How to Clean and Store Natural Bristle Brushes

natural bristle brushes diy categories

I’ve invested a bit of money into natural bristle brushes, particularly while doing my Boston Whaler Restoration. They have been instrumental in topside painting and in particular varnishing the interioir mahogany. Cleaning and storing these natural bristle brushes for future projects is important to me.

A Quick Overview of Natural Bristle Brushes

Natural bristle brushes are typically used for oil based paints, varnishes and enamels. In my Boston Whaler Restoration project I’ve used various types with Spar Varnish, one part polyurethane paints as well as two part epoxy and polyurethane enamels.

There are a few different natural bristle brushes. The most common you’ll find is the
china bristle brush. Most inexpensive chip brushes are china actually bristle, although you can spend a bit more on good quality China Bristle brushes. These are typically sourced from the hair of hogs raised in China.

Another source of natural bristle paint brushes are from Ox hair, typically the hair from the ear of the ox, these usually come from Europe. Ox hair bristle is very soft and is used when exceedingly fine finishes are required. Many of these brushes are made with a blend of China bristle for support since they are very fine bristles.

The finest of natural bristle brushes is the Badger hair brush. These brushes are considered the best for application of varnishes and enamels. Unfortunately, they are exceedingly hard to find. Many of the badger hair brushes you’ll find today are actually china bristle or a blend that has been treated to perform like badger hair brushes.

Cleaning the Natural Bristle Brush

Once you are done with painting or tipping off paint or varnish, you’ll want to get it into some solvent as quickly as possible. The less time the paint has to set up, the easier it will be to clean your brush. For the most part I’ll use either mineral spirits or generic paint thinner.

One work of advice when painting, never lay the brush down on it’s side. This gives the coating you are using an opportunity to creep back into the heel. Dried paint in the heel will do more to ruin a good brush than any thing else can.

When I’m doing a large job, I’ll set up three containers with either of the cleaners and label them one through three. Use jars that can be sealed easily, canning jars are great for this. Bail lid jars are what I used here and they work extremely well also. To start cleaning, I’ll swish the brush around in the container marked one then on to two and eventually three and repeat the process for each.

If I am going to be using the brush again with the next day or so, I’ll leave it in the third jar. Ideally, you should suspend the brush so that the bristles aren’t being bent against the side or bottom of the jar. If you are done with painting for a while, you’ll want to prepare the brush for storage. Once you are done cleaning the brush in the third jar, spin the brush out with a brush spinner. If I you don’t have one handy, take it outside and shake it dry.

Brush Spinner

Storing a Natural Bristle Brush

If you’re not going to be using the brush in the near future, then you should store it. There’s a few simple step you can take to ensure your natural bristle brush stays pliant and useful for years to come. First, give it a dip in fresh solvent and swish it around. Then spin or shake the excess off.

paint brush comb

Next, dip it in Kerosene or diesel fluid. Think of it as a conditioner for the brush that will help keep it soft and pliant. Spin or shake the excess diesel or kerosene off. Use a brush comb to straighten the bristles out. Then store it in the original case it came in. If it is no longer available, wrap in in newspaper.

Wrap the newspaper snugly around the brush so that all the bristles are held tightly together. Bend the newspaper over the tip of the brush so that the bristles are shaped into a nice chisel tip. Sometimes I prefer to just use newspaper for this feature alone. Being able to form the chisel tip when storing goes a long way in giving the brush the shape it needs when you are painting or varnishing.

natural bristle brush stored in newspaper

One work on storing it. Newspaper with kerosene or diesel is flammable. Keep the brush in a safe place, preferably a metal locker or other fire rated storage!

Preparing the Stored Brush for Use

When you are ready to use the brush again, simply take it out of it’s packaging or newspaper and dip and swish it in fresh solvent to get the kerosene or oil out of it. Shake or spin the excess out and comb it out.

Brushes with Dried Paint

If you have a brush that was improperly cleaned you can salvage that natural bristle brush. It’s happened to me in the past! Buy brush cleaner fluid from your local big box store. You will want to use an old coffee can or similar container. What you will want to do is suspend the brush in the brush cleaner.

Brush cleaner
suspending a paint brush

The easiest way to suspend the brush is to drill a hole in it above the heel. Probably midway between the end of the handle and the heel. Use a screwdriver or other long stiff object to pass through the hole. Rest that object on the rim of the container so that the brush is suspended in the cleaner.

Soaking the Paint Brush in Cleaner

Pour in just enough of the paint brush cleaner to cover the bristles. If paint has made its way into the heel you may want to use a bit more to try and dissolve that. Many paints will dissolve in 15 to 30 minutes. Tougher jobs may require an overnight soak. Be careful though, the paint brush cleaner is caustic and can damage the brush.

Once the brush has soaked enough you’ll want to wipe the excess off with a rag. Use a stiff cleaning brush to pull the old paint off of the brush. I’ve even used a steel brush to do this! When you are satisfied that the brush is clean, wash it down with soap and water to remove and of the paint brush cleaner that remains.

To store this brush, follow the steps on storing it. Give it a dip and a swish in solvent. Get the excess solvent off then dip it in kerosene or diesel fluid. Once again, shake off the excess, comb it and store it in it’s original packaging or newspaper.

Here is a link to the Video edition of this article: Cleaning and Storing Natural Bristle Brushes

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