talk about your brush handles.


A dowel is typically a wooden rod, although they can be made of plastic and metal as well. For our purposes, let's stick with discussing the wooden variety. Most commercially available dowels are "hardwood dowels" and are labeled as such in the hardware store. "Hardwood" simply means it is made of a hard wood such as walnut, oak or maple (these are the most common). They are round, obviously, and suit our purposes just fine. Commercial brush handles have a taper to them, which you can achieve [if desired] with some pen knife carving action (or if you have access to a lathe, now's the time to take advantage!)

Natural Sticks

Natural stick handles can make an interesting, conversation-inducing addition to any art studio. The only problem is that they are a bit less predictable than a dowel, but it may well be worth the extra trouble. It is a good idea to gather potential handles when it has been dry (and preferably hot) for a few days. This will ensure that your handles are dry to begin with. You can always wait for that perfect stick to dry if you want. It's up to you. It's also a good idea to select harder wood. Pine, for example, would make an aromatic handle but it is known for being quite soft. Again, walnut, oak and maple are hard woods and would be great choices. You're going to want to inspect your choices for any sign of rotting, infestation, mold, etc. It would also be wise to go ahead and shave off any protrusions and sharp bits that could potentially cause injury during modification and use.

There is no reason why you can't make a bone handle. Tribal societies all over the world used bones and antlers as handles for their tools. The naturally ergonomic feel of an animal horn as a handle is certainly something to take into consideration. While bone would definitely be a bit tougher to work with, again, the conversational value of it alone might just be worth it. ("Oh, these? These are just my handmade antler-handled brights and filberts..." Cue the jealousy.)

You can also disassemble any brushes you have that have lived a good life but need to be put out of their misery. Re-purposing what you have is a good way to make your DIY adventures easier and cheaper. If you're thinking of disassembling a brush simply because its bristles are caked in paint, STOP!!! And then click here for instructions and a video how-to on saving your brushes.

 Next part--the ferrule.

Ferrule  is a corruption of Latin meaning "small bracelet," referring to iron as the indicated material (ferrous = iron, Fe = chemical symbol of iron). While ferrules are not absolutely essential for a brush (as you'll see), they are certainly great to have. Modern ferrules are used to join and reinforce where the bristles meet the handle. For our purposes, ferrules are made of metal. I like to buy aluminum tubing at the hardware store and just cut it down to the size I need. You can get tubing in a variety of materials--I just use aluminum because it's cheap and easy to cut. I'll be experimenting with brass as well.

The Brush Itself

Okay, so now for actual brushy part of the paint brush. Here is where your materials are going to differ depending on your purpose. If you already know what your favorite brush material is (mine is boar bristle), great! If not, then the material you use is going to depend on the purpose of the brush. Oil painters tend to favor a stiffer brush with varying degrees of springyness. Acrylic painters tend to favor a springy, stiff brush. Watercolorists tend to favor a softer brush with varying degrees of springyness.

I am still having trouble locating a supplier of boar bristle so I harvest mine from chip brushes (the cheap, +/- $1 brushes at the hardware store). I also bought several patches of natural fur from a fly-tying supply shop on ebay. If you have a local fly fishing supply store I would recommend going there so you can feel the different hairs/furs to see which one you like. Then it's just a matter of choosing and buying. I bought a wide array to experiment.

So let's get started....


hair stacker (available from fly fishing supply or you can make your own)
bobbin and thread (from fly fishing supply)
scissors (I use a small pair of cosmetic scissors)
glue (epoxy and WeldBond are good choices for this application)
waxed paper
lacquer (for finishing the wooden handle)
Pliers for crimping (I usually use my canvas pliers)
choice of brush materials
choice of ferrule materials
choice of handle materials

Step 1: Gather all of your materials, clean and clear ample work space and READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE BEGINNING.

Step 2a: Gather a section of your brush material. If you are harvesting bristle, you will have to remove the donor brush's ferrule and then snip them as close to the glue as possible. If you are using natural hair from a patch of hide, snip a section as close to the skin as possible.

     Step2b: If using natural hair from a patch of hide, pinch the ends of your selection and use the tweezers or points of scissors to quickly feather the bottom (the part that was attached to the skin). This will remove the fluffy down that is embedded between the longer hairs.

Step 3: Place your selected materials into the hair stacker. If you are using a blend, be sure to hand blend the materials before placing them in the stacker.

Step 4: Tap the hair stacker several times until the hairs are all stacked evenly.

Step 5: Tie a slip knot on the end of your thread and slip it over the hairs in the stacker. Tighten the noose as close to the lip of the stacker as possible and hold it tight as you remove the stack. Tweezers may help here if you are not very deft.

Step 6: Using the bobbin, wrap the bottom of your stack as tightly as possible several times and then cut a nice long tail of thread.

Step  7: Tie off the tail as tightly as possible. Tweezers will help here no matter how deft you are.

Step 8: Pour out a small amount of WeldBond and either paint it around the wrapped thread or roll the stack in it. Set stack aside on waxed paper to dry.

Step 9a: If you are not using a ferrule, you can drill a hole in your handle end, pop some epoxy in there and go onto step 9c. If you want to tie or tack your stack into your handle instead, be my guest but that's not my area of expertise.

     Step 9b: If you want a ferrule: Select an appropriately-sized ferrule for your stack and a handle to fit. Apply epoxy to your handle end and insert into ferrule.

     Step 9c: Top with finished brush stack and adjust to size you want. Be careful not to get any epoxy on the working part of the bristles.
Step  10: Let everything dry before moving on.

Step 11: Crimp your ferrule if desired. (Definitely recommended.)

Step 12: Lacquer your handle to protect it. If you want your handles to be a color other than what they are, go ahead and paint them before lacquering them (or even before assembling the brush). The lacquer will protect the wood from water and solvents.

Step 13: Enjoy your new brushes. Be gentle with them at first until you figure out what they can and can't handle (this will depend on how tightly you tied them, how well you glued them, the quality of the glue, and the overall quality of the construction).

I will usually make several stacks at once, let them dry over night (Steps 1-8) and then do all the assembly the next day. How you proceed is up to you.

Hello, World!

Good morning, savvy artists! Allow me to tell you a little bit about myself and my purpose for this blog:

My name is Ally and I hold a BFA in Painting (minor in Art History) from MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). I had the great privilege of graduating into the worst economy since the great depression. I can even remember at the beginning of my senior year hearing professors talk about how bad they felt for my class--what on earth would we do when we graduated with the economy in the state that it was? Well, folks, let me tell you, it was tough. It still is. And now that I've gotten over my fun-filled mental breakdown (more on that later), I'm back to my old self and trying to figure out: what on earth will I do with the economy in this state??!

Soooo, I've picked up painting again and let me just say: thank goodness! I didn't realize how miserable I was not painting and drawing on an almost daily basis. Just having a release of creative energy regularly has been incredibly therapeutic. But you know what's not helping? Prices. I have never, in my life, seen prices as high as they are on art supplies. I thought when I got my tax return this year that I would treat myself to some new paint brushes. So, naturally, I looked for sales and saw that Utrecht was having a huge spring sale. I logged on, tossed some brushes in my e-shopping cart and off I went to the e-checkout!

My order totaled over $100.

I nearly shat a mothafucking brick.

So! That brings me to the subject of my first post:
Homemade paintbrushes.