3 Ways to Clean Paint Brushes





Introduction: 3 Ways to Clean Paint Brushes

Three easy ways to clean your paint brushes.

We've all done it, let paint dry on our paint brushes and then kicked ourselves later for it. I know that some of us have even thrown those brushes away thinking that we've missed the opportunity to save it's beautiful bristles--tsk tsk. This Instructable will show you three different methods for removing paint from your brushes and save you a little money at the hardware/art store for your next painting adventure. 

Please note, that these methods will not restore your paint brushes to their original brand new condition but they will restore the paint brush to a state where you can use them again!

Step 1: Solvents

This is method #1, and the method that most of us have heard of. It's fast and effective, if you have just used your paint brush

  • Appropriate Solvent (look at your paint and suggestions below)
  • Paper Towel or Old Rag
  • Paint Brush in Need of Cleaning
  • Old Cup, Bowl, Bucket, or Tupperware 
  • Disposable Gloves
  1. Remove as much paint as your can from your paint brush by brushing it along an old rag or paper towel. You want as little paint as possible still on your brush for a faster cleaning in the solvent. 
  2. Pour a little solvent into your vessel. I prefer to use an old tupperware or glass jar. Make sure that your paint washing vessel is clearly marked so that it doesn't end up having food put into it. Place your paint brush into your  solvent. 
  3. Begin by swirling and moving your brush back and forth in the solvent. Continue until all of the paint has been removed.
  4. Once your paint brush has been cleaned, rinse any remaining solvent off by running your paint brush under water. 
  5. Remove any remaining solvent or water on a paper towel or old rag. 
  6. Reshape your paint brush bristles and store until you're ready to paint again. Let your brush dry. 

Solvents to Consider:
  • Use water to remove water based paints.
  • Use mineral spirits or paint thinner to remove oil based paints.
  • Use denatured alcohol for shellacs.
  • Use mineral spirits for varnishes.
  • Use water if your are removing a water based glue. 
Check your paint type or at your local hardware store if you are unsure which solvent to use. It is also important to wear gloves and other protective clothing items like aprons when working with certain solvents. Again, if you are unsure, use gloves and other protective items. It is also recommended that you work with solvents in a well ventilated space. 

A Final Note: Paint Thinner is considered a hazardous waste substance. Only use it if you have to and please dispose of it properly--see your city regulations for a hazardous waste dump or their preferred disposal method for paint thinner.

Step 2: Vinegar

Method #2, vinegar, is especially effective for paint brushes with hardened paint that has been there for some time. 

  • White Vinegar
  • Cooking Pot
  • Old Dirty Paintbrush
  • Stove Top
  1. Pour vinegar into your pot. If you don't want to use a pot from your kitchen, pick one up just for paint brushes at your local thrift store. 
  2. Place your brush into the pot of vinegar. All of the paint covered areas of your brush should be covered with vinegar. If not, add more.
  3. Bring your pot of vinegar to a boil and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. A lid is a good idea here unless you want your entire kitchen to smell like vinegar. :)
  4. Remove your pot from the heat and let it cool for a minute or two. 
  5. Take the brush out of the vinegar. Be careful, as the vinegar, pot and paint brush may be hot. Wait until you can safely touch the brush.
  6. Using your fingers, comb the brush bristles. The paint will still be attached to the brush when you first removed it from the vinegar but will fall away as you continue to comb the bristles. 
  7. Rinse your brush in cold water. The remaining loosened paint will wash away. 
  8. If necessary, repeat steps  1-7 until all of the paint is gone. The number of times you'll have to repeat will depend on how long your paint has been hardening on your brush.
  9. Reshape your paint brush bristles and allow the paint brush to dry. Store your brush for your next painting masterpiece.

Step 3: Fabric Softener

Method #3 involves the helpful addition of fabric softener to quickly remove paint from your brushes. 

  • 1/8 Cup Fabric Softener (you can buy it or make your own here!)
  • 4 Cups of Warm Water
  • Bowl or Bucket
  • Paper Towel or Old Rag
  • Dirty Paint Brush
  1. Remove as much paint as your can from your paint brush by brushing it along an old rag or paper towel. You want as little paint as possible still on your brush for a faster cleaning in the solvent.
  2. Pour 1/8 Cup of Fabric Softener and 4 Cups of warm water into your bowl or bucket. Mix.
  3. Swirl your paint brush in your mixture until you see paint starting to come off. The paint should settle to the bottom of the bucket. 
  4. Once your paint brush has been cleaned, rinse any remaining softener solution off by running your paint brush under water.
  5. Dry your paint brush and remove any remaining solvent on a paper towel or old rag.
  6. Reshape your paint brush bristles and store until you're ready to paint again.
If you'd like to make a bigger batch for more paint brushes or rollers scale to the following: 1 Gallon of warm water and 1/2 Cup of Fabric Softener. Mix two ingredients in a FIVE Gallon Bucket. Continue to follow steps above.  

Step 4: Start Planning

You've got clean paint brushes! Start planning your next artistic adventure. 



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    30 Discussions


    8 months ago

    Alrighty my dudes have I got some heckin cool crap to tell you. I left paint brushes on my desk for legit like a year. An entire year. Yeah I'm that kind of person. A whole year of sitting and waiting to be washed and they were covered in black paint. I thought there was no way I was ever going to get the paint out of them alright? So why not mess around with them a bit and see if anything is actually good at cleaning brushes. So I did the whole boil in vinegar thing and lots of other stuff and while some of the brushes did clean, it wasn't enough for me to consider using them again. So by chance, strictly for giggles I was like I wonder how baking soda will do. So I grabbed it and for some reason I had te bright idea to mix it with some hand soap. Guys that heckin crap worked so well and the one brush that I cleaned that way is so heckin soft it is amazing. I didn't even know that was possible I was so shook. Anyway there are my words of wisdom try it out. Just mix baking soda with hand soap and mix your bushes up in it and let it sit for like ten minutes or so then wash it out.

    Hi! Brand new user! So- I left my paintbrush out over night...it's NOW covered in paint and completely hardened. MY QUESTION: I soaked them in a bowl of water and 100% acetone over night. Now I want to try the 'boil vinegar' method. Is it safe to put the brushes (which still have acetone in the bristles) into a pot of boiling vinegar? It seems to be the most effective method, but I don't want to blow up my kitchen! Thanks!!

    Oh, also: go 21st century when it comes to storing wet (latex) brushes: Press N Seal. It form a nearly vacuum-tight seal that you won't get with bags, foils, or other wraps.

    Oh, also: go 21st century when it comes to storing wet (latex) brushes: Press N Seal. It form a nearly vacuum-tight seal that you won't get with bags, foils, or other wraps.

    For water-based paints where I'm starting to get a little buildup on my synthetic bristle brushes, I sometimes use Krud-Kutter, which does a decent job of removing dried-on latex paint without posing much of an environmental hazard. I follow it up with a quick wash in something gentler.

    For natural bristle brushes, I use the minimalist approach with 2 cans of paint thinner and a jar: pour just a tablespoon or so of paint thinner in the jar, and work the brush around very thoroughly. Empty the dirty paint thinner into its own can (you can re-use a lot of it when the residue settles out). Squeeze as much of liquid as you can out of the brush and start again with another minimal amount of paint thinner. Keep going until everything squeezed out of the brush is clean. Natural bristles can take a fair beating; synthetic not so much. Does anyone have a tip for getting oil-based PRIMER out of a synthetic brush that some idiot left soaking in (solvent) brush cleaner? It sticks like nothing I've ever seen, and nothing seems to touch it.

    Haven't any of you had any professional training at all?

    I don't want to steal your thunder Kelly, but this is not Best Practice.

    Don't ever put paint thinner into plastic. It will melt most kinds. Why risk a mistake? Old glass salsa jars exist for brush cleaning. label one, put some glass marbles like the flower arranging ones into the bottom to work the brush against. (Plain, not coated with shiny stuff. It'll dissolve) Trying to clean oil based paints out of brushes by just stirring them around doesn't work. If you're desperate a crumpled piece of window screen will work too but it's hard on bristles so this is not a default. Paint thinner is very flammable and an ugly toxin so you want to keep it stingy and the stuff needs to go to Hazardous Waste Disposal. Wipe those brushes really well!

    If you're doing fine arts painting go buy a proper brush cleaning pot. A big size one would be good for pro house painters. Solvent sits in it for weeks and it has a sieve to work the bristles over. Paint solids drop below it. The top keeps fumes in and evaporation almost nill over weeks. Minimal exposure, clean brushes. Now wash them! I wash up to thirty brushes a day in the studio; it's just doing the dishes.

    Do NOT use a surfactant/ detergent "soap". Use a real soap, a chemically designated soap, with oil or fat in it. You can put it on a cellulose sponge and work the brushes across it to work up a lather, or just work them against your palm. If you use bar soap swipe the brushes across it. The soap cuts the oil, and the fat base conditions the bristles.If you wiped out the paint and rinsed in thinner properly there's very little to wash out. More like a post gym shower then wrestling gunk. You don't want paint in a sink drain or on the back patio. Rinse well. If you do this correctly you'll get to wear brushes out instead of throwing them away. And bristles are chosen for this exposure so they'll get better. It's just like washing your hair. Squeeze out the water and shape them, air dry.

    This works for synthetic brushes too. Do not leave soap in the bristles as it will contaminate your paint next time and make a bad paint film. As for exotic paints like epoxy? Yes, use nitrile gloves and a respirator! Outside. But if the stuff is hydrocarbon based a fat soap should work too. Acetone on brushes will kill them fast, so make sure thats a really Best Practice. Again- a soap may work better. Most bristles need the conditioning.

    If your brushes start to get that gunky icky feeling, soaking them in that inexpensive liquid oil soap from the grocery store (Also best for regular washing after painting) is like a spa treatment. Leave them in for two or three days. It's magic! Paint in the ferules is a ruined brush, but as regular maintenance this is amazing. I have ten year old mongoose thats still sweet. I also paint a lot.

    Do not use soap on watercolor brushes. Just rinse.

    This is the method professional painters use; It keeps solvent use to an absolute minimum. Reusing a cup or 12 ounces of thinner instead of blowing through gallons of it reduces exposure and that stuff has lead in it. Among other scary things. Don't use it on skin either. Paint'll fall of in 48 hours if soap or olive oil doesn't get rid of it.

    Even if you use a thinner only system like the guys who paint cars using industrial paints, a cleaning pot will use less thinner and reduce your chemical exposure. They can be used in series. You can eyeball them at the big online art supply stores, and I shop at industrial supply so don't think they don't interchange. ;-D I'll try to post instructions for the homemade version.

    1 reply

    I'm glad you mentioned the hazards of solvents and plastic. Oil based paints contain solvents and do not belong in household plastic containers like the kind that come with yogurt....I speak from experience. Imagine being on scaffolding and picking up your tub of paint only to have the bottom give way.

    Liquid hand soap works on both acrylic and oils.

    Just work it in right after painting. Rinse with water when all the paint is out.

    1. To avoid having to toss out mineral base solvents, fill a wide-mouth jar half way with solvent. Clean your brush in the solvent (in the jar) and then tightly cap it. Next time open the jar, clean your brush, and then tightly cap it. Gradually, paint solids build up in the bottom leaving a layer of clear solvent above.. You may need to replenish a little solvent from time to time. This way, I have been able to use the same jar of solvent for YEARS.

    2. I have had very good luck simply wrapping a paint brush I have just used (but not cleaned) in a small plastic bag that is folded shut (no need to band it). With water-based paints this method lasts for weeks (months in some cases) and still yields a good usable brush. For oil based brushes I have been able to get up to a week before I need to actually clean them.

    Nice !

    Thanks for posting.

    ut I'm afraid some paints can only be cleaned with the "hard" chemical stuff, while others dissolve in water.

    At any rate 2 pots paints such as epoxy or 2 parts polyurethane paint can only be dissolved with specific solvents (don't ask me the chemical components as I mostly use the brand's cleaning solvent) or acetone.

    All these products are dangerous for one's health and wearing gloves and a mask is essential. However when using this quite expensive paints I feel it is better to consider brushes as disposable as they are not the most expensive line on the project's budget and using a new brush at each coat is almost a must for perfect result.

    BTW : Watch how you use acetone. As this is quite a common place solvent people tend to care less about its hazardous effects. But one should never use acetone with bare hands as it dissolves the thin film of sweat and fat that protects the skin and it allows for the product (and acetone ! … ) top enter deeper in the skin and then in your system …

    No one mentioned cellulose thinner, Model diesel fuel ( contains ether ) model glow fuel ( methanol nitromethane ) use only in very well ventilated space do not get on skin or wash immediately if you do .Plastic or vinyl gloves PLEASE. Wash brushes in washing up liquid and after drying rub in a drop of conditioner( either clothing or skin conditioner will do ) good luck

    If the brush is dry and hard try boiling water and a cup TSP.Let it soak overnight and many times I have restored some pretty bad brushes.

    I am concerned that there is no commentary discerning whether we are talking about natural or synthetic bristle brushes. Some synthetic bristles really do not like some cleaning solvents. Personally i tend to use a lot of natural bristle brushes and usually clean them with the water method or a rubbing alcohol bath. i also recondition my brushes with a little wash in baby shampoo and conditioner. Afterall, natural bristle usually means animal hair. Plus, baby products are much less toxic and available at the dollar store.


    4 years ago

    I use soap to restore and keep brushes' shape: if you "use" your clean brush over a wet cake of soap it will be covered in soap and drying will keep its shape.

    Kerosene/turpentine works great too. If the brush is not cleaned for years place them in solvents overnight and next day they will be as good as new.

    1 reply

    Odorless mineral spirits have pretty much replaced turp, turp is really hard on your body, causes respiratory problems when inhaled and kidney failure when ingested. From the medical side, I'd recommend strongly against it as a solvent for cleaning brushes. Odorless mineral spirits are safer than turp and about as effective. Even when thinning oil paints (where turpentine was traditionally used as a thinner) oms have taken the place of turp for the most part except for a very few highly specialized applications where the slightly faster curing time is preferable.

    Great instructable! I hate the way so many people treat brushes as disposable. One thing, though: at step 4, plain water will not work unless the solvent used is water miscible, like alcohol. Mineral spirits, paint thinner, and turpentine, are not water miscible; the residual solvent for those requires more than water, you need soap or detergent. Dish washing liquid works great.

    Great Instructable! For regular paint brushes Dad taught me to wrap them in newspaper after cleaning -- just like you might wrap a piece of meat for the freezer. They will dry out in a great shape just like they were new, and the brush is protected from dust, etc. in storage.

    1 reply