How to Clean a Paintbrush

Keep your paintbrushes long-lasting with these simple tips for successful care.

A well-maintained paintbrush can serve you for a long time. Improper cleaning leads to build-up and bristle damage, and damaged bristles can have a negative effect on whatever you’re painting. Whether you dabble in the arts, are refinishing a treasured piece of furniture, or are simply trying to apply a perfect coat of paint on the delicate window trim in your home, a clean brush directly impacts the success and flawless finish of your project. Clean gently to extend the life of these hard-working tools and learn the best practices for cleaning water-based, oil-based and shellac products.

Two paintbrushes are soaking in jars of water and are coloring the water white and blue


Two paintbrushes are soaking in jars of water and are coloring the water white and blue

Photo by: GettyImages/lolostock


How to Remove Water-Based Paint and Stain

For water-based paints including latex paint and alkyd enamel paint, as well as water-based stains, water is the solvent of choice. Anything water-based should and can be cleaned using ordinary water.

Outdoor painter cleaning brush


Outdoor painter cleaning brush

Photo by: GettyImages/Nastasic


First, wipe off as much of the excess paint as possible using a clean rag. Next, run the paintbrush under water, allowing the water to flow down the handle and down the bristles. Using your hands initially, massage the bristles to loosen the paint and let the excess paint run down the sink.

When the water runs clear, you’re getting close to being done. Use a comb to separate the bristles at the base of the handle to allow extra water to flow in between. If it’s being stubborn, add a few drops of dish soap to loosen the build-up. Once no sign of paint or stain is evident between the tightly bound bristles, use a dry rag to absorb extra moisture and allow the brush to air dry.

Close up on hands of a craftsman washing a brush cleaning after the painting work finished job


Close up on hands of a craftsman washing a brush cleaning after the painting work finished job

Photo by: GettyImages/Miljan Živković

GettyImages/Miljan Živković

What if the water-based product dried on the brush before I could clean it?

Soak the end of the paintbrush in a cup of warm, soapy water. After a few minutes, massage the bristles to loosen the paint by hand and swirl the brush around in the cup. It will take a little effort, but it’s still possible to get the paint and stain off the bristles. Rely on the comb to remove hardened chunks but be gentle so you don’t damage the bristles.

How to Remove Oil-Based Paint or Stain

For oil-based paints, stains and varnishes, soak the bristles in a cup of mineral spirits or paint thinner in a well-ventilated space for a few minutes. Swirl the bristles through the solution and then remove and lay the brush flat on a rag. Comb the bristles and periodically stir them in the solution to rinse the loosening bits of product. Always comb the bristles downward to help keep the proper brush form. Repeat until the bristles are clean. Rinse the brush thoroughly in soapy water to clean before allowing it to air dry.

Cropped view of male carpenter applying stain to wooden furniture. Horizontal shot.


Cropped view of male carpenter applying stain to wooden furniture. Horizontal shot.

Photo by: GettyImages/stevecoleimages


What if the oil-based product dried on the brush before I could clean it?

It’s going to be harder to clean dried oil-based paint and stain off a paintbrush without damaging the bristles. You probably won’t get the brushes back to like-new condition, but you can get them back to a state where they are reusable again for other projects. Longer soaks in mineral spirits can help, but it will risk weakening and damaging the bristles based on the quality of your paintbrush. Attempt to comb out most of the dried paint or stain as it loosens and re-soak in mineral spirits if necessary. Wash with warm soapy water and air dry when complete.

How to Remove Shellac

For paintbrushes affected by dried shellac, soak the brush – whether it’s wet, or dried on – in a cup of denatured alcohol in a well-ventilated space. Soak, stir and then comb the bristles to remove the shellac and continue to dip and re-comb until clean. Brushes affected by dried-on shellac may benefit from an extra wash in mineral spirits and then a soapy water wash once all product has been removed.


Do You Have to Clean Your Brush Immediately After Use?

If you’re not quite ready to clean a paintbrush but you need to pause your painting project, try this:

Wipe away as much excess paint as possible and put the wet bristle end of your paintbrush into a plastic baggie. Squeeze out the air and bind a rubber band around the handle to keep it airtight. This will help to protect your paintbrush for several hours or even overnight.

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