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How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life

As a painter for over 15 years, I’ve learned that cleaning my paint brushes is essential and that a high-quality paintbrush is an absolute must. I often spend at a minimum $20 on my brushes. Three of my favorites are the 3″ Purdy Pro-Extra Glide for interior painting, the 2″ Purdy White Bristle Brush for oil-based paints and the Purdy 3″ XL Brush for exterior painting.

A father and daughter painting their house together.

All of these brushes are easily $20 (unless you get them on sale) as are comparable Wooster Brushes and other high-quality brands.

If you don’t clean these brushes out properly during the day and at the end of a project, you’re literally throwing money away. I know, I had over 20 employees at one point and I spent a LOT of money on new paint brushes!

With a little care, however, a quality brush can last you years. I would use my brushes daily and I had brushes that I carried for well over a year. If you are a homeowner doing occasional projects, you could literally have your brushes last you decades!

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Let’s Move On To How To Clean Paint Brushes!

How To Clean Oil Paint Brushes

The trick to keeping your oil brushes clean and extending their life is to plan ahead on your cleanup. I do this by bringing three 1 quart containers each half full of mineral spirits. I have a fourth container, and I will let you know what it is for shortly.

Start with three one quart containers each filled with mineral spirits each half full that are labeled “Step 1”, “Step 2”, and “Step 3”.

How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life 1

These quarts of mineral spirits were all I needed to get my brushes clean after use.

Step 1: The first quart, step 1, was for my dirty brush. I would place my used oily brush in Step 1, let it soak for 4-5 minutes, then lightly press the brush into the bottom of the container repeatedly to work the mineral spirits in through the bristles and work the oil paint out.

Before moving your brush into Step 2, make sure to shake off the mineral spirits and even pat it into a rag to remove the dirty mineral spirits. You want to keep the Step 2 container as clean as possible.

Step 2: Work your brush into the Step 2 container by gently pressing and folding the bristles into the bottom of the container. This will work the mineral spirits through the bristles and get more of the oil paint and dirty spirits from step 1 out.

Again, shake your brush to get the Step 2 spirits out and pat it into a rag.

Step 3: Finish cleaning your brush by repeating the last step only into the Step 3 container. By this time your brush should be 100% clean from the oil paint that you were using. Finish by shaking out your brush and cleaning any excess off with a rag.

The final step to this process involves the fourth container and allows you to almost never waste any mineral spirits (or paint thinner). When the spirits in each of your containers get too dirty, usually after 3-4 cleanings, it’s time to rotate them. Fill the fourth container half full with spirits and label it Step 3, take your old Step 3 and re-label to Step 2, and relabel Step 2 to Step 1.

Take your original Step 1 container and set it on a shelf in your garage for a week or two. In time, you will notice that the oil paint and the mineral spirits will separate and you will have crystal clear spirits sitting on top of the oil paint residue in the container. Pour the clear spirits an extra bucket or jar, clean the container out and pour the spirits back in. This is now your new Step 3 container when you need it!

Bonus Oil Brush Cleaning Tip

If you really want your paintbrush to live a long life, you should stop midway through your day and take the time to clean your brush. If you wait until the end of the day, you’ll often find that the oil paint will creep up toward the handle and dry in the heel of the brush (near the metal part), this will make your brush far harder to clean.

How To Clean Acrylic Paint Brushes

Cleaning acrylic (water/latex) paint brushes is drastically easier than cleaning oil brushes.

Honestly, there is really no major tricks here folks. Acrylic/latex/water-based paint is water soluble, meaning that it dilutes in water.

I like to go to my wash sink, run some warm water and fold my brush gently while running it under warm water. The warm water helps to dilute the paint faster, thus cleans it faster while the folding helps force the water up into the top of the brush and gets it clean all the way to the ferrule (the metal part).

Every now and again I will take the handle of the brush and roll it between my hands, spinning the brush and allowing the centripital force to whip paint and water out of the brush.

Extra Pro Tip

As I said above with oil based brushes, cleaning your paint brushes out at different times during the day will help extend the life of your brush and keep the paint nearest the heel from building up and drying out.

If you are painting an exterior, another trick I like to use is to keep a one-gallon bucket of water handy to place my brush in when I’m not using it. I don’t clean the brush, the water just keeps the brush from drying out while not in use.

How To Clean Dried Paint Brushes

If you were hoping for some amazing tip here, I am sorry to disappoint you. There is no magic way to make a dried out brush like new again. At best, you can break up the old paint and have a nice duster/junk brush available.

A duster brush is a brush I use to dust off interior or exterior trim and clean it up before I tape it. A junk brush is a brush that I use for a touch up when I don’t have the ability to clean my brush out properly when I am done, so I know it will be junk afterwards.

If you do want to try to clean up an old dried out brush, there are a few things that can work, to an extent. Soaking your brush in vinegar can break down the dried up paint, but the can take days or even weeks of soaking. Another method is to soak your brush in lacquer thinner, this will break down the paint, but it will also damage the integrity of your brush bristles.

Another potentially good option is Klean Strip Brush Cleaner. This product claims to not only be able to clean brushes (dried out ones as well) but it also conditions the bristles. I’ve had mixed results, but it is worth a try.

How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life 2

Handy Products To Help Clean Your Paint Brushes

Paint Brush Comb

A paint brush comb is useful for breaking up bristles that have dried together, getting paint out of the heel of the brush and helping to get water to the center of the brush while cleaning.

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Paint Brush and Roller Spinner

A spinner is great for spinning oil or water brushes to get all of the dirty water or mineral spirits out of the brush. Especially useful for spinning a brush in between containers of minerals spirits as described in the cleaning oil brushes section.

How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life 4

Brush and Roller Covers

Brush covers can be handy to keep your brushes from drying out while not in use. I would not recommend using them much longer than 1-2 hours at a time though. In my experience, even overnight is too long as they are not 100% air tight and will let your brush slowly dry out over time.

How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life 5

Klean Strip Paint Brush Cleaner

How To Clean Paint Brushes: Bringing Your Brushes Back To Life 6

As described above, Klean Strip Brush Cleaner is great at cleaning out oil and water based paints and even claims to bring dried out brushes back to life while conditioning the bristles.  .

Kent Schroeder

Monday 16th of August 2021

When you start getting old the mind starts to slip. Anyway, I left out this minor point. I also used a liberal amount of laundry detergent. Also Shaklee for what that may be worth.

Kent Schroeder

Monday 16th of August 2021

I found one of my best brushes outside total stiff with dried paint. I was really ticked at myself. I decided to try to save it but knew it was beyond saving. I put a liberal amount of fabric softener in a jar and added hot water. I use Shaklee brand so I don't know if others work. Anyway, I forgot about it for a couple of days, came back and it cleaned right up. It was nice and soft and I still use it. Oh, it was of course latex paint.


Sunday 20th of June 2021

I have been looking for articles on how to preserve The mineral spirits and not waste so much. This article was great with the four containers, the only thing that I can’t figure out is when the mineral spirits separate from the paint and the suggestion is to pour the clear mineral spirits in a different container to reuse them, the gross settled paint from the bottom creeps up and pours out with the mineral spirits, how do I separate that?


Monday 5th of July 2021

Hi Dawn,

Yes, a bit of the old mineral spirits does creep into the poured off batch, but this is something that can't really be avoided. Honestly, I don't think a little sediment getting into the pour off is really a big deal either, it is, after all, just your cleanup mineral spirits. Hope this helps!