Woodworking Tips
Woodworking Tips Index
Cleaning Brushes, Part 1
Cleaning brushes is not one of my favorite things to do. In fact, for most finishing jobs, especially staining, I use foam brushes. While they lay down a smooth even coat, the best part of using them comes when I'm finished staining... I throw them away. By the way, if you're cheap like me and hate to throw anything away, tear off the foam and save the handle -- it will make a terrific stir stick the next time you're staining.

But there are times when you will want to use a fine bristle brush. When finishing spindles, moldings, and carvings, it's easier to get the finish down in the crevices with a bristle brush.

Whatever job you use a bristle brush for, it's important that the brush be clean before you use it. If there are any traces of hardened finish or stain left on the brush from a previous job, they could make a mess of your new finish.

There are two ways to approach cleaning brushes. The easiest is to be conscientious and clean the brush right when you're finished using it. That's the ideal. But let's admit it. There are times when we don't quite get around to cleaning the brushes right away. Then it gets hard, and needs to be soaked in a strong solvent to get it clean.

This week, let's assume you're going to clean the brush right away. Start by wiping the brush back and forth on some old newspaper or cardboard to remove as much of the finish as possible. Then pour about 3/4" of the correct cleaner/solvent (turpentine or mineral spirits for oil-based finishes, dish soap and water for water-based finishes) in a shallow dish and work the brush back and forth against the bottom of the dish. A small glass bowl with tapered sides works well for this.

While working the brush in the solvent, occasionally turn the bristles skyward so the solvent can get at and wash out any caked in finish that's up against the ferrule (the metal part that holds the bristles on the handle).

If the brush is really full of crud, I grab my "brush comb." It's actually a metal pet comb intended for dogs and cats. But the comb also works great for cleaning brushes and straightening out tangled bristles.

After most of the finish is out of the brush, pour out the dirty solvent (save turpentine and mineral spirits in a capped jar for later use -- the used finish will settle out), pour some clean solvent into the dish and repeat the process. Only this time work the bristles between your thumb and forefinger.

Next, go the sink and squeeze a little dishwashing detergent on the bristles. Then hold them under some warm tap water. The detergent won't dissolve any oil-based finish, but it will help wash away hardened particles.
After washing the brush with soap and water a few times, rinse it with clear water and comb it out one more time. Then dry the bristles with paper towel.

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