Caring for your Brushes

Your investment in quality lettering and pinstriping brushes can easily amount to hundreds of dollars.  To protect your investment, you must properly care for your brushes.

Brush care is not merely cleaning your brushes after each use. It should begin immediately after you  buy the brush. The first thing that you should do is to remove any sizing in the hairs of the brush.  Sizing maintains the shape of the brush and protects the hairs from damaged during transit, until after the brush is sold.


To wash out the sizing, soak the hairs in a mild solvent, such as mineral spirits. After soaking the hairs, work out the sizing by gently rolling the hairs of the brush between your thumb and your forefinger. Repeat this procedure until the brush becomes pliable.
After rinsing out the size, the next step is to thoroughly soak the head of the brush in a light weight oil, such as Mr. J’s Xcaliber  Brush Preservative. A good soaking will draw the oil into the ferrule.

(Note: The ferrule is a plastic or metal band that holds the hairs of the brush onto the handle. Many of the lettering quills use a clear plastic ferrule. Often you will notice a space inside this plastic ferrule between the hairs of the brush and the handle. Don’t be alarmed by this. Your brush is not coming apart.)

If you have a quill with a clean plastic ferrule, you should see the oil fill the empty space of this reservoir.  The oil in the ferrule blocks any paint from filling this space, where it can dry.

Sign painters and pinstripers have used a variety of products to oil their brushes. These products include: linseed oil, motor oil, Neatsfoot oil, olive oil, transmission fluid, vasoline, vegetable oil.  Some of the food oils can attract mice. I had a few natural hair brushes that I stored flat in a cabinet drawer. Mice managed to get into the drawer and gnawed the hairs of the brushes right down to the ferrule. If you store a brush for a while, the food oil can also get very sticky. Motor oils and transmission fluid can also be a problem. Additives in the oil can damage brushes. Transmission fluid is very caustic.

I recommend Xcaliber Brush Preservative for a number of reasons.  This oil is formulated specifically for brushes.  It doesn’t contain additives that can damage the brush. It doesn’t get gummy. It washes out easily from the brush in paint thinner,  mineral spirits or turpentine.

Before painting, rinse out the brush oil from the hairs of the brush.  To dry the hairs of the brush, hold the handle between the palms of both hands and rub your hands together.  As the head of the brush spin, residual solvent will be extracted through centrifugal force.  Just be aware that the solvent can splatter in every direction. To contain the splattering, position the head of the brush between your legs, so the solvent splatters on your pants and not on everything else.
Cleaning the Brush

In cleaning your brushes, the rule of thumb is to use the same solvent that you use to thin your paint.  The thinner will be strong enough to dissolve the paint. When cleaning a lettering enamel from a brush, use a mild solvent, such as mineral spirits. Avoid using harsher thinners, such as lacquer thinner.  Consisting of  toluene, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and methyl isobutyl ketone (MIK), the hot solvents in lacquer thinner can dissolve a number of materials,  including paint, ink, and adhesives. Using a hotter solvent could damage the hairs of the brush or dissolve the glue used to hold the brush together.

An exception to this rule is when you are painting with lacquer paints or urethanes. In painting with these paints, you will need to clean your brushes with harsher solvents. You should use lacquer thinner for cleaning, when painting with lacquer; and use urethane reducer for urethanes.

In cleaning your brushes, you should also refrain from soaking the handles of the brush in solvent. The handles of professional-quality brushes are wood. Soaking the handles in liquid can cause them the crack and loosen from the ferrule.  If you have to soak a brush, keep the solvent level below the point where the ferrule is crimped onto the handle.

Before washing your brush in solvent, squeeze out much of the excess paint in a paper towel or rag between you thumb and forefinger. Do not pull on the hairs or you will weaken the bond of the hairs in the ferrule. Next, veteran painter and pinstriper Julian “Mr. J” Braet suggests filling two cups with solvent. By swirling your brush in the first cup, you will wash out most of the paint.

Wash out any remaining paint in the second cup of solvent. Mr. J warns against scrubbing the brush against the bottom of the cup.   As hard as you try to clean out all of the paint from the brush, it is unlikely that you will wash away everything.  Oiling the brush will prevent any residual paint from hardening in the brush hairs.

Reshaping a Deformed Brush Head

Art school students are taught that after cleaning a brush that you should work in a lather a hand soap into the hairs of the brush and then form the  hairs into the desired shape and allow the brush to dry.  Most sign painters rightfully feel this is an unnecessary practice, unless the hairs become deformed.  If that happens, then try using hand soap to get your brush back into shape.  When it comes time to use the brush, rinse out the soap with water and allow it to dry.