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
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)
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.**