Choosing the Right Paint Brush for the Job
Anyone who has run out and bought the cheapest possible brushes for a paint job can testify that quality does matter. The right tool can make or break a job—like using a consumer grade Wagner power painter sprayer vs a Titan Impact 640 Electric Airless Sprayer. I can think of few worse feelings than being in a paint job and noticing streaks and/or bristle deposits all over my nice new project. When it comes time to choosing the right paint brush for the job, you should ask a few basic questions to make sure you’re selecting the right tool (that’s right, we said “tool”):
- What kind of paint will you be using: water-based or oil-based?
- Will you be working in corners and/or on edges?
- How wide is the surface you are covering?
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 17, 2018, for spelling and grammar.
Look for several particular details and features to let you know the quality of the brush you are selecting. These details will make or break a brush and you may find that some of them are absolutely critical, while others can be sacrificed for a lower price:
- Ferrule: The ferrule is the metal band that holds the shape of the bristles intact and secures them to the brush handle. This metal should be non-corrosive and better brushes will have this band attach via screws or rivets. Bristles should be spaced (typically in horizontal rows) to keep them separated and in place and to create larger reservoirs for the paint. In general, bristles should be packed together in a nice dense arrangement.
- Tapered Bristles: The best brushes have bristles which are tapered or chiseled to the ends. This creates a smoother finish to the stroke and reduces the amount of streaking.
- Flagged or Split Bristles: Synthetic bristles which are “flagged” or “split” will hold more paint and deliver a nicer, more consistent edge.
- Overall Shape: Square trim brushes are just that – flat on the end. Chisel trim brushes are made with varied bristle lengths which taper. Cup trim brushes are the most expensive and basically handcrafted versions of the Chisel trim brush. We typically prefer Chisel or Cup trim brushes to Square trim or Cup trim since Square trim brushes are very cheaply made for the most part.
You can get both natural and synthetic bristles on a brush. Natural bristles are made from some kind of animal hair – typically ox, camel, sable, hog and even pony or goat. Typically, they are softer than their synthetic counterparts. Natural bristles excel for oil-based paints and stains but they absorb water. As a result, don’t pair them with water-based paints. Brushes with synthetic bristles work for almost any type of paint or stain—including water- or oil-based paints. The following chart outlines some of the characteristics and recommended uses of the more common paint brushes on the market:
|Use for oil-based paint, stain, and varnish|
|Typically used for water-based paint. Can use for oil-based paints, but avoid shellac or lacquer since bristles tend to streak|
|Use for both water- and oil-based paint. Comes in a variety of stiffness selections. Softer brushes will typically yield less brush strokes|
Ox Hair Blend
|Use especially for oil-based paint and varnish. Typically more expensive, but yield a very smooth finish|
|Universal adequate for water- or oil-based paint, as well as stain, varnish, lacquer and shellac. Watch for stiffer brushes which can show brush strokes|
|Use for anything oil-based, including paint, stain, varnish, polyurethane, lacquer and shellac. This brush produces an even smoother finish than a black China brush|
Choosing the Right Paint Brush for the Job – Size and Shape
With paint brushes, one size does NOT fit all. You’ll want to have a nice selection of paint brushes around in order to ensure you are using the best possible brush for each aspect of the paint job you are taking on. When we speak of brush “shape” we are typically referring to the angle or shape of the brush edge. Straight edges are best when you are attempting to cover a surface area, while angled edges are best for cutting in corners, edges and getting into hard-to-reach places or areas of finer detail.
When selecting the size of your brush, match the brush to the job. If you are attempting to finish an area that is 1″ wide, then don’t tackle it with a 2-inch brush. On the other hand, if you need to cover a wide open area, don’t rely on a tiny brush to get you through—it won’t hold enough paint.
In general, smaller (1″) straight edge brushes are best for corners or window sashes, edging, trim and finer detail work. 2″ angled brushes are our personal favorite for cutting in edges, corners, and ceilings, and 3″ or larger brushes are excellent for large flat surfaces like cabinets, doors, beams, fences and the like. We only recommend 4″ brushes for ceilings, walls, siding and other very large work areas.
Bristle and Handle Length
Note that paint brushes with longer bristles will hold more paint than shorter brushes. This means you’ll spend less time reloading the brush and more time getting the coverage you need. Higher-quality brushes will typically come with a nice handle made of finished wood instead of a cheap plastic version. We’ve found the wooden handles to be more comfortable over the long-haul.
Speaking of handles, those of you with smaller hands may like shorter brush handles. In truth, the shorter handles aid in getting cleaner, straighter lines when edging. I find myself choosing them simply for the ease of use. Longer handles deliver a longer stroke and help with jobs that don’t involve careful trim or edging. After a while, you’ll likely develop your own preferences when choosing the right paint brush.
Hopefully, this simple guide makes it a little easier to understand which paint brush you should choose for your job. Just remember to match the brush to the job and you’re on your way!
See our article on clean and care for paint brushes for more information on taking care of your paint brushes.