Your Step-by-Step Guide to Cleaning and Drying Paint Brushes

Learn how to wash brushes soiled with acrylic- and oil-based paints, so they stay in great shape after each use.

close-up of paintbrushes that have been used and need cleaning

Ask any artist and they'll tell you the same: Whether you're painting the walls of your home or a canvas, cleaning your brushes after each use is paramount. "Washing your brushes is important to keep the bristles soft and to clear out color pigment from the paint," says artist Carly Wilhelm. "Frequent cleaning and conditioning will make brushes last longer and maintain a predictable stroke."

Of course, certain brushes, and more specifically, bristle types require different cleaning techniques. "Some brush bristle types clean much more easily than others," says Nicole Gibbons, interior designer and founder of Clare. She notes that brushes made of synthetic materials can usually be cleaned with soap and water, assuming you used a water-based paint. On the other hand, brushes made of natural materials, such as animal hair or fur, need to be treated more delicately, especially when washing out oil paint.

How Often to Wash Your Paint Brushes

Not washing your paint brushes every time you use them? Wilhelm says to reconsider. "If you don't clean your brushes frequently, dried-on paint will harden the bristles and make once smooth strokes look scratchy," she says. "Also, when a dirty brush is re-wet, old paint residue can mix into new paint and ruin the color."

But if you can't clean your brush moments after you've finished using it, don't fret: Gibbons says the next best thing to do is to place the brush in a jar, covering only the bristles with water or cleaning solution (depending on the type of paint used). "Soaking the wooden handle could cause it to warp or cause the ferrule to loosen over time," she says.

How to Wash Your Paint Brushes

The method you follow when cleaning your paint brushes will vary depending on the type of paint you used: oil-or water-based.

Water-Based Paints

To clean water-based paint, such as latex or acrylic, off of your paint brush, you won't need much more than a good liquid dish detergent and warm water, says Annie Sloan, paint and color expert and creator of Chalk Paint Annie Sloan. "Rinse paint away and then use a grease-cutting soap or mild detergent and massage into bristles," she says.

You want to get the bristles as clean and pristine as possible, so Gibbons notes that it may take several washes and rinses until the water runs clear. "When rinsing your brush under a faucet, rinse with bristles facing downward so you don't end up warping the handle or forcing paint down to clog into the ferrule," she says.

Oil-Based Paints

For paint brushes soiled with oil paint, Wilhelm says you'll need to take a different approach when cleaning. "For brushes used for oil paints, dab remaining wet paint off of the brush onto a paper towel or rag, then pour a small amount of cleaning solution, such as General Pencil The Masters Brush Cleaner, into a small non-plastic container," she says. "Work the brush bristles back and forth in the liquid until the bristles are clean."

How to Remove Hardened Paint

If hardened-on paint persists, Sloan says to soak the brushes in warm water and white vinegar, which will "melt" the stuck-on paint without using strong chemicals. And if soaking doesn't do the trick, try a paint brush comb. "A metal paint brush comb is a great tool to loosen up stubborn dried paint residue from bristles," Gibbons says. "It's what professionals use when cleaning their brushes. Just comb out from base to tip."

How to Dry Paint Brushes

How you dry your brushes is every bit as important as your washing method. "After cleaning, use your hands to spin out excess water then pat dry using a soft cloth," Gibbons says. "House paint brush handles should have a hole in the end to hang your brush facing downward to dry."

For smaller paint brushes, Wilhelm suggests first laying them flat on a paper towel, and then hanging them upside down by the handle with tape or a drying rack, to keep them in tiptop shape. "Never dry brushes standing upright on the handle. Doing so will slowly decay the ferrule and handle of the brush," she says.

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