dirty paint brush on blue background

A Step-By-Step Guide to Cleaning Your Paint Brushes

So you’re about to take on a DIY painting project, or you just finished one, and now you’re wondering how to clean your brushes. Or, it could be that you have some brushes that you haven’t used for years, and you have no idea if they’re still usable. Either way, we have useful advice about cleaning and caring for your new or old brushes, and even about buying paint brushes!

In This Article

Tools and Materials Needed

Depending on the type of brushes, and the type of paint you are using, you will need some of the following tools and materials – please read each method below to make sure you are buying the correct things for your own situation:

  • Buckets.
  • Glass jars.
  • A paint brush comb.
  • A brush spinner (optional).
  • Clean rags.
  • Newspaper.
  • Denatured alcohol.
  • Household ammonia.
  • Lacquer thinner.
  • Paint thinner.
  • Soap (laundry or dish detergent, or a mild soap bar will work fine).
  • Face mask (optional).
  • Chemical-resistant gloves.

The best way to ensure a long lifespan for your paint brushes is to clean them immediately after use.

Dry paint is much harder to clean off, and will result in harsher treatment being necessary to get them looking fresh again. Do not allow your brushes to soak, unless in the specific ways outlined in some of the methods below, as this could damage the bristles, ferrule, and handle. Never clean your brushes with hot or boiling water, as this will damage the bristles, as well as the glues holding the brush together.

Cleaning Synthetic Brushes

Follow these steps if you used your synthetic brush with water-based or latex paints.

Step 1: Scrape excess paint off the brush bristles into the paint can, and then brush the remaining paint off onto a sheet of newspaper, using X motions, until the brush is as dry as possible.

Step 2: Mix some dish soap or laundry detergent with water in a bucket, and agitate it to create some foam. Wash the brush in soapy water, using your fingers to loosen the paint from the bristles. If you have a paint brush comb, use it to release stubborn bits of paint from the upper parts of the bristles.

Step 3: Use a paint brush spinner if you have one, otherwise roll the handle of the brush between your hands to spin the brush, getting rid of excess water, and any remaining paint.

Step 4: Wash the brush in a separate bucket of clean water, again using your fingers to clean between the bristles. Spin the brush, and wash it a third time in the clean water.

Step 5: If there are still stubborn bits of paint clinging to the brush, try washing it with mineral spirits or lacquer thinner, before once again cleaning it in soapy water, and rinsing it clean in fresh water as above.

Step 6: Allow the brush to dry on a towel, wrap it in paper, and hang or pack away, as mentioned above.

Cleaning Synthetic or Natural Hair Paint Brushes

Follow these steps if you used your synthetic or natural hair brush with oil-based paints or varnish.

When using solvent-based cleaners, be sure to work in a well ventilated area, preferably outside, and wear a face mask if you find the fumes too strong. We also recommend wearing chemical-resistant gloves, particularly if you have sensitive skin. Do not work near any form of heating or open flame, as these fluids are highly flammable. Be sure to keep your containers of solvent in clearly marked containers, and well out of reach of children and pets.

Step 1: Pour some paint thinner into 2 clean glass jars, making sure it is deep enough to cover the head of the brush. After scraping the excess paint off the brush, rinse it well in the first jar of paint thinner. Work the bristles with your hands, and use your paint brush comb if needed. Oil based paints are easier to remove from brushes, so it may not be necessary to use the comb if your brushes are cleaned properly after each use.

Step 2: Spin the brush for 10 seconds in the brush spinner, or a little longer if using your hands, then clean the brush in the second jar of paint thinner. Agitate the brush in the clean thinner for about 2 minutes, and then spin it again.

Step 3: Pour some lacquer thinner into a third, clean glass jar, and put the brush in it, agitating it for about a minute.

Step 4: Spin, shake, and flick the thinner off the brush onto some newspaper, and then wash the brush briefly in soapy water – no more than 1 minute for natural hair brushes, as the water will damage them if allowed to soak in.

Step 5: Rinse quickly in clean water, and then allow to dry on a towel before wrapping in paper, and storing.

Pro tip: To save thinner, do not throw out the thinner after cleaning your brushes – rather, allow the paint solids to settle at the bottom of the jar, and then pour the thinner off into a separate container (do not mix it with clean, unused thinner). Once the paint solids have dried out, you can remove them from the jar, and dispose of them in an environmentally responsible way.

Watch the video below to learn how to clean a paint brush that was used with oil-based paints.

How to Remove Shellac Resin Paint from Your Brush

To clean shellac off your paint brushes, you will need denatured alcohol or household ammonia. If using the denatured alcohol, follow the same steps as the paint thinner method above.

If using household ammonia, dilute the ammonia at double the strength recommended by the manufacturer for cleaning floors. Wash the brush well in the ammonia, rinse it in lukewarm water, and allow to dry. Wrap and store as per the methods above.

Here’s a video with instructions on how to clean shellac and varnish from your paint brush:

How to Revive Old, Hardened Brushes

Buy the correct type of brush cleaner for the old brushes you want to clean, remembering that a water based cleaner cannot be used on natural hair brushes. If you buy a solvent based cleaner, you can use it on both synthetic and natural brushes. This is particularly important for reviving old brushes, as they will need to soak for some time, and that will give a water based cleaner too much time to soak into the hair fibers on natural brushes, permanently damaging them. The type of cleaner will not matter in terms of the paint that has been used on the brushes.

Step 1: Fill a glass jar with cleaner, making sure it is deep enough to submerge the head of the paint brush (if the handle is also covered in dried paint, use a container in which the entire brush can be submerged).

Step 2: Soak the affected brush for 24 hours. If you are using a solvent based cleaner, cover the top of the jar with foil to prevent the fumes from escaping into the room all night. Be sure to suspend the brush in the water – do not allow it to sit on the bottom of the jar, as you will permanently misshape the bristles. To suspend the brush, use tape to attach the handle to the side of the jar. If you are soaking the whole brush, make sure it is lying on its side, not on the bristles.

Step 3: After 24 hours, check if the bristles have softened. If not, soak for a further 24 hours.

Step 4: Once the bristles are soft, work them through with the paint brush comb and your fingers, removing all traces of paint from between the bristles and inside the ferrule.

Step 5: If using a solvent based cleaner, fill a clean jar with clean solvent, and soak the brush for a further hour. If using a water based cleaner, wash the brush in soapy water.

Step 6: If using a solvent based cleaner, clean the brush with thinners, as for oil based paints, then allow to dry, wrap and store. If using a water based cleaner, clean the brush as for water based paints, allow to dry, wrap and store.

If this method did not bring your old paint brushes back to life, you will likely need to invest in some new ones. Be sure to follow our step-by-step methods above to keep your new brushes in good order, and make the most of your investment.

Here’s a video explanation of the above process.

What to Know About Buying, Using, and Storing Paint Brushes

What Type of Paint Brush Should You Buy?

If your painting project is a once off, and doesn’t need to be great quality, a cheap and disposable brush will probably do the job just fine, but please be sure to dispose of it in an environmentally responsible way when you’re done. Good paint brushes are expensive, but if you’re going to be doing a lot of painting, they will make your life much easier, and are well worth looking after.

When buying your paint brushes, be sure to choose the right brushes for the job, especially if you’ll be buying brushes that need to last you a while. Firstly, check what type of paint you will be using.

Synthetic paint brushes are often cheaper, and don’t give perfect results, when compared to natural hair brushes, but if you are using water based paint, they will be your only option. Using natural hair brushes with water based paints will cause the hair fibers to swell up over time, and eventually lose their integrity. If you will be painting with oil based paints, however, then your natural brushes will be the best option.

Pro tip: have a separate set of brushes for each type of paint that you will be using. This way you will have the right brushes for the right type of paint, your brushes will be easier to keep clean and in good condition, and it will extend the life of your brushes.

How To Correctly Use Your Paint Brushes

It is recommended that you never dip more than the tip of your brush in the paint; up to half the bristles at most. This will help to keep the paint out of the tops of the bristles where it is the hardest to clean out. If you stop painting briefly, for a lunch break, for example, find a way to keep the tips of the bristles in the paint while you are away. Some paint pails come with magnetic sides, or small compartments that allow you to suspend your brush tip in the paint. If this is not the case with your paint pail, use tape to attach the brush to the side of the container.

If you will be pausing overnight, but are certain that you will be painting again in the morning, you could wrap the head of the wet paint brush in plastic wrap, making sure it is airtight, and let it lie on its side for the night. Do not do this if you are likely to skip painting the next day, and forget to clean your brush.

You could also suspend the brush in the relevant cleaner (water for water based paints, and solvent/thinner for oil based paints), by placing the cleaner in a jar, and attaching the brush to the side of the jar. Never leave your brushes touching the bottom of the jar, as you will permanently misshape the bristles.

How to Correctly Store Your Paint Brushes

Once you have cleaned your brushes, and spun them to remove excess moisture, lay them flat on a towel to dry, then wrap them carefully in newspaper, paper towel, or heavy paper, making sure to follow the original shape of the brush head, and keeping all the bristles straight and neat. Attach the paper with tape or a rubber band, and if possible, hang your brushes to store them. This will ensure that nothing can squash and misshape the bristles. If you cannot hang your brushes, store them on their sides, packed carefully together, where they will not be crushed or weighted down.

Amy Catchpole

Amy Catchpole is a lifetime farm girl who currently lives on a farm with her husband, dogs, horses, and sheep. As a farmer, she is very concerned with lasting and durable tools and products, as well as the environment and the welfare of the planet. Aside from farming and animals, Amy’s biggest passion is the English language, and she is an avid writer and editor.