Picking a Paint Brush

A quality brush brings out the best in a paint job. It can mean the difference between seeing brushmarks and a smooth, even finish.

One of the most common mistakes homeowners make at the paint store is buying high-quality paint and cheap paint brushes.

So says Dan Connolly, assistant manager at Sherwin-Williams in Lexington, Mass. "Then they come back and wonder why the paint isn't covering well."

The word among professional housepainters: With brushes, you get what you pay for.

Most top companies manufacture brushes in varying quality. The next time you're in a hardware store, compare an inexpensive brush with a higher-priced brush; you'll see and feel the difference.

Think of a brush as a transfer tool. It holds and applies paint.

First, decide on the job to be done.

For touch-up work, a good sponge brush will usually do the trick. But for larger jobs, you'll want a wider-bristle brush that applies paint efficiently. Rollers and sprayers can come into the picture, but we'll save that for another article.

What should you look for in a quality brush?

Bristle material is the first thing to consider. Nylon brushes are among the most inexpensive. But most experts recommend the combination of nylon and polyester for the best results with latex paint (natural bristles will absorb water.)

Specifically, a 3- or 4-inch nylon-polyester brush with a wood handle and corrosion-resistant ferrule (the metal part) will deliver a good finish and will last a long time if cleaned and stored correctly.

Natural "China" or Chinese (boar bristle) brushes are strictly for oil-based paints, enamels, and varnishes. The white China version is more supple than the black and would be used for more delicate projects such as staining an antique.

The next thing to look for is the shape or cut of the brush. A 1- or 2-inch angled "sash" brush has a longer handle and is easier to use for trim and corners, "cutting in" work.

Some brushes feature "flagged" or split ends for better performance, because they hold the paint better at the ends.

Wood handles are generally preferred over plastic, not only for grip, but for the handcraftsmanship. "You're just not going to get a nice brush with a plastic handle," says Connolly.

And while several companies have come out with "Chinex" (a combination of natural and synthetic bristles) brushes designed for "any paint," many contractors aren't sold on the idea. Lou DiCicco, a painter for 45 years who now works at Home Depot, says he would only recommend those if "you're not really fussy." He adds that he favors Purdy brushes for their craftsmanship and durability.

Sherwin-Williams recently introduced a "wave" brush, with wavy bristles. The company claims it holds more paint than other brushes. The upside is that the job goes quicker; the downside is that the brush gets heavy.

Professionals might use a brush that features a lot more "pickup and release" than a do-it-yourselfer would be comfortable with, says Devon Bremner at Johnson Paint in Boston.

Price presents another variable in the selection process. Generally speaking, you can buy a small touch-up brush for less than $1; and pay more than of $28 for a professional-quality brush.

When might you buy a cheap brush rather than an expensive one? If you're staining a deck or painting a shed, you may not care if you spot the occasional brushmark.

Another factor to consider is the finish of paint. "The higher the shine or gloss, the more chance of seeing brush marks," says Mr. Bremner. In which case, you'd want a high quality brush.

Like Connolly, Bremner sees a lot of folks buying good paint and then scrimping on their brushes. "I make the analogy that it's like buying a Porche with a VW engine," Bremner says.

Once a customer chooses a particular brush or brushes, Connolly often gives instructions on two things: the correct way to dip the brush and the correct way to clean it.

"What you want is a loaded brush not a full brush," he says. Dip the brush so that the paint comes one-half to two-thirds of the way up on the brush. Don't scrape it on the edge! Gently shake it toward the side so the brush is covered, not dripping.

Brushes used for latex paint should be cleaned immediately. "If the paint sets and dries, it'll kill the brush," Connolly says. While the brush is still wet, clean with soapy water until it "tests" clear on your wrist or piece of cardboard.

With oil paint, "Use paint thinner [rather than turpentine]; it's much easier," Connolly suggests.

If you're painting wall surfaces, home exteriors with latex paint:

Use a high-quality 4-inch or 3-inch brush made from nylon and polyester. For doors, try a 3-inch brush. Smaller, harder-to-reach sections call for a 1-inch to 2-1/2 inch sash brush - angled or flat. Cost: $6 to $28

If you're using varnish, enamel, primer, oil-based paint:

Buy natural-bristle brushes. For small jobs such as baseboards or furniture, try a 1-inch to 2-1/2-inch. Cost: $8 to $40.

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