Cleaning Brushes

Copyright 2003 by Jeff Jewitt  (Not reproducible in any form, written or electronic, without permission)

This topic is covered in detail in the video “Hand-Applied Finishes” and the book “Great Wood Finishes”.

You can choose the best and most expensive brush for finishing, but unless you know how to care for it and clean it – it won’t last very long. With proper care, a brush should last many years.

Note: Our Athena Taklon Brushes are treated with a water soluble size to keep the bristles in shape. You can remove this size by running the brush under warm or hot water for 30 seconds or so.

Before using a brush, whether for the first time or after it’s been stored for a while, lightly whisk the bristle against your palm to dislodge and debris or loose bristle. Next, dip the brush all the way up to the ferrule in the solvent for the particular finish you’re using – mineral spirits for varnishes and oils, alcohol or lacquer thinner for shellac and lacquer, or water for water-based materials. This “coats” the deepest part of the bristles near the ferrule with solvent – making it much easier to clean later. Wipe the excess solvent off with a clean-lint-free cloth and then begin finishing. Never dip the brush into finishing m material all the way up to the ferrule –makes the brush hard to clean.

After you’re through finishing – brush residual finish onto a scrap piece of wood or newspaper and then rinse the brush in the clean-up solvent… then go to a sink and squirt a generous amount of dishwashing soap onto the bristles. (I use the brand Dawn).  Work the soap up into a lather with some warm water and using the palm of your hand, swirl the bristles vigorously to work the lather up into the reservoir. Bend the bristles back to force out the inside near the base at the ferrule. Repeat this process until the bristles no longer feel slick or slimy, then rinse well with water. Spin the water out by twirling the handle between your palms and then use a brush comb to straighten out the bristles. Wrap the bristles carefully in paper towel to keep the profile intact, then lay flat to dry. It’s best to store brushes in drawers or out of the way of where you do woodworking, otherwise airborne dust settles in the brush.

For small brushes and red sable touch-up bushes, you can dip the bristle in shellac to “lock” the bristles in shape. Soaking the brush in alcohol before using will dissolve the shellac and free up the bristles. This also works well if you dedicate a particular brush to shellac like the Golden Taklon types.

If a brush gets hard with an oil or water base finish, you may be able to rescue it by soaking it in a non-methylene chloride stripper like Citristrip for several hours, then wire brushing it near the heel to break up and dislodge residual finish.