Paintbrushes and How I Clean Them

A bit of background: During our initial home renovations in the 1980s and for many years afterwards, we used only oil-based paints. They were declared best for spot washing, especially in high traffic areas… and with a busy family of four boys, we considered all areas high traffic! Cleaning brushes was slow and difficult and we often chose to toss them in the garbage once an area was complete.

Latex paints improved dramatically over the years and the added drive to “go green” has led to the essential demise of oils in the painting business. As much as I touted the benefits of oil, I am latex all the way now! 

variety of paintbrushes

I keep a variety of brush sizes, with most of my work done with a 1-inch brush (smaller than most people use) since my pieces are all fairly small. I use smaller brushes yet for detail work like edging, woodwork details, and stencils. In general, I pay for a reasonable quality brush since it lasts me a long time. I use both angled and straight bristles. It took me a while to find the best small brushes for my detail work, but have found relatively inexpensive ones in the artist sections of crafting stores such as Michaels that work beautifully.

Cleaning Latex Paint Brushes

The overwhelming advantage of latex is ease of clean-up.

New painters and lazy painters balk at cleaning paint brushes immediately after use. Instead they look for quick fixes, like wrapping the brushes in plastic wrap or bags until the job is done. This works of course, but when you finally attempt to clean it, you’re left with a brush a lot goopier than it needs to be.

brush with paint brush initial rinse brush final rinse brush rinsed clean brush towel dried

I now clean my brush each and every time I use it, by immediately rinsing it under warm running tap water.  I just hold the brush under the stream and work my fingers through the brush, even using the bristles themselves to rub on each other. The paint is gone in no time.  I wipe it well with a clean cotton cloth and store it lying flat on my work surface, ready for the next session, which might be in a couple of days or even a couple of hours.  A damp brush is not a hindrance to painting, and it is a lot more pleasant working with a brush ungobbed with paint and a handle that remains clean.

Cleaning Shellac-Based Primer Brushes

The exception to warm-water cleaning is when the primer contains shellac (which is, by the way, my primer of choice) which can only be cleaned with household ammonia.

I keep two glass jars of 50% ammonia/50% water in the wash area sink. Most household supply stores carry ammonia.  I buy mine at Home Depot.  You can see it’s lemon scented! Bonus! The jars look pretty disgusting here but they are used over and over… and when they get too awful, I just replace them with some other used jars lying around. They start out with the identical solution but the first one gets most of the paint sloshed into it and becomes thicker and goopier more quickly.

primer cleaning jars sample ammonia

I dip the brush in the first jar, swishing it around in the mixture, and scrape paint off against the rim until I have removed as much as I can this way.

primer cleaner solution 1 cleaning stage 1 cleaning stage 2 cleaning stage 3

Then I position the brush in the second jar so that it is hanging with its bristles suspended within the ammonia mixture. I attach the handle to the side of the jar using a small plastic clamp, and I leave it overnight – by the next day most of the residual primer has percolated into the ammonia.                clamping to second jar 07-cleanest-yet-web

I remove the brush, spray it with fabric spot cleaner (but any detergent could be used), and clean it under a running stream of water.

clean with spot remover sample spot remover rinse well dry well

It cleans very nicely; I dry it and lay it horizontally with my other brushes.

I use a different, cheaper brand of paint brush for my shellac primer so that I can easily identify it.

brushes lying flat

I find that cleaning brushes after each use and keeping them in a dust-free area lying horizontally maintains their value the best.  A single, good quality paintbrush will last a long, long time.


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