05 May 2011


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.

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