How To Eliminate Brush Strokes

Eliminate Brush Strokes When Painting Cabinets and Trimwork

By Rob Robillard

As DIYers and home improvement enthusiasts, we’ve all wondered what’s the best way to eliminate brush strokes in our painting projects? And how can we avoid things like uneven finish and paint streaks?

My painting contractor Bill Cooper of William Cooper Painting Co. has always told me, to have a paint project come out looking good you have to, “get the prep right!”

While most people don’t want to do it, admittedly the prep is 80% of the process to get a quality paint job.

After prepping the surface there is still a process and some skill required to get the paint to “lay down.” Laying down means without brush strokes, paint streaks or “rope marks,” as we affectionately call them in the trades.

pro secrets to eliminate brush strokes on DIYY painting projects

Getting the Prep Right – “Sand – Brush and Vac”

To have paint lay down without brush marks means you must start off with a surface that is smooth and clean. If your repainting trim that has brush marks already, you’ll need to sand them flat prior to starting your doomed from the start.

To prep the surface start with the mildest [highest] grit paper that will get the job done and work your way down to more aggressive [lower] grits if needed. I start with 220 grit and work down through 180, 150, 100 grits, as needed. The goal here is to sand the surface smooth and flat. I sand the entire surface which ensures the best mechanical bond for the paint to adhere to.

Note – prior top painting older wood painted before 1978, test for lead-based paint and follow the Federal guidelines for lead paint. Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home (PDF).

cleaning surface using dry paint brush and vacuum to help eliminate brush strokes of new paint job

Once finished sanding I use a chip brush (an old clean paint brush) and a HEPA vacuum to simultaneously brush and vacuum the surface. I’ve found that the brush is more effective than a tack cloth at getting paint dust out of nook and crannies on moldings. Removing all dust and debris from moulded trim parts is very important for getting a smooth finish that’s free from brush strokes and streaks.

vacuuming trim surface before painting will help the paint lay flat and smooth

It’s important properly control air dust, vacuum the entire area, control humidity, eliminate air-borne dust, and ensure that your painted surface is free of dust. When working in an open floor plan, containment poles and plastic sheeting can be used to keep the area to be painted free of debris.


Thinning the Paint

Bill taught me a long time that the secret top laying down oil paint and eliminating brush strokes is to pour the paint into a working bucket and thin the paint 5% with paint thinner and Penetrol.

man adding paint conditioner to oil based paint to help eliminate brush strokes

Penetrol is an oil-based additive that helps improve paint adhesion and flow in oil-based paints, primers, and varnish.

Penetrol paint thinner used to condition oil paint to reduce paint streaks

When thinning the paint, thoroughly stir the paint until you reach the proper viscosity. How do you tell when it’s ready?

Here’s a tip: Pull the paint stick out of the bucket and allow paint to drip-off onto the paint in the bucket. When the paint hits the surface and disappears back [level] into the paint – leaving a level, smooth surface – you’ve reached the proper viscosity and you’re ready to apply paint.

man mixing in paint conditioner to paint to help eliminate brush strokes and streaks

Pro Tip: If the paint is not coming from a new can, be sure to strain the paint to eliminate debris.

pass old paint through a strainer to remove debris and bits on dried paint


Using the Right Brush

Bill also taught me that it’s important to use the right brush and spend the money and get a high-quality brush. Good-quality brush holds more paint and applies it more evenly, which can save you time and get quality results.

two high quality paint brushes can help reduce paint streaks

I like Wooster and Purdy brand brushes and look for a brush with natural bristles made with animal hair. Bill taught me that the natural “flagging” (splitting or fuzzy tips) of these brushes creates split ends in the bristles allowing them to hold more paint and release it smoothly.


Applying the Paint – the Secret Sauce to Eliminate Brush Strokes

Once the trim is clean, you’ve controlled air dust, and thinned the paint your ready for the secret sauce.

Apply paint to ¼ to 1/3rd of the brush and apply paint to the surface, ensuring complete paint coverage. Working the paint into the surface with back-and-forth strokes until it “feels even.”

apply paint to the surface until it's even and smooth

Once this is complete, you’re ready for “tipping,” this is the one area that requires some skill and feel, for the paint being applied. The “feel” portion of this process comes from experience and getting your reps in.

Using the tip of the bristles apply a gentle “tip-stroke,” from one end of the board to the opposite end – using one continuous stroke [End-to-End] if possible. You will receive better results if you tip in the same direction.

using the tip of the bristles apply a gentle tip-stroke to reduce brush strokes

Once you’ve done this, leave that area alone. Never go back over any paint that is tacking or drying.

Lastly, sand lightly [220 grit] between coats.  Following this process will ensure that your paint project will be free of brush strokes, paint streaks and will truly look professional.


Properly Cleaning Oil Brushes

Another factor in eliminating brush strokes and paint streaks on your DIY projects is to properly clean your oil paint brushes after each use. Letting paint harden on the soft tips of high-quality brushes will ruin the smooth finish, and ultimately, cost you money to replace them. We highly recommend using a paint spinner to ensure all paint is removed from the brush.

brush spinner used to clean oil paint brush

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