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All About Paint Brushes

If you walk into any store that sells paint, such as Sherwin Williams, Home Depot and Lowes, chances are that when you go to look for a brush you are going to be overwhelmed.

Painting A House
Man on scaffolds painting a house during exterior renovations

Once you are overwhelmed with choices, odds are you will probably just go with some basic brush for $4-$5 “just cause”. You’ll then head home, start your project and end up cursing your brush as it frays, clumps and generally tries to sabotage your painting project.

Understanding paint brushes is a big part of making sure you have the right tools for the right painting project. It also helps you understand what you are paying for when you purchase a more expensive paint brush and why this more expensive paint brush will likely save you lots of time and even money.

The Parts Of A Paint Brush

Before we can talk too much about paint brushes you need to understand what all the different pieces of the brush are what they are called (there is more to a brush than bristles and a handle!)

Handle – While it may seem incredibly basic, the handle is the part of the brush that you hold onto and makes a huge difference in the feel of the brush, especially if you are using it for hours at a time. Handles are typically made out of plastic or wood with wood typically being the material of choice for higher quality brushes.

Ferrule – The ferrule is the metal strip in between the handle and the bristles that holds the two together. A quality ferrule should hold the bristles in without any coming off while painting.

Bristles – The bristles are the part of the brush that hold the paint and release it on your painting surface. The bristles can be made out of many different types of material with each being better suited for different applications. The bristles are also cut different depending on quality and intended use.

All About Bristles

Bristles are really what creates the differences between brushes. You may see different handles and ferrules, but in the end, it’s the bristles that are the truly important part of any paint brush.

Bristle Cuts:

Flat Cut: Flat cut brushes are where all the bristles are cut to the same length. If you hold the handle of your brush straight up and down all the bristles will be the same length (except for a small variation at the tip if it is tapered, see below). These brushes are great general purpose brushes and are ideal for painting larger surfaces such as doors, windows and trim.

Sash (angle) Cut: A sash cut brush is when the bristles form an angle going up. If you hold your brush handle straight up you will see a variation (usually about inch worth) between the ends of the bristles. Sash brushes tend to give you more control over your brush lines. Sash brushes are great for cutting in ceiling and anywhere else you need sharp lines.

Tapered Ends: A taper on a brush means that when looking straight across the ends of the bristles of the brush, they will form a slight tip (usually right in the middle of the brush). Note: this is not referring to a sash or angle brush but more a slight tip forming across the entire brush. A higher quality brush will have a tapered end where a cheaper brush will have a flat cut (like a buzz cut). A tapered end will help the paint flow off the brush better and help you to cut sharper lines.

Bristle Width: The bristle width is another important thing to consider when choosing the right paint brush. Paint brush widths that you will most commonly find are 1″ – 3″ with some specialty brushes being up to 5 inches. Typically smaller width brushes are great for delicate work and small hard to reach areas while the wider 2-3 inch brushes are great for cutting in ceiling and trim as you won’t have to dip these brushes back into your paint as often.

Width also refers to the fatness of the brush. Some paint brushes are thin while others are thick. A thicker brush is better if you plan on painting large surfaces with the brush while thinner brushes are better for simply cutting in and around things.

Different Types Of Bristles

Black China: Black china bristles are natural and recommended for any oil based paint, stains and varnishes. Black china tends to leave heavy brush strokes and is not a great brush for most home projects. They are typically used with more heavy duty coating in commercial settings due to the thickness and durability of the bristles.

White China: White china bristles are also natural and recommended for oil, stains, varnishes, lacquers and shellacs. White china typically leaves a smoother finish due to the smaller and softer fibers. White china is great for brushing cabinets, doors, trim and furniture.

Nylon: Nylon is an extremely soft material that leaves a very smooth finish in your paint. Nylon is also incredibly durable (and expensive). Nylon brushes are great for all latex paint and can also be used with oil based paints for a smooth finish. Nylon can be harder to clean than other synthetic bristles. One downside to all nylon brushes is that the bristles are not as firm as a nylon/polyester blend and can be a bit harder to cut in around objects.

Polyester: Polyester is a stiffer bristle that cleans well. This brush can be used with virtually any paint (oil or water) but does tend to leave more brush strokes due to the stiffness of the bristles.

Nylon/Polyester Blend: A nylon / polyester blended brush combines the two types of bristles to get the best of both. Nylon provides the soft smooth bristles while the polyester adds in stiffness to make your cutting more accurate. These brushes are easy to clean as well and are the most common / popular of all brushes.

Other Types: There are still even more types of bristles but these tend to get into propriety bristles such as Tynex, Chinex and Orel. These bristles all accomplish different purposes and are typically used in high end brushes (so look for these names!).

Recommended Paint Brushes For Different Projects

While you are now armed with a great deal of paint brush knowledge, you still may not be much closer to choosing the right brush for your project. Below are my #1 recommended brushes for each project. While other brushes will work, these are my favorites.

Cutting In Ceilings

Recommended Brush: Purdy Pro-Extra Glide 2.5″ Sash Brush

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This brush has a mix of Tynex, Chinex and Orel bristles that make it perfect for cutting in ceilings. This brush gives me a lot of paint to work with, an extreme amount of control and a nice smooth finish. The Pro-Extra brush keeps its shape (many of mine are years old and get used weekly), is incredibly easy to clean and will quickly become one of your favorite brushes.

Painting Cabinets (trim, doors and windows)

Recommended Brush For Oil Based Enamel: Purdy White Bristle Sprig 2″

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The Purdy White Bristle Sprig is a white china bristle brush that is made to create a smooth finish with oil-based paints. The long life, easy cleaning, and extra smooth finish make this brush a winner.

Recommended Brush For Water Based Enamel: Purdy Nylox Bow 2″

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The Nylox Bo is a 100% nylon bristle brush with a flat cut end with a beautifully tapered end. This brush will produce incredibly soft stokes with absolute minimal brush lines.

Exterior Painting

Recommended Brush: Purdy XL Elite Glide 3″

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For exterior painting, nothing beats Purdy’s new XL Elite series of brushes. This brush combines DuPont solid, round, and tapered, Chinex and Orel filaments to create a brush that leaves smooth strokes, retains it’s shape and cleans easily. This brush can take the thickness of exterior paints and still get them to leave a smooth finish. It is also great for exterior painting because the hot sun tends to dry out your brushes faster outside and this brush will still allow for easy cleaning.

Touch Ups and Small Jobs

Recommended Brush: Any Cheap Foam Brush

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I like to keep a handful of cheap ($0.50) foam brushes on hand for small touch-ups when I am painting. This way I can use the brush quickly and throw it away when I am done rather than spend the time cleaning the brush.

Stay Away From Cheap Brushes

If you checked out any of the brushes above, you most likely noticed that my recommended brushes are not cheap. These brushes cost between $15-$20 on average. So why wouldn’t you just buy yourself a $5 brush and save some money, especially if you only plan on painting one or two rooms? (and I’m not counting the cheap foam brushes I just listed!)

Cheaper brushes will create a host of problems for you.

Bad Ferrules: a cheaper paint brush will often have a cheap ferrule that will cause bristles to keep falling out while you are painting. Until this has happened to you, you won’t understand the frustration of having to pick bristles out of your paint.

Low-Quality Bristles: Bad blends of bristles make for brushes that don’t hold up, usually not even through one paint job. These brushes will lose their shape and bristles will start bending off in every direction. This will make cutting in a straight line nearly impossible. Low-quality bristles will also leave big ugly brush strokes and take a long time to get clean.

Cheap Construction: When I recommend paint brushes I only recommend two brands, Purdy and Wooster. I recommend these because they are both handmade (not some giant machine making thousands of brushes an hour) by top craftsmen. They use top quality handles, ferrules and brushes and are assembled in a way that makes them last for years.

Cleaning, Care & Maintenance

Now that you understand the difference between cheap brushes and quality brushes as well as which brush to use for which project, you probably also understand what an important and amazing tool a paintbrush truly is. I use many of my brushes on a nearly daily basis and have brushes ranging from 1-5 years old. With proper care, a homeowner using their brushes a few times a year could easily keep the same brushes for 10-20 years.

Never Let Your Brush Dry Out

If you plan on taking a break, take 3 minutes and wash your brush out so that it doesn’t start to dry out. You can also drop the brush in a plastic baggie, a small bucket of paint thinner (if you are using oil) or a cup of water. Anything to keep it wet. You can even buy a paint brush cover on Amazon that is great for keeping your brush wet a couple of hours.

Always Use The Right Brush For The Right Materials

If a brush says it is not for oils or solvents or not for latex, then don’t use it on those projects or you will find out the hard way that you have just ruined your bristles.

Get 100% Of The Paint Out When Done

Many people will clean a brush until they think it is clean only to find the brush stiff and crusty the next time they go to grab it. To make sure 100% of the paint is removed, bend the bristles while cleaning the brush to force water or mineral spirits up towards the ferrule. The ferrule is where paint will hide and slowly start to ruin your brush. Make sure there is absolutely no sign of paint coming from the ferrule area before considering your paint brush clean.

I wrote a complete guide on how to properly clean and take care of your paintbrush. Read It Here!

Store Your Brush In Its Original Case

The case your paintbrush came in is shaped exactly like the brush. Keeping your brush in its case when not in use will help the brush retain its shape and form for a long time. It can also even help the brush regain it’s original form if it has lost it.

No that you know the different parts of a brush, you should be able to better understand some of our other articles. Make sure to check out some of my favorites below: