How to Clean Old Paintbrushes

published Feb 3, 2014
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Keeping your paintbrushes clean isn’t just about maintaining your tools — save them long enough and they become art! Image from Lost Found Art. (Image credit: Lost Found Art)

Your walls are gleaming with new paint, but only three days later do you remember that you forgot to clean the brushes. Blame the chaos, the kids, the fact that you don’t have to be old to forget the obvious. Either way, that expensive paintbrush is trash for sure, right?


With a little patience — and minimal elbow grease — you can restore your brushes to their former glory.

Paint tends to build up right near and inside the metal band, called the ferrule. This causes the bristles to be less responsive and therefore harder to control. To clean them, conventional wisdom calls for warm soapy water. Better Homes and Gardens, however, recommends avoiding dish soap altogether. They recommend a 1/2 cup of fabric softener mixed into 1 gallon warm water. Fabric softener lowers the surface tension between liquids and solids, in a sense making the water “wetter.”

If your brush is still gunked up, try soaking just the bristles in hot vinegar. Stand your paintbrush bristle-down in a heat-proof jar and pour in recently boiled white vinegar — enough to reach the ferrule but not the handle. Let soak until the vinegar is room-temperature, and then rinse thoroughly. Use a plastic brush (never metal, it will curl the bristles like balloon ribbon) or an old hairbrush to gently comb through the bristles

Braver folks than I also recommend boiling your brushes in vinegar. Check it out in our post How To Clean Dry Paint Brushes With Vinegar.

If it’s really really bad, you can try paint thinner as a last resort. Find a jar with a lid and cut a slit in the lid the width of a paintbrush. Stick the brush through the lid so the ferrule is stuck securely and add just enough paint or lacquer thinner to reach the tips of the bristles. Screw the lid+paintbrush onto the jar and leave for a few days. As the paint thinner evaporates, the fumes will rise through the bristles and soften dried-on paint. Brush throughly with a plastic comb to get rid of the loosened bits.

Avoid it in the future!

It only took a few rounds of having to mega-clean my brushes before I stopped forgetting to clean them. Here are a few more tips:

Getting your brushes wet (damp, not soaking) before you start painting will help you clean them off at the end of painting.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) wash your brushes right away, don’t abandon them on site. Instead, fill an old jar with just enough warm soapy water to cover the bristles without soaking the wood handle. (Wood expands when it absorbs water and over time this will cause the brush to lose bristles and come apart). If using oil-based paint, replace the soapy water with whatever solvent you prefer. I wouldn’t recommend abandoning your brushes in a jar, but a few hours up to a day shouldn’t hurt their longevity.

Happy painting!