Paintbrush Care for Carvers

eNews: Strop Talk / Tips for Beginners

Paintbrush Care for Carvers

Learn to select, clean, and store your brushes like a pro

By Betty Padden

Selecting paintbrushes can be a daunting task given the array of choices, but knowing the basics can make a world of difference! I’m here to break down the different types, shapes and sizes, and their uses. I’ll also cover brush cleaning and storage. As you use them, your brushes will become like old friends—much like your chisels and gouges; you’ll start to know how they will perform in a given situation. Care for these tools correctly and you’ll be able to use them for years! After learning all about brush care, try out your skills on these cute and cuddly cat shelf sitters.


Naturally, the bristles are the most important part of the brush. They are made either with synthetic fibers (these are very “springy” and smooth in texture), natural fibers (hair of various animals—kolinsky sable, pony, hog, etc.) or a combination of the two fibers.

Natural bristles have barbs or scales, which make them thicker, stiffer, and a little harder to clean. Due to their stiffness, natural bristle brushes are mainly used for canvas painting with thicker paint. Typically, they are more expensive than synthetic brushes; however, some can be less expensive than the synthetic options.

Synthetic brushes, which are smoother and springier than their natural counterparts, go with a variety of paints and are typically easier to clean. I use mainly synthetic brushes for applying paint, but I reserve some natural bristle brushes for blending. Pricing depends on the size; I spend $3-$5 on smaller brushes and $10-$15 on larger ones. However, buying a set is usually cheaper.


Bristle Shapes


Workhorse of the set; used for applying paint and washes.



Used for painting large areas and adding textures, such as house or roof details.


Angled flats

Used like regular flats, but tip can reach into smaller areas.



Good for blending or painting a soft edge.


Script liners

Used for fine lines and detail



Used to blur the border between two colors to form a gradation of color.


Fan brushes

Used to paint textured areas like clouds, trees, or leaves.


“Spoiled” brushes

Great for blending and adding texture (It may be the Yankee in me, but I have a hard time throwing a brush out!).



Washing Your Brushes

When using acrylics, have a container of water ready to wash your brushes instantly because the paint dries so quickly. Note: It is safe to wash acrylic paint off in your work or household sink. Use warm—not hot—water; hot water can cause the glue used to secure the bristles to fail.

Clean your oil paint brushes in a paint thinner before washing with water. Note: You can leave your paint thinner in a sealed jar, let the pigment settle, and reuse at a later time. Be sure to collect oil paint sludge and dispose of it at your local hazardous waste site. Do your best to remove all the paint, especially from the ferrule; paint left to dry here will cause the bristles to splay out and separate. 

After you wash your brushes in paint thinner and squeeze them with a cloth, give them a final wash with a brush cleaner; I like The Master’s Brush Cleaner (use as directed). A good brush cleaner will even restore a brush with hardened paint on it to some degree. Shape the bristles while they are wet and let them air dry.



Storing Your Brushes

Store your brushes upright in a container so the bristles don’t bend. I use a simple jar for organized storage and easy access. You can get carriers of all sizes at any art supply store if you need to transport your brushes and other painting supplies.


About the Author
Betty Padden and her husband, Bob, own Wooden Apple Signmakers in Auburn, Mass. They have been professional sign carvers for 47 years and have been teaching their craft to students for more than 30. They are the creators of SantaCarls®, a unique figure that has been sold at Disney parks and Busch Gardens. Betty also designs and paints for Ne’Qwa Art and Blossom Bucket, among other companies. Visit for cutouts, patterns, and designs, and help for woodcarvers struggling with projects. See more of Betty’s work at


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