Brush Maintenance for Dummies

Jon1270February 4, 2008

This is slightly embarrassing for me to ask. Despite many years as a professional woodworker, I've never developed a good habit or routine for cleaning brushes after use. I've worked in some situations where brushes were used so frequently that they were stored in solvent. I've also worked for some shops that stuck with disposable brushes (ick). I now spray most finishes, but occasionally brush polyurethane, varnish or lacquer; when I do, I inevitably find myself unsure of how to clean the brush thoroughly enough that its bristles don't glue themselves together as they dry, without using a ridiculous amount of solvent. The poor brush usually sits around in a soup can of mineral spirits(or whatever solvent seems appropriate), stinking up my shop and getting misshapen.

I'd very much appreciate some remedial instruction, perhaps followed up with a few advanced strategies, on how to easily and effectively clean and store paint brushes that have been dipped in solvent-based finishes.

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I use the following strategy:

Before dipping in finish, I always "prime" the brush by soaking in the appropriate solvent or thinner (mineral spirits in this case) and wiping off the excess with a rag. This inhibits the finish from wicking up into the ferrule.

After use:
* Clean off finish with a rag.
* Dip into can #1, that has been half-filled with mineral spirits. Slosh it around. You do not need to throw this solvent out right away and the solids will settle out over time (see below). Wipe brush with another rag.
* Dip brush into can #2 that likewise is half-full of mineral spirits. Slosh around and wipe as before.
* At this point, the brush is fairly clean but oily from the mineral spirits. Either wash out with dawn and water or, my preference, dip in can #4, half full of lacquer thinner that will cut through the oiliness.
* Spin the brush with a brush spinner, wrap in a cardboard brush cover or wrap with kraft paper and a rubber band. Set aside to dry.

Over time, can #1 will become so full of gunk that it's time to decant off the clear stuff into can #2. Put can #1 out where it can dry out and when solid, throw in the trash. Promote can #2 to be the new can #1 and start a fresh can #2. You can also have a can #3 that is a third rinse can if you wish.

If the brush, despite your efforts, get cruddy, soak a bunch of them overnight in NMP-based paint stripper. The next day, work out the crud with a brush comb, rinse and you're good to go. There are also brush cleaners that are pretty much a soup of every solvent and a few strippers that you can use instead of the NMP stripper. But I find it noxious and pretty strong.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2008 at 6:55PM
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I clean the brush with the appropriate solvent, generally water or mineral spirits, wire-brushing the bristles if necessary, shake it out, brush it out on cardboard or scrap wood, wrap the bristles in cotton cloth or paper towel, secure it with a rubber band and hang it up.
You need to use enough clean solvent and flexing action to do a good job of rinsing and squeezing the paint, etc, out of the bristles and brush reservoir. Wrapping the bristles afterward will keep them from looking like a bad hair day the next time you go to use it, and also keep stray sawdust off of them.
When I remember to do this, a good, or even mediocre, brush will last me 10 years of intermittant use.
If I've let the brush harden, I start the above process with an overnight soak in brush cleaner (I use Kwickeeze, among others)

    Bookmark   February 4, 2008 at 7:13PM
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I use Purdy brushes, man made fiber as a rule. You can use natural fiber, but the newer man made fibers allow smoother appplication and more thorough cleaning. I am careful to never load the brush more than an inch up from the tips of the bristles. (dipping the brush in thinner and twirling out the excess prior to loading the first time helps initial loading.) If the ambient temperatures are high or the job takes more than 20 minutes or so, I sometimes rinse briefly periodically(new thinner)---that keeps the material from drying in the bristles and makes final cleaning easier and more thorough.

I wash the brush four times.

1st wash----previously used more than once thinner(stored in a thinner jug with no label. Pour this thinner back into the jug and let solids precipitate out. Since I have several of these jugs, I might wash the brush twice.

2d wash---thinner used only once previously. Stored in a thinner jug with 1/2 the label cut off. Pour this thinner into no label jug when finished.

3d wash---new thinner. Pour this thinner into 1/2 label bottle when done.

4th wash---liquid dish detergeant(Dawn, cause that is what we use) and sling the brush dry.

Shape the bristles and hang vertically until dry, recase and store hanging.

I have three Purdy brushes more than seven years old that are still in good shape.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2008 at 8:55PM
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Thanks for all of the thoughts. I see where I've been going wrong; I've been in denial about the need to keep several cans of dirty solvent on hand. Too much to hope for, I guess.

What sorts of solvent containers do you find work well? Also, what do you do with the solvent when it gets too contaminated for brush cleaning?

    Bookmark   February 5, 2008 at 8:48AM
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Lately, I've been using Folgers plastic coffee cans. The lids on them seem to seal very well and my wife brings them home from work.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2008 at 9:14AM
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After cleaning your brush in solvent wash the brush a couple times in warm water using a bar of Lava soap. It
will come out like new and last for years.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2008 at 8:20PM
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