Introduction: Restoring Old Paintbrushes

Picture of Restoring Old Paintbrushes

I've been a house painter for years. I've used just about every kind of brush made and I've learned one thing- you get what you pay for. I use Wooster 2 1/2" angled brushes for just about everything. They have quality bristles, they fit my hand nice and they last a long time. they're also kind of pricey. Since I'm self-employed, materials and tool costs come out of my profits. I make a brush last.

My grandfather always cautioned me to 'pinch a nickel til the Indian rode the buffalo'. I get my money's worth out of things. When my brushes start to get ragged I don't throw them out, I recondition them. This involves meticulously removing the paint build up, cleaning the brush very well and reshaping the bristles.

Step 1: Removing the Built-Up Paint

Picture of Removing the Built-Up Paint

A paintbrush's worst enemy is paint build up. This is particularly bad around the ferrule, the metal band that binds the bristles to the handle. Every time the brush is used and cleaned, a little bit of paint is left behind. This causes the bristles to splay out preventing you from getting a clean line.

I used mineral spirits in a shallow pan to soak the brush. It doesn't have to be submerged- if the brush sits in a small puddle of spirits it will absorb it through capillary action. I let it sit for 30-60 minutes depending on the amount of build up.

After the brush soaked for a bit I used a putty knife and a wire brush to carefully remove the paint build up. I used the putty knife to gently scrape the base of the bristles from the ferrule down to the tip. I used the wire brush to brush the bristles in the same direction. Never force the bristles in the other direction, whether with a wire brush, putty knife or even water. Brushes are one-way.

I payed special attention to the sides of the brush. Paint always seems to collect here no matter how thoroughly I clean it. The wire brush is very useful there. I placed the brush in the puddle of spirits and gently bent the bristles to make them fan out and rocked the handle back and forth. This causes the bristles to spread and contract and 'pump' the spirits through, flushing out any loose paint. I did this repeatedly while I removed the paint to keep it wet and free of paint.

Another place that paint builds up is on the very tip of the bristles. Quality brushes have bristles with polished tips. The brush is put in a machine that moves the bristles in a circular motion on an abrasive surface. This rounds the ends of the bristles for a smoother, less streaky finish. While this makes for a better paint job it also means that paint tends to stick to the ends. At the ferrule the bristles are bound tightly together, so the putty knife and wire brush can get enough pressure to scrape the paint away. The ends of the bristles tend to spread out when you press on them making the paint hard to remove.

I chucked a 4" wire wheel into my hand drill and used it to scrub the bristle tips. I pressed the brush down flat and raised the handle vertically to make the bristles fan out and I kept the wire wheel moving back and forth. Make sure that your drill id turning in the right direction so it doesn't bend back the bristle tips. Go ferrule-to-bristle always.

While I had the wheel in the drill I also cleaned the rust and paint build up from the metal ferrule. This makes the brush more comfortable to work with.

Finally I took the brush over to a dead grapefruit tree and gave it a good Bob Ross style whack. The idea is to wave the brush back and forth quickly so that the bristles strike a surface on each pass. This knocks the excess spirits out of the brush so it will be easier to clean in the next step.

Step 2: Cleaning the Brush

Picture of Cleaning the Brush

The brush was now 'clean' but it was full of loose paint bits and oily mineral spirits. I took it to the sink and rinsed it thoroughly with warm water. I worked some dish detergent into the bristles and brushed it well with the wire brush to remove all the loose paint. I rinsed it again with warm water and fanned out the bristles to pump the clean water through. I smoothed down the bristles and left it in the sink handle up to drain a bit.

Step 3: Shaping the Bristles

Picture of Shaping the Bristles

Once the brush dried the bristles spread out and looked really shaggy, All the agitation from removing the paint put them in disarray. The first step was to comb the brush. The sell fancy metal combs for this purpose, but an old rat tail styling comb works just as well plus the pointy handle is handy for working out chunks of paint.

Next I saturated the bristles with Murphy Oil Soap. I did this gently to prevent it from lathering. When the bristles were soaked with the oil soap I combed them again and then used my fingers to carefully shape the bristles. The thick soap acts like hair gel and holds the bristles in shape. It also moisturizes and conditions the brush, making it soft again. I hung the brush up with the bristles hanging down and left it in the sun to dry for a few hours. If the brush is in really bad shape, it can be left for several days..

Step 4: Finishing the Brush

Picture of Finishing the Brush

When the oil soap was stiff and dry to the touch I took it inside for the final rinse. By now the bristles are holding a better shape so I smoothed them down and hung it up again to drain.

There always a few damaged bristles near the edge of the ferrule that want to stick out at an angle. These were trimmed carefully with a hobby knife as close to the ferrule as possible. After trimming I hung it back up to dry completely overnight. In the morning I put it back in it's cardboard cover, or shuck, and put it back in my brush box.

All together, this is about 15 minutes of work, or less if I'm doing multiple brushes. Since these brushes cost about $15 a piece that's time well spent. Once brushes get too bad to clean up they're not ready for retirement yet. I use those for doing wooden siding and rougher surfaces. Finally, the splayed out raggedy brushes become stucco brushes. I paint part time, about 2 days a week, and these brushes last for years with this treatment.

Go pinch those nickels.


Kevanf1 (author)2015-09-07

Good Instructable, thank you. My questions are these & bear in mind I am in the UK. Does anybody know what Murphy oil soap is? Perhaps more to the point is it or a similar thing sold here in the UK? That is the only thing that is different to my regime of keeping good brushes 'good' :) I can pass on a tip. If you have a really 'naughty' brush that simply will not fall back into line try either an elastic band or one of those elasticated hair bands over the bristles about 3/4 of the way up from the ferrule. Don't put it on to tightly or you'll give the bristles a 'corsetted' look like Victorian ladies had :) Just tight enough to bring the bristles together and leave it to dry out properly. It usually helps to get the shape back.

dsantil71 (author)Kevanf12016-12-23

According to the company website
Murphy Oil Soap contains -
Sodium Tallate
Trisodium MGDA

As for an UK equivalent, I'll try to find out even though I'm in US

JAguallero (author)Kevanf12015-09-28

Here's a link to a description of Murphy's Oil Soap on Wikipedia: I've always used it to clean hardwood floors, and was surprised to see its other uses. I've done a basic google search and there doesn't seem to be any UK equivalent of this soap. Here's a link on ebay for it:

Kevanf1 (author)JAguallero2015-10-02

Thank you for the link. I confess that I hadn't even considered looking for it on eBay as I simply didn't think it would be available at all in the UK. Shows how wrong I am :)

cammen (author)Kevanf12015-09-20

Murphys Oil Soap is a brand name for a Colgate product. You can find it on Amazon UK. Look for original formula.

Kevanf1 (author)cammen2015-09-25

Thank you 'cammen' I'll have a look for it. If I can't find it I have a couple of relatives who work for Amazon UK so I'm sure they'll be able to assist :)

austin.hall.129794 (author)2015-10-11

I'd also like to share a tip - if a brush becomes so bad that thinners or water won't touch it (or has been left to go hard), grab some biological washing powder - it has to be bio as its the enzymes that do the trick - and leave it in a concentrated solution, and keep agitating every day or so for however long it takes to soften the bristles, rinse then soak again in fresh to clean. It takes a while, but I've "rescued" dozens of brushes I've found on jobsites that have just been left - from the cheapo ones I use for basic stuff up to some very nice ones I've found. Next time you see a rusty old brush - try this. The ones with rusty ferrules can be treated with that rust treatment liquid that neutralizes the rust.

JAguallero (author)2015-09-28

Loved reading this and learning some new tricks to keep old brushes in good shape. Thanks!!

lclaiborne (author)2015-09-06

This is a messy way to go. You need a thinner bucket. I don't understand why commercial painters love to fling thinner around, it's a toxin and a fire hazard. Anything you aerosolize, you breathe.

Not being snarky - being concerned for your health. And your pocket book. I get that.

I was trained to clean those brushes after the day by wiping them out, giving a good rinse in a thinner bucket to knock off any solids, and shampooing with Murphy's. Every Day After Painting. There's no reason for a brush to get to this state. The next morning, it's dry and clean and ready to go. You can also knock off any cruddy build up through the day in a thinner bucket. Which is a zinc or steel bucket, with a lid, with a grate inside to run the bristles over. Paint solids fall to the bottom and the thinner can be used until it's exhausted. No breathing micro droplets, none on the skin, and the fire hazard stays contained. Yes, paint thinner is a fire hazard. It comes from the same cracking tower as motor oil and gasoline, it's very dirty stuff. It often contains lead and other nasty things too. You don't want to breathe it.

You can also give most brushes a 72 hour soak in Murphys as a maintenance deep clean. Every six months or so. This can also rescue brushes you've already trashed. No scraping or grinding needed if you clean up every day though. That's time out of your life. Go watch a game! The five minutes to wash brushes is worth having a clean dry well conditioned tool at hand the next morning. But a Saturday afternoon? Nah.

I'm trained as a portrait painter, but I renovate houses too. And I have a brush fetish, I have over a thousand high quality ones. I clean them all the same way, studio or house. They're all in great shape. Washing daily is not a problem, the oil in oil soap is a great conditioner for natural hairs. Just let them air dry out in the open, they could mildew in a closed container. Takes them inside in freezing weather. Love them and they'll love you back.

Soose (author)lclaiborne2015-09-06

A 72 hr soak in Murphy's -- again, what dilution or does it matter? Do you put soap on the brush first, then into water, or mix up a solution with water (warm? cold?) and then immerse the brush?

Never used Murphy's and wanted to after inheriting it and having heard of it all my life. Just missed something when I was younger...

lclaiborne (author)Soose2015-09-08

I was unclear. For a soak - straight up oil soap. Pour it in a cup, stand the brush up in it. leave it. Water is for rinsing.

Soose (author)lclaiborne2015-09-08

Thanks for the clarifications, Iclaiborne. I think I have it now, and will try out these [new to me] techniques soon.

lclaiborne (author)Soose2015-09-08

No, you put it in soap. No dilution, just soap. Water is for rinsing. Don't they teach y'all to shampoo brushes in apprenticeship? It's hair. How do you wash your hair? Get the hair wet, add soap, lather, rinse.

I wrote a teaching text. If you added water I'd have put precise amounts, don't you think?

Soose (author)lclaiborne2015-09-06

If changing colors, and using oil-based paint, you surely wouldn't
shampoo the brush -- it would have to dry? (Not all of us have 1000
brushes!) But sounds like you would put oil brushes in a thinner bucket
whenever you pause for break or lunch, etc.?

And would you use
the trick of wrapping a latex brush in plastic and setting in the fridge
or even the freezer during breaks? (Maybe that's why so many of us are
trashing so many brushes nowadays.)

lclaiborne (author)Soose2015-09-08

Wipe the brush and rinse it in the thinner bucket between colors. If that isn't clean enough, switch brushes. Wash your brush when you're done! I never understood peoples resistance to this. If you're using multiple colors you should already know how to use a rinse and rag. If you're using multiple colors and only own one brush? They aren't that pricey. And I said - end of the day, or end of painting session. Yes it has to dry.

Freezing a brush full of plastic paint? I'm familiar with wrapping it in plastic cling film overnight, but if you read the can label - no freezing. It messes up the paint.

cptully (author)lclaiborne2015-09-06

Thanks for the detailed info!

Quizicat (author)2015-09-06

I agree on the cleaning of brushes. Why just kill a good brush?

Since there seems to be some pro painters here, I have a couple questions. I am painting a bedroom. The biggest pain is always the line between the wall and the ceiling. Two different colors and since it's an old house it isn't a nice straight line. Do you tape it? Which do you paint first, ceiling or wall? How long after painting do you remove the tape? How long before you can tape a recently painted wall without peeling off the new paint? I paid some guys to paint the rest of the house and they did it freehand. That's cool, but I don't have the steady hand to make a neat job of it. Any words of wisdom would be appreciated.

rudy skirata (author)Quizicat2015-09-08

I'm not pro, but I know what its like to not have a steady hand. Last time around I used this fella' here and it worked amazingly the only only is, if you have any texturing on the ceiling, i.e. popcorn stuff, I would run a flat head screw driver along the edge to flatten/scrape out a path for the rollers on this tool. but one thing to remember is DO NOT fet ANY paint on the wheels at all, not even a little as it will ruing the ceiling.

honestly though, when I free handed the lines this last time around it wasn't so bad with some patience. I did it similarly to how a lineup is done on a hair cut. full sized brush on its side length wise, start at the corner and use down stroke, then start at the corner again where the previous stroke was done. probably not the proper or right way to do it, but it worked for me

also not my picture, just an idea

hjgerber (author)Quizicat2015-09-06

Maybe this could help.

DavidB64 (author)2015-09-07

Mineral spirits does work well to get the caked on/dried paint but I try to avoid it as it's a 'hazardous material' and getting rid of it, once used is a hassle. What I like to use to clean off brushes after a big job (after a few days of not cleaning brushes adequately and just leaving them in water) is a cheap nylon comb. The pointed tines are thin enough that they can be pushed deep into the region just ahead the metal ferrule to work out and lodged paint.

It works pretty good on polyurethane also but after a lot of cleanings I break out the mineral spirits.

sr1sws (author)2015-09-07

Nice, thanks for the tips and the Bob Ross throwback :) I was raised by depression-era parents so I usually do pretty good on pinching pennies and I do appreciate a good quality paintbrush. Thanks for helping me preserve what I have!

fish1400 (author)2015-09-06

Sounds like this will work wonderfully for oil based paints, my question is, does it also work when your brush has only been used for latex paints?

lclaiborne (author)fish14002015-09-06

No. Paint thinner dissolves the oils binding the pigment in oil paint. Latex/ acrylic paints are plastic, to all intents and purposes. You have a big lump of plastic. You want to shampoo brushes at the end of painting every session with Murphy's oil soap. Dish soap works for latex/ acrylic (It's a detergent/ surfactant, not a true soap like Murphys. Fat plus lye style) but it collapses the rhoplex used as a medium. The plastic in water stuff. Any residue can mess up your paint next session. And if you don't carry a chart about paint chemistry in your head, it's easy to mess up. Just use Murphys Oil Soap for shampooing freshly dirty brushes and let them air dry. It's cheap, and does a zillion cool things.

I don't remember the exact chemistry of latex, but it's similar to acrylic. The plastic molecules that make the paint layer are like open links in a chain suspended in water. As the water evaporates, the acrylic molecules start to contract and close, they tangle together in to a linked mass. ( I think oxidation from air exposure plays a role, but this was years ago in school) This makes a layer of plastic or rubbery paint. Amazing! Very clever chemists. Getting these molecules to let go? A lot tougher. They're designed to be stubborn.

I think ethyl alchohol is a solvent for this, but check Wikipedia. You can toss a splash of vodka on it to see if it softens. But it's a long soak to break up plastic paints.

I suspect that brush is a lost cause. Acrylic/ latex paint sells a lot of brushes for the industry.

Soose (author)lclaiborne2015-09-06

Maybe you could please publish an Instructable on "Using a Thinner Bucket to Clean Paint Brushes?"

[ Sorry, replies and therefore questions are out of order here. Thanks to the author for publishing this and to those who reply and share their experience and techniques. I guess I'm a brush nut, too. I'd like to never ruin a brush again, nor have anyone "helping" me ruin one of my good brushes! ]

Soose (author)lclaiborne2015-09-06

I have some Murphy's Oil Soap, inherited from cleaning out an elderly relative's house when they died, but haven't read how to use it yet. Are there any instructions more detailed or can it be used just like dish detergent?

I use thinner or mineral spirits for oil-based paints. (But it sure has gotten expensive.) So you shampoo with Murphy's Oil Soap after the thinner as a second step. Usually I would just squeeze out all the spirits/thinner I could, squeezing in a rag if in a hurry, and let the brush air dry in a ventilated space.

I had been using dish-washing detergent or whatever soap was available and cool water for latex paints (understanding latex is a plastic and that heat would set the plastic - polymerize it might not be the right term, not sure, but you can see it happening). Maybe the dish detergent is why I do get stuff left in my brushes even though I am careful to always wash them each day.

(And I'm not the only one who uses paint brushes around here. And I've noticed I'm not as good at keeping paint out of the ferrules as I was when I was younger.)

Hlazo (author)2015-08-28

I have another suggestion...I use a plastic bag that is the same width as the brush, pour a cap full or two of acetone, seal the plastic bag and hang it up ... bristles down and leave for a day or two. Remove the brush and wash with mineral turps. All the old paint will come out and you have a new brush...

elink5319 (author)Hlazo2015-09-06

Acetone is extremely flammable, also fumes are very toxic, make sure you always use it in a well vented area.

smilesfromnowhere made it! (author)2015-09-06

"till the Indian rides the buffalo" ...nice. I've had employees say that I was so tight that my pocket squeaked when I finally pulled my wallet out.

For cleaning brushes, 50 years ago I was taught to use a brass bristle brush and a brush comb. Only professional painters seem to know what a brush comb is for. The brass bristle brush is soft enough to remove paint buildup on the outside without damage (always brushing toward the tip of course) and the brush comb gets paint out of the center of the brush.

Thanks for the tip about Murphy Oil Soap. I've never tried that one. When my brushes get ugly, they become primer brushes as primer tends to ruin a brush rather quickly and doesn't ever seem to come out of the bristles. When they're too ugly for primer they become dirt brushes for sweeping away dirt from the bottom edges of outdoor trim.

Soose (author)2015-09-06

I take the trouble with my good brushes, too. Been hooked on Purdy brand brushes for decades. I haven't tried the wire wheel/drill on the brush ends (afraid I'd catch the bristles or tear them off), and appreciate knowing why the tips of the bristles are so much harder to clean.

Anyone heard of Sav-a-Brush paint brush restorer? Cheap.

Our local BLP paint store has them. I think more pro's know of it than consumers. We keep a few small bags of it on hand in the paint supplies. Add the powder to water. It makes a very slippery-feeling liquid. (Not a harsh mineral based solvent.) It'll also take [latex?] paint off of clothes. I don't know if it works on oil paints or not, can't remember.

Says it's for synthetic brushes. (Warning, I remember it "blew" the hairs on a natural brush years ago. If anyone knows how to restore natural brushes that have been "blown"... might try the acetone trick mentioned in the comments below.)

I was told mineral spirits wouldn't work on latex paints? I was also told not to use hot water on latex paints -- that it would cause the latex to set on the brush. Anyone know the truth?

fran=1 (author)2015-09-06

what am I going to do !I don't have a old grapefruit tree...hee hee nice job have to save what you can soon you wount be able to get good brushes any more

HollyHarken (author)2015-09-06

Thank you for this fantastic instructable!! I love pinching pennies and nickels!!

Passing You (author)2015-09-06

Really enjoyed your Instructable.

ashleyjlong (author)2015-08-26

This will save me a lot of brushes (and nickles) down the line. I never thought to use Murphy's to re-shape funky bristles before. Thanks!

allen (author)ashleyjlong2015-09-06

That was the most interesting tip for me as well.

I've got a couple of really good brush bought some years ago. They're starting to lose their shape and I haven't foind anything to coax them back to a good shape. Hopefully the Murphy's Oil Soap will do it since the brushes are just too good to discard.

I might try using the wire wheel trick on some of my other brushes but I'm a bit worried about the wheel grabbing the brush.

marcusfuk (author)2015-09-06


marcusfuk (author)2015-09-06

Thanks for this. I'm going to try all of these techniques. Does this work for oil and latex paints both?

makinjen (author)2015-09-06

Great instructions! Gone is the guilt of throwing away good brushes. Can't wait to try this.

VivienneM (author)2015-09-06

This is a great instructable! I hate throwing away brushes just because of paint build-up, or because I forgot to clean it thoroughly and it's all gummed up. The good brushes are expensive and worth holding onto if they are well cared for.

BeachsideHank (author)2015-09-06

My grandfather always cautioned me to 'pinch a nickel til the Indian rode the buffalo'.

Mine said "pinch that penny until Lincoln screams for mercy". Lots of wisdom in those lifestyle homilies.

nanozap (author)2015-09-06

Very nice job! I have paint brushes that are 50 years old and they are like new because, as you do, I clean them. I've had to use paint remover to loosen up old paint on a brush, then I let the brush soak in thinner. As a final step, after the brush is nice and clean, I rinse the brush with hair conditioner, which makes the bristles nice and soft, especially the natural bristle brushes. I also rinse my rollers with hair conditioner, which makes the nap soft.

MarvinP2 (author)2015-09-06

First step is to soak the brushes in kerosene overnight. The next morning, rinse them out and they should be almost ready to go again.

lean04 (author)2015-09-05

Granpa's tips are always worth, they have the experience of ages...

Great instructables.

PS: my profile pic is my Granpa..

Machine (author)2015-08-28

Very nice instructable. Although it does occur to me that you might be able to sell your advice on restoring paint brushes (on ebay).

Chuck Stephens (author)Machine2015-09-01

Ideas are free.

fzumrk (author)2015-08-27

Great information and instructions. I have some brushes in need of this treatment.

NathanSellers (author)2015-08-26

Thanks for sharing this. Great information.

rmac704 (author)2015-08-26

Very good ible! I'm like you with my tools... buy quality and give them care and they will last a long time. Buy cheap and you will finally have to hire a pro to fix your screw-up!

Mindmapper1 (author)2015-08-26

Like any tool if you choose a good one to start with then it will last years, if you look after it then it will also last. This is a great ible thanks for sharing. Cheap brushes are a waste of money!

About This Instructable




Bio: I build cool things from trash and recycled materials. I like noise and sound circuits. I live with my wife, a chihuahua named Monkey and ... More »
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