Monday, November 08, 2010

From the Desk: Brush Care 101

This week I'm going to cover brush care for natural hair brushes and review a product I am particularly fond of. During this post I'll refer to specific parts of a brush, so if you want a quick overview of the anatomy of a brush, check out this link. Also, rather than bore you with extra details, I've included some links out to other sources where some trivia exists.

Choosing a brush is a very personal choice, and I'm not going to tout my own personal choice in this article. However at the very high level is a choice between synthetic and natural hair brushes. The products listed below are meant for natural hair brushes. I make no claims as to their performance on synthetic brushes.

I personally use Winsor & Newton Series 7 round brushes, in sizes varying from 0 to 2. I have multiples of each, and as the quality of one degrades, I buy new ones and rotate the batch down. This allows me to continue to use the degraded ones for base coating and washing work, and preserve the higher quality ones for precision is needed. Series 7 brushes are made from kolinsky fur. There are a variety of other kolinsky or sable hair brushes out there that perform differently. Again, this is a personal preference and I won't get into a comparison here. The important point is that these brushes are using actual natural hair from animals.

Here you can see a couple of my working brushes. You'll notice that there is an obvious deposit of paint where the brush head meets the ferrule. This is a common problem, particularly as a result of using washes and not carefully cleaning a brush after every use. Regardless of how careful you are, paint will very likely build up in the ferrule over time. As paint builds up in the ferrule, this will cause the bristles to splay outward, ruining the brush's point. With the right care however, you can keep a brush clean and like new for quite some time.

The first product tip I have is dish soap, particularly a kind that is good for your hands. I use Palmolive for this myself. The soap quality has the ability to help break down water cohesion and allow the paint to better flow out of the brush. Soaps like Palmolive have moisturizing qualities as well which will help condition the natural hairs of the brush. Note that it takes very little such soap. I use old jam jars for my rinse jars (water I use to clean my brushes during a painting session) which are approximately 12 fluid ounces, and for that I only use 2-3 drops of soap. The effects are not perceptible on an individual use basis, but over time it does make a difference.

Next in the lineup is actual brush soap. This stuff comes in a little plastic screw-top container. The soap itself, when you first get it, is very hard and difficult to work with. However after a few uses it gets more and more wet and works into a sort of thick paste. This works very much like the dish soap, but in a more concentrated effort. When you use it, rub the brush around to work the soap throughout the head of the brush and clean the bristles. This will help to work the small amounts of paint out of the brush head. This product is intended to be used after every painting session. Note however that you should not use this in the middle of a painting session as the soap will dramatically affect any paint you are applying if you haven't washed it all out of the brush head.

Finally on the docket is a product I am particular fond of: W&N Brush Cleaner. This product is specifically designed for the care and restoration of natural hair brushes. I use this every 2-3 months, as the process is relatively inhibiting for getting painting work done. Again, this product will dramatically affect your paints if it is not completely washed out of the brush head before returning to painting. Also, for the brush-lickers out there, it tastes horrible and is detectable if even a tiny bit is still present in the brush.

Using the W&N Brush Cleaner...
This picture probably seems a little insane, so let me explain how to use this cleaner. First, the brush head needs to be completely submerged in the cleaner for several hours. Second, the brush should only be immersed into the cleaner up to the ferrule, but not all the way to the handle. I can speak from personal experience that the cleaner can actually dissolve the lacquer from the brush handle, which will weaken the join between the crimp and the handle and it will, literally, fall apart. Third, obviously the brush should not just be thrown into the container and rest on the brush head, as this will distort the bristles permanently. I have solved for this by drilling holes in my brush handles and using wire to hold them up so that the brush head is immersed in a smaller container of the cleaner (specifically an old paint pot). I make sure that the brush head is not resting against the side of the paint pot as well, for the same bristle distortion reasons mentioned above. I then leave this overnight and clean the brush head out under lukewarm water the next day.

The net result can sometimes be striking, depending on how much paint was built up in the ferrule. The cleaner actually works to "push" paint residue out of the ferrule somehow, and loosen it from the hairs of the brush. Not it is not a miracle working agent. Not everything will come out of the brush. However it does make a noticeable difference, and helps to condition the hairs of the brush for prolonged life. Also, it's safe to say that buying one bottle of this will last you a very very long time. I've had this bottle for at least 3 years now and can't imagine I will ever exhaust it. Definitely worth the price I paid for it.

Well, there you have it, my personal tips on brush care. I will freely admit that I could take better care of my brushes and get even more life out of them. A lot of it is just discipline to clean brushes after every session. In any case, thanks for reading, and please share any other tips floating around out there!


Brian said...

Are you using the Dish soap during your paint session or after, that part was not very clear. Thanks.

Scott said...

Sorry about that. I use the dish soap in my rinse jar, which is during the painting session. Basically every time I clean my brush between colors, I'm using that rinse jar. I'll clarify that in the blog entry. Thanks for pointing that out!

Brian said...

Thanks, I'm very hard on my brushes, so ever little bit that can help me make them go longer is a great benefit. Again, Thanks, the article is great.

Mike Howell said...

I had heard the bristle/ferrule immersion method previously, but could not remember the product to use. Thanks for the reminder! Drilling holes in the brush handles is absolutely inspired.

I'm headed to the art store today to take your advice!