How to Pick the Right Paint Brush for Your Project

published Jul 20, 2020
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The first time I went to my local paint store to pick out brushes to paint the walls of my guest room, I was shocked to discover just how many types—and sizes—of brushes were available. Did I need the slim, angled brush made of natural fibers? Or would a synthetic wider, larger brush suffice? 

I quickly learned that the type of brush you need largely depends on the project you’re embarking on. “An assortment of high-quality brushes are essential for any DIYer completing a paint or stain project,” says Chris Gurreri, associate product manager of applicators for The Sherwin-Williams Company. “The quality of your paint applicator makes a big difference on the final product, and investing in and taking care of a high-quality brush will help make projects look even more professional.” So how do you choose the right one? Here, the pros who know best break it all down for you.

Consider brush material

In general, brushes can be split into two categories: natural bristle brushes and synthetic filament brushes, says Gurreri. Natural bristle brushes are made with animal hair, with split ends that allow the brush to hold more paint and release it evenly. These brushes are the best option for oil-based paints, stains, and sealers. Because they readily absorb water, and can quickly become limp, natural bristle brushes are not a good choice for water-based paints.

Synthetic bristle brushes are made with nylon, polyester, or a blend of the two. These bristles are stiffer than natural animal hair, and do not absorb water, so they’re best used for water-based paints, stains, and sealers.

Assess the scope of your project to determine the best size and style

In addition to synthetic vs. natural filament, brushes come in several shapes, sizes, and handle styles, and each is good for different scenarios. Unlike brush material, choosing the size and handle style of the brush is all about personal preference, says Gurreri. Here are the most common options you’ll find in stores:

  • 1- to 1.5-inch, (angled or straight)
  • 2- to 2.5-inch (angled or straight)
  • 3- to 4-inch (straight)

A smaller size brush is easier to control, while a larger size brush holds more paint and gets the job done faster. “If you are cutting in on an interior wall, we recommend a 1.5- to 2-inch brush for DIYers,” says Gurreri. “However, if you are covering a larger surface, like staining a deck or painting exterior siding, we recommend stepping up to a 3- or 4-inch brush.”

Smaller brushes are also what you’ll want to reach for if you’re working in tight corners, or if you’re painting a hobby or craft project. The larger the brush width, the less precision you’ll have.

For brush shape, the customer has the choice between angled and flat, says Gurreri. “Most DIYers find an angled brush is easier for cutting in, while a flat brush is easier for painting trim and other smooth surfaces,” he says.

A properly cared for brush can last for multiple projects, and one of each of these is a great foundation for a DIYer’s tool kit.

For convenience, build a stash

So you don’t have to make a trip to the store every time you take up a painting project, it’s helpful to assemble an array of brushes to choose from. “We recommend having on hand high quality brushes in 1.5-, 2.5-, 3-, and 4-inch widths,” says Matt Kunz, president of Five Star Painting, a Neighborly company. And don’t be tempted to skimp on quality. Though it may be enticing to reach for the cheaper brushes, great quality brushes will last longer with proper cleaning and storage, he explains.

Clean brushes after each use to make them last

After each water-based project, use dish soap and warm—not hot!—water to give brushes a thorough clean, says Kunz. With the bristles pointing down, gently work the bristles with your hand until the water runs clear.  Then, shake the brush a few times to align the bristles and hang to dry. Once dry, store your brushes in the sleeve they came in, so that the bristles remain flat and protected.

If you’re using oil-based paint, swirl the brush in a cup of paint or lacquer thinner for 30 seconds, then wipe the brush on the side of the cup, says Kunz. “You will likely have to repeat this process a few times until you don’t see any paint coming from the brush.” Then, do a final wash with soap and water, shake the brush out, let dry, and store it in the sleeve it came in.