how to extreme

How to Choose the Right Paint Brush for a Great Finish

Painting April 27, 2012 Sonia

Polyeser and nylon-bristle brushes

By Charlie Self


Don’t brush your way into a corner.  Use these easy tips for choosing the right paint brush to get the finish you’re looking for.



It’s supremely easy these days to buy a paint brush. Walk into any building supply store, and you are faced with a choice of brushes that range in price from just a few cents up to 50 bucks or more.

Each brush is dedicated to a type of work, but, as with most things, you tend to get what you pay for, although price extremes aren’t always good criteria for judgment.

The first point in judging whether or not you need pay a little or pay a lot is to determine the kind of finish being applied. Paints can generally be applied with almost any type of brush, although using natural bristles with water-based finishes of any kind is not practical. While many pros prefer natural bristles, china and ox and badger and skunk-bristle brushes are usually more costly, often much more, than synthetic brushes of excellent quality. When that’s added to the fact that water-based finishes quickly cause swelling in natural bristle brushes, those brushes are almost one-time use tools—not handy or economical.

The type of coating work to be done is another point. Painting basement walls needs one kind of brush, while laying a shellac finish on a hardwood project demands another. The steps in between are filled with natural and synthetic bristle types. Many of the natural bristles are manipulated before being set in the material that binds them inside their metal ferrules. Natural bristle manipulation is normally confined to cleaning and straightening. Synthetics are born already manipulated, but particular fibers, notably duPont’s Chinex, are sometimes pushed, pulled and prodded a bit more to make sure a brush carries the load of coating to the proper spot and lays it on as smoothly as possible.

Selection Process

Looking over your own needs, what kinds of brushes should you have on hand? It depends.

Badger-bristle brush versus Polyester-bristle brush

Shown is a natural badger-bristle brush as well as a polyester-bristle brush. Note the extra length of polyester bristles and the sharp tip for cutting in.

If you’re a woodworker, you’ll need some really great varnish/shellac applicators, usually in the form of natural bristle brushes. For the home remodeler and general DIY’er, synthetic bristles in one of the wildly varying classes is best. For the person who likes to clean keyboards and similar items, a cheap, soft-bristled brush is best.

Selecting a paint brush is not simple, but some start-up ideas may be a great help. First, avoid extremes. Why spend $50 when a $25 brush is more than sufficient?

Professional quality, natural-bristle brushes may have a combination of badger, hog ear and skunk bristles.

Professional quality, natural-bristle brushes may have a combination of badger, hog ear and skunk bristles.

Nylon and polyester brush

Synthetic-bristle brushes, such as this nylon/polyester brush, provide an economical solution for most painting tasks, especially for water-based coatings.


Second, play to type. Natural bristle brushes don’t work well for all-around work. Synthetic bristle brushes are great for water-based paints and are almost as good as natural bristle types at laying on clear finishes. Avoid using the same brush for clear finishes and paints, though, which could lead to problems with the pigmentation of clear finishes or bits of clear finish making bumps in the surface of painted finishes.

Third, clean your brushes well, and store flat once they’re dry.

Brush with the ferrule open

This brush with the ferrule opened shows epoxy plus stainless steel holding the bristles firmly in place. With proper care and maintenance, a quality brush can last for years.

Fourth, keep a variety of brushes on hand. That 4-in. house-painting brush is great for all those outdoor jobs on your siding, but it isn’t much help when you’re trying to lay enamel on a window frame, indoors or out. Check the various brush manufacturers to see what shapes and sizes are available. A good general line of brushes from a top maker—Purdy, Corona, Wooster, Maryland Brush, among others—has sizes from 1-1/4- to 4-in. (Corona offers 5- and 6-in. widths in specialty professional brushes and Wooster has 6-in. stucco brushes).

Look around. Buy brushes as they’re needed but also try to think of times you might need a good paintbrush, without the time to go shopping. These are handy items that are often not considered on an everyday basis. After all, how often do we touch up a room or a house? It’s nice to have on hand a good 4-in. wall brush in a top synthetic, a large trim brush (2-1/2- to 3-in.) in synthetic bristle (or natural bristle, if oil-based enamel is used to increase attractiveness and durability), and a smaller 1-1/2- to 2-in. trim brush with a slanted tip. You’ll be about as ready as anyone outside professional painters.

Sizing Brushes

1” to 2”: Use these to cut in around windows and trim such as moulding.

2-1/2” to 3”: General surface painting; cutting in for walls. I like the 2-1/2-in. for baseboard moulding. I’m also clumsy enough to run a strip of 2-in. blue masking tape along the floor for such work. The tape may also serve to hold painter’s film or a tarp in place to help prevent spattering and drips.

4”: Use for large areas, walls and exterior.