PaintPRO Vol 2, No 4

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Related Readings:
Brush Technology
Technology Advances
Searching for the Perfect Paint Brush
Faux Effects Using Rollers
Paint Scrapers
Brushes & Rollers for Decorative Work
Brushing Basics
Other articles in this issue:
HVLP Sprayer Systems
Quality Paint Brushes
Deck Maintenance
Selecting Quality Caulk
Specialty Fabric Wallcoverings
Contractor Profile: Gordon Chapman
Paint Product News
Painting Tips
Health & Safety
Paint Industry News
Q & A

PaintPRO Archives

Paint Brush, Quality Paint Brushes

A brush is just a brush, right? “Not so,” say the experts. Read on to find out what goes into the manufacture of quality brushes that make them indispensable.

Just like the best carpenter has his favorite type of hammer or saw, professional painters have a preference in the brushes they use. Historically, the first brushes were made of grasses tied to sticks and then a variety of animal hairs attached to the open end of an animal’s horn. For many hundreds of years, man used these imperfect tools to paint and decorate all types of surfaces. With each generation came improvements that depended largely upon trial and error. Inconsistency in available materials was a constant challenge for the painter. Luckily, today’s painter can rely on advanced technology and sophisticated research and development from manufacturers who make brush tools that provide precision and durability.

What Makes a Quality Brush?
The basic components of a brush are the handle, ferrule, spacer, epoxy and filament. According to Bob Ricksecker of The Wooster Brush Company, each component is vital since each contributes to the overall quality of the brush and how it will perform. “Over the years, brush making has evolved,” says Ricksecker. “But there’s no substitute for the high quality materials that are needed to make the kind of brush you want to use again and again.”

The handle – Traditionally, wood handled-brushes have been the standard among professional painters. Professionals prefer the balance, weight and “feel” of wooden handles that seem to adapt to the hand. Quality wood handles are available in natural, lacquered or painted finishes. Handles can also be made of plastic, although these are typically geared for the do-it-yourself painter who may only use the brush once or twice. The style of the handle also varies depending on the brush and the type of work it is designed to do. For example, the handle of a sash brush will be long and thin giving the painter extra control in small or tight spaces. Wall brushes will have handles that are large and thick, which provide a firm grip for painting large areas. Varnish brushes are those with medium-sized contoured handles used for applying coating to small or medium-sized areas.

Ferrule – This is the metal band the holds the filament and handle together and adds strength to the brush. Ferrules can be made of stainless steel, rust-resistant steel, copper, brass, or nickel-plated steel or bright tin. Some specialty manufacturers make their ferrules out of leather. Regional preferences usually determine if the ferrules are made with round or square ends: West Coast painters usually prefer square-ended ferrules and painters from the East Coast like those with rounded ends. In either case, the best quality ferrules will be tapered to help shape the brush.

Spacer – This term refers to the material made of cardboard, plastic, metal, wood or cork that makes the bristle fit tightly in the brush and creates reservoirs for the paint to gather.

Epoxy – The type of cement used to hold filament into place so that the brush doesn’t shed. Top quality brushes have filaments that are always secured with the proper epoxy.

Filament types – There are basically two types of filament: natural (or hog bristle) and synthetic, which can be made of nylon or polyester. Up until the 1940’s the best quality brushes were made of hog bristle imported from Russia and then later from China. The natural characteristics of hog bristle with its tapered shape and split or “flagged” end made it perfect for picking up paint and spreading it evenly on a surface. At the time, oil-based paints were the norm and China bristle brushes were the perfect tool for applying it: the natural flex in the bristle kept the brush from becoming too floppy or stiff.

With the outbreak of World War II, trade was curtailed and a new material was needed to replace hog bristle. The U.S. Navy charged the DuPont Company to develop this replacement filament, called nylon. Following the war, DuPont joined forces with several independent laboratories and brush manufacturers to further develop and improve nylon. Water-based paints were also developed around the same time. As it turned out, nylon filament was ideal for use with water-based paints since it absorbed very little water and held its shape in this type of coating better than hog bristle. Unlike hog bristle and nylon, polyester filaments absorb no moisture, so these brushes are able to retain stiffness better. Polyester is also able to stand up to high temperatures and will not lose its shape in hot weather conditions. This synthetic does have its drawbacks. The stiff nature of these filaments leaves brush marks and polyester cannot be flagged as well as nylon filaments.The highest quality synthetic filaments are made with a tapered shape and “split-ends” to mimic hog bristle. “Today’s technology allows us to produce synthetic filaments that closely resemble natural bristle and its ability to pick up and release paint,” says Dick Dunn of DuPont Filaments. Filament shape also determines quality in synthetics; round and solid provide good performance while hollow filaments wear out quickly.

Today, many manufacturers offer brushes with blended filaments that combine the best qualities of nylon and polyester, or China bristle and either nylon or polyester in one brush. Nylon/polyester brushes have polyester filament in the shorter lengths to make the brush more resistant to heat and stiffness when used with water-based paints. The longer lengths of filament are made of nylon to give it better ability to pick up and release paint, and more durability. China bristle/synthetic brushes can be used with all types of paint and provide a smooth finish.

No matter what the filament, manufacturers of high quality brushes will always indicate the type of filament and blend used on the package label or directly on the handle of the brush.

Picking the Best Brush for the Job
From all the benefits offered by different types of brushes it’s easy to see why many professional painters use a variety of brushes for oil or water-based coatings and different surfaces. China bristle brushes are still the brush of choice for oil-based and alkyd paints, stains, varnishes, urethanes and shellac. China bristle has a natural softness to its tip that yields a very smooth finish. However, using the brush on a rough surface will damage the tip and greatly increase the wear and tear on the brush.

Nylon brushes are excellent tools for good-quality latex paints (those made with less water), acrylics and oil-based paints. Nylon is extremely durable and can be used on rough surfaces. It also cleans up easily, so this type of brush is a good choice when using fast-drying acrylics. The main drawback of a nylon brush is its tendency to become flimsy when used for a long period of time or in hot weather conditions.

The primary benefit of a polyester brush that makes it popular with do-it-yourselfers is that it can be used with any kind of paint. However, polyester isn’t as durable as nylon and it leaves brush marks.

Brushes that are made of blended nylon and polyester can be used with all paints but work best with the ones that are water-based. The combination of filament helps the brush from becoming too flimsy with extended use and easier to clean. Natural bristle and synthetic blends are also used with any type of paint and provide the smooth finish of China bristle and the durability of nylon or polyester.

Choosing the right brush also depends on selecting the right size for the job. Brushes come in a wide range of widths, from 1” to 6”. The size of the surface to be painted will often dictate the size of the brush. Use smaller brushes (1” to 2”) for areas that require precise trimming and cutting-in like window and doorframes, touch-ups and furniture. Brushes that are 2” to 3” are good for medium-sized jobs like molding, cabinets, doors and fences. For big areas such as walls, ceilings and floors, 4” to 6” brushes are best.

Some brushes made specifically for creating faux finishes are in a category unto themselves. These brushes are usually made by hand by master brush makers and are constructed with natural wood handles and pure China bristle or badger hair. “To a professional faux finisher, these hand-crafted tools provide an unparalleled aid to creating the finest wood graining and marbleizing effects,” says Sharon Taff of Old World Brush & Tool Company. Selecting these types of brushes is very different than selecting brushes for the typical painting assignment. Painters should work closely with a brush dealer that specializes in these tools to determine what is needed for the job.

Protecting Your Investment
“High quality brushes are an investment,” says Ricksecker. “It pays to take proper care of brushes to extend the service life as long as possible.” Some basics to follow:

Clean all brushes directly after use. Bristle brushes used with oil-based paint should be washed in a solvent (not soap and water) recommended by the manufacturer. Make sure to rinse with fresh solvent until the brush is clean. Synthetic brushes used with water-based paint can be washed with a household detergent and water followed by a through rinsing with clean water. If the water-based paint contains a resin, a second rinse with paint thinner may be needed. In this case, follow up with a final rinse with water and detergent. If you are using a synthetic brush with oil-based paints, clean it with a manufacturer-recommended solvent. Keep rinsing with clean solvent until all the paint is removed. Don’t allow brushes to soak for long periods. Bristles can be permanently damaged and wooden handles can swell and crack. Allow brushes to dry properly by shaking them out. Brushes will also need to be combed through (with a special brush comb, or conventional wire brush) and reshaped. When the brush is almost dry, place it in its keeper. Made especially for the brush, the keeper will help it retain its shape. If possible, hang the brush or lay it flat when not in use. Maintain one set of brushes for oil-based paint and one set for water-based paint. Keeping brushes separated will ensure that residue of either paint type will not be left behind on the filaments causing damage.

Price Versus Quality
Is spending the extra dollars on quality bushes worth it? “A professional painter makes his living applying paint,” says Benjamin Waksman of Corona Brushes, Inc. “Professionals should consider his tools as key elements to his success.” In addition, top quality brushes provide smoother coverage and sharper cutting-in. “Contractors depend on brushes that provide precision and performance,” notes Chuck Scaminace of The Sherwin-Williams Company. “Only quality brushes can hold and release paint more efficiently than their lower quality counterparts,” Scaminace says.

When considering the final outcome of the job, using the best tools simply makes sense to the bottom line: quality brushes offer better performance, last longer and allow the painter to do the finest job possible. Is it worth it? If you’re a professional doing top quality work, the answer is yes!


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