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How To Clean Paint Brushes Like A Professional

A good quality paintbrush holds more paint, distributes it more evenly on the surface and won’t leave you picking out loose bristles from your new coat of paint. Investing in good brushes means less work for you and better value for money in the long run, but there’s little point in buying a better brush unless you clean it and store it properly after use.

The steps outlined here will help you to clean your paintbrushes like a professional, maintain their quality and extend their lifespan when using both oil and water-based paints.

Tip: A stitch in time saves nine; the sooner you clean your brushes after use the better. 

If you’re not finished using the brush for this painting task, you can avoid cleaning it and instead store the paintbrush by wrapping it in tightly sealed plastic. This can be a ziplock bag, clingfilm or a plastic bag sealed with masking tape. You can then store it someplace cool for up to two days or even longer in the freezer. When coming back to the task, simply unwrap your brush and you’re good to go.

How To Clean Paint Brushes After Using Oil-based Paint

If you’ve been using your brush for oil-based paint, varnish or lacquer, soap and water alone is not going to cut it. You’ll need a paint thinner like white spirits or turpentine to clean your brushes properly. You can check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the best solvent to use.

Using the right brush for the job makes maintaining your brushes easier. Natural bristle brushes are best suited for painting with oil-based products on furniture or woodwork. Avoid using the same brushes for oil-based paints and water-based paints.

Step 1: Remove as much paint as possible from your brush when you’re finished. You can do this by applying the excess to the surface you’re painting, by scraping the paint off the brush onto the rim of the paint container and/or using an old cloth or paper towel to remove the remainder. A wire paint comb is a handy tool for removing paint from brushes also, just comb through the paintbrush over the paint pot.

Step 2: Using a strong plastic or metal container, half-fill with white spirits. Place your brushes in the solvent and allow to soak for 5 minutes, working it through the bristles of the brush by dipping and pumping them in the solvent repeatedly. Repeat until no more colour comes out of the brush.

Step 3: Spin the paintbrush to remove excess thinner. This can be done by hand or with the help of a mechanical paint brush spinner.

Step 4: Using gloves squeeze the excess thinner out of the bristles of the brush into the container. The brushes can now be rinsed in warm soapy water. After rinsing blot the brushes onto paper towels or old newspapers and leave to dry.

Step 5: Collect the used solvent/paint thinner into one sealable container and contact your local council to find out how to dispose of it responsibly.

Tip: When painting only dip the top two inches of the paintbrush into the paint, the less unneeded painted on the brush the easier it is to clean afterwards.

How To Clean Paint Brushes After Using Water-based Paint

Synthetic or acrylic brushes are recommended for water-based interior paints and these will last for years when looked after correctly.

Step 1: Remove excess paint from the bristles, by scraping it back into the paint tray or bucket. A paintbrush comb is a cheap and effective tool for removing residual paint from your brush, especially in that tricky compact area of bristles near the ferrule, the metal band that connects the bristles to the brush handle.

Step 2: Fill a container with warm soapy water. Dip brushes, working the soap carefully through the bristles to remove all paint. Repeat until a clean lather is achieved.

Step 3: Rinse thoroughly with clean water until water runs clear.

Step 4: Spin the brushes by hand or with a brush spinner to remove excess water.

Step 5: Absorb any remaining moisture with a clean rag or kitchen towel and lay flat to dry. You can use the paintbrush comb to straighten the bristles of your brush to restore shape. Finally store brushes by hanging them.

Tip: Bent bristles on synthetic brushes can be restored to their former shape by dipping the brushes into hot water. 

How To Get Dried Paint Out of A Paint Brush

Even if you haven’t followed our number one tip to clean brushes immediately after use and your paintbrushes are hardened stiff with old paint or varnish, they can still be salvaged. With just a few simple ingredients you will likely have at home. Here’s how:

  1. Soak hardened brushes in hot soapy water to loosen the dried paint and penetrate the bristles.
  2. Once the bristles have softened a little and are a bit more pliable apply dish soap to the bristles liberally and lather up. Gently but firmly working the soap into the bristles as much as possible.
  3. Fill a small container like a glass jar with more soapy water and swirl the brush around inside until the paint colour starts to colour the water, then you know you are getting somewhere! Discard the dirty water and rinse the brush thoroughly with clean warm water.
  4. Refill your container with hot water and add a teaspoon of regular laundry fabric softener. Place your rinsed brush into the mixture and swirl vigorously. You should begin to see some softening of the bristles happening at this point and more old paint colour coming from the brush.
  5. Using a brush comb here will reduce the work of restoring your brush by loosening the old paint. You can put fabric softener directly onto the comb to penetrate deep into the bristles. Rinse thoroughly and repeat until your brush is clean and pliable once more.

Tip: For stubborn dried-in paint that refuses to budge at this stage you can soak the brush in white spirits for up to an hour. Rinse with warm water and soak in diluted fabric softener to further soften the bristles if needed.

How To Clean Paint Brushes With Vinegar

Another useful household item in your arsenal to restore hardened brushes is the old reliable; vinegar. It’s great for softening old brush bristles and removing dried paint.

  1. Soak brushes in a container of vinegar for up to an hour
  2. Then place a saucepan of vinegar on the stovetop and bring to a simmer.
  3. When simmering, place your brushes into the saucepan and leave for a few minutes.
  4. Allow to cool then rinse thoroughly with warm water, combing through the bristles with your fingers or with a brush comb to remove paint detritus.

Eco-Friendly Tips for Cleaning Paint Brushes

While caring for our paint brushes we can also care for the environment. To avoid using potentially harmful chemicals here are some useful tips:

  • Reduce the need to clean. Don’t clean your brushes unnecessarily i.e. If you’re using the paintbrush again tomorrow simply slip it into a plastic bag.
  • Use brush comb to remove excess paint from the brush reducing the need to use a large amount of solvent
  • Use earth-friendly dish soap and water in a bucket to clean off water-based paints from your brushes.
  • Linseed oil is an eco-friendly alternative to paint thinner and traditional solvents and works effectively for removing many oil-based products from paintbrushes.

Is It Ok To Clean Paint Brushes in the Sink?

If you have used non toxic biodegradable natural paint, you can wash brushes with dish detergent and rinse in the sink without causing any harm.

For other water-based paints, especially if you are on a septic tank system, it is best not to clean the brushes in the sink as it may cause damage to the system. Instead use a small bucket to wash brushes and a larger bucket to collect dirty water after each rinse.

For oil-based paints cleaning brushes in the sink is a big no-no. Never pour solvents down the sink. The paint and the solvents used to remove them are hazardous materials that can cause serious harm to the local water supply and flora and fauna ecosystems. Always use solvents in a well ventilated area and check with your local council for safe disposal of hazardous waste.

Tip: After cleaning brushes, seal the container of solvent and leave it to stand for 24hrs, the paint should sink to the bottom and you can filter off the upper layers of solvent for reuse.

Can You Leave Paint Brushes In Water Overnight?

Ideally, you should soak your brushes in water for not more than a couple of hours. Leaving brushes in water for extended periods of time will eventually dissolve the glue that keeps the bristles attached to the ferrule and the paintbrush handle.