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Paint Like a Pro: How to Choose the Right Brush

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The Brush Means Success or Failure

One of the most significant factors that will affect the outcome—for better or for worse—of every painting project you tackle will be the brush or roller cover you choose. The wrong tool will doom your efforts, leading to wasted time and frustration with the result. And, conversely, with the right implement in your hand every part of the work will go more smoothly and the chances of the end result being professional will be greatly increased.

I’m going to go into detail about brushes in this article, but much of what I have to say will apply to choosing a roller cover, as well. Roller covers are easier to buy, actually, as there are far fewer choices, they are all cheaper than brushes and, in my experience, they are labeled better, with the type of job they are designed for—paint type, wall surface—spelled out much more clearly on their packaging than is the case for brushes.

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How to Choose the Correct Brush for Your Project

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the main criteria for picking a brush: The first choice is size: the width and length of the overall brush as well as the length of the bristles in proportion to the total length.

Next we will look at bristle type, as well as the shape of the bristles. Of all the factors, this one is the one that—if ignored—can literally doom your painting project.

Finally we’ll talk a bit about cost and discuss whether or not it’s wise to invest in a higher priced, better quality brush or go with the cheapest one you can find that will do the job.

And before we close out this topic, I’ll also give you some tips of how to clean, store and reuse brushes.

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Handle to Toe: Anatomy of a Paintbrush

But first, let’s look at the parts of a paintbrush:

  • The handle may be wood or plastic, and is most commonly rounded or shaped to fit into a human hand.
  • The bristles may be made from natural or manmade fibers, straight cut at their end—which is called the toe of the brush—or cut on an angle. The part of the bristles from midway down to where they meet the ferrule—the metal part that holds the bristles to the handle—is called the belly. When loading paint on a brush, it should never go into the belly, but instead always be only on the lower half of the bristles.
  • Ferrules are typically made of thin metal and the part closest to the bristles is called the heel of the ferrule.

How to Choose the Right Size Paintbrush

Choosing the right size brush is based upon only two factors: The size of the surface you are painting and the degree of detail on that surface. If you are painting a broad, featureless expanse—a door, paneling, a cabinet—then you will want to use a wider brush. If you are painting window or door trim, crown molding or chair rails, then look for a brush just a bit narrower than the width of that trim.

The other consideration is whether the brush has bristles cut blunt, straight across and parallel to the ferrule, or cut on an angle. Choose a straight cut brush for flat surfaces without detailed molding, and when you will not need to cut in close to another painted area, trim or any other fine work.

Use an angled brush to cut around trim when preparing a wall for being painted with a roller, for moldings with details and shaping, or whenever you need to paint up to—but not over—an edge of any kind.

An angled bristle paint brush.
An angled bristle paint brush. | Source

What Bristle Type Should You Use for Your Project

Natural bristle brushes are more costly then manmade fiber brushes and are best used for wood stain, varnish, all urethane, enamel and oil based paints. Synthetic fiber bristles are the best choice for modern acrylic, latex and alkyd paints.

Inexpensive foam brushes are used for quick projects—touchup, for example—and are usually not worth the time it takes to properly clean them. Therefore they are also a good choice for small projects for which you would otherwise use an expensive natural bristle brush. Another good use for foam brushers is applying test patches of paint—in fact, if you purchase a pot of test paint, buy a few foam brushes at the same time as you will then save time but not having to clean a brush you only used for a few minutes. Just be aware that it is impossible to get the same type of smooth, glossy finish with a foam brush as with a natural bristle brush, so do not attempt to substitute foam for bristles if you are applying the finish coat to stained wood. Stains and other thin paints can also literally eat the foam away, so don’t expect a foam brush to last well if you covering a large area, use a natural bristle brush, instead, even if it is much more costly. Your time is worth something, too, and it’s not cost effective to put time into a project if you do not use the correct tools. You may end up having to start all over again or being unhappy with the result.

You will also find that beyond the material from which they are made, bristles vary in their degree of softness or stiffness. Brushes are marked as soft or stiff on their packaging.

Softer bristles area good choice for stains and varnishes, in fact the relative softness of natural compared to synthetic bristles is the main reason natural bristle brushes are recommended for varnishes, urethanes and oil based paints in general. These paints will dry with distinct and undesirable brush ridges if stiff bristles are used in their application. However, if you are cutting around trim or painting an intricate molding, you will need a stiffer brush in order to have more control over the paint. So choose a stiffer brush for those projects and a softer one for covering large, plain surfaces.

Buying a set of brushes in different sizes is usually a cost effective way to have the right brush ready for your next project.
Buying a set of brushes in different sizes is usually a cost effective way to have the right brush ready for your next project. | Source

Here's a really helpful video on choosing the correct paint brush:

How Much Should You Spend?

Cost is a relative thing. Yes, good quality brushes will cost more than standard grade brushes, but having a professional do the job would cost much, much more, so think of the tools you use for Do It Yourself projects as a wise investment and budget accordingly.

On the other hand, there are many times when the cheapest possible brush will work just fine—quick touchup projects are such a case, as are small jobs that do not require a high degree of finish. Another good example of a project for which you can use a cheap brush is applying deck stain and sealant—look for wide, inexpensive brushes especially made for such use. So never be embarrassed to buy and use cheap and/or disposable brushes, but at the same time do not be reluctant to spring for a top-notch brush for a job of which you want to be proud.

One more word of the cost of brushes: better quality brushes use bristles that are flagged at the toe—flagged means that the end of each bristle means has split ends that grip the paint better and leave fewer brush marks on the finished surface. If you want a smooth finish, a higher cost brush is a necessity, not a luxury.

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How to Clean and Reuse Paintbrushes

The beauty of foam brushes and all cheap brushes is that they can be thrown away; and likewise the biggest negative with costly brushes is that even with good care they simply will not last forever. If you clean them promptly and thoroughly after use, however, you can expect to use a good brush many, many times.

Obviously, the type of solvent you will use to clean your brush depends upon the type of paint you are using. The paint manufacturer’s directions for cleaning tools—which is always marked clearly on the paint can—will be your best guide. Follow those directions, and remember to rinse, rinse, rinse, and then rinse again.

For latex paints and any others that are water soluble, you can purchase specially made brush detergents. However, ordinary dish detergent works well and is usually less expensive.

If paint is applied correctly with a brush, no paint should ever be loaded onto the brush’s belly. Only the last half of the bristles should contain paint. In practice, however, it is nearly impossible to not end up with some paint forced upward into the belly, so be sure to clean as high up into the bristle as possible. Push the brush down on a surface while rinsing, forcing the bristles to splay. Use a sponge with a light-scrubbing surface to rub the bristles, removing any caked on paint. Then rinse some more.

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A Comb for Cleaning Paintbrushes
A Comb for Cleaning Paintbrushes | Source

Putting Your Brush Away--Ready to Use the Next Time

Dry the brush with an old towel, and then gently shape the bristles back into a like-new position. Rest the brush across the edge of a sink, worktable or other surface so that air can circulate around the bristles, thus helping the brush to dry quickly and correctly.

If you paint often, you may wish to purchase a brush comb, which is a specialized tool with wide set metal teeth designed to separate the bristles of a paintbrush while you clean it.

Store brushes in a deep container with their handles down. Keep the cardboard covers with which costlier brushes are sold and put them back on for storage. If properly cared for you will get much service from a good brush, and taking the time to clean and store them properly is imperative in that quest.

The last paintbrush I bought was:

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© 2012 DIYmyOmy

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