How to Choose the Ideal Brushes for Your Paint Job

Every detail matters, from bristle material to shape and size

1/7/20 - Zoro Staff

To ensure you get the best results when painting, you’ll need the right tools—specifically the ideal brushes. The brush you select will be based on the surface you are painting and the type of paint you use. Brush quality has a significant impact on the final look. If you use the wrong kind of brush, unfortunately, it will show when the project is complete and will look unprofessional.

First, let’s look at the anatomy of a paint brush.

  • Handle: wood or plastic and usually rounded to fit a hand
  • Bristles: natural or manmade fibers, which can be angled or straight across
  • Ferrules: thin metal that holds the bristles together

The most important part of the paint brush is the bristles, as the handle and ferrules are fairly standard.

Several factors will inform your paint brush selection. The criteria for picking the right brush include:

  • Bristle material
  • Type of paint or finish
  • Paint brush shape
  • Paint brush size

Choosing the Best Paint Brush

Bristle Material

Bristle material can either be natural or manmade.

  • Natural-bristle brushes: these are made with animal hairs and have natural splitting at the tips, allowing each bristle to hold more paint for a smooth release and finish. These brushes are more expensive than manmade fiber brushes. These brushes work well with wood stain, varnish, and oil-based paints.
  • Blended nylon/polyester brushes: these synthetic brushes are easy to clean and are used primarily with latex paints. With the combination of durable nylon and shape-retaining polyester, this type of paint brush delivers a high-quality finish and, with proper care, can last for years.
  • Polyester brushes: a synthetic paint brush best suited for latex paints. They’ll hold their shape and stiffness for a smooth, even coat.
  • Foam brushes: inexpensive and best used for quick one-time projects or touchups. These types of brushes won’t provide a smooth finish, so use them sparingly.

Knowing what you are painting and what type of paint you'll use, you can then narrow down your search for the best brush for the job. If you are considering synthetic, the blended brushes can be more expensive but last longer. The polyester brushes will still hold up but not for the time that a blended brush will.

Beyond just the material of the brushes, bristles can vary in the degree of softness or stiffness. Brushes typically have soft or stiff marked on the packaging. Use soft bristles when applying stains, oil-based paints, and varnishes as a stiff brush will cause brush ridges. When painting trim or intricate molding, try a stiff brush to have more control over the paint.

Paint Type: Water-Based or Oil-Based Paint

When using water-based paints, it’s best to use synthetic brushes. Natural fibers, when introduced to water, become floppy, and that’s not what you want in a brush. Oil-based paints go on well with either synthetic or natural paint brushes.

Finding the Right Shape

Within all types of paint brushes, you’ll find flat and angled options. Flat brushes are typically used for large areas where you don’t have to be as precise. An angled brush allows you to control the paint better and be more precise. An angled brush is also the best choice for painting trim.

The Right Size Brush

Selecting the right size brush depends on two factors—the size of the surface and the degree of detail required. For example, if you are painting a large panel with no grooves, you can use a wide brush. However, the smaller and more detailed the surface, such as with crown molding, chair rails, or furniture, you’ll need to go smaller. The more precise the job, the more likely you are to need a small width, angled brush.

Here are the most common sizes of paint brushes and where you should use them:

  • 1" to 2": Use for windows, small trim, and woodworking jobs.
  • 3": Employ when using glossy paint on doors and cabinets as well as for trim that is wider than 3".
  • 4": Select when painting large, flat areas like a home’s exterior siding, paneling, fences, or other wide, flat surfaces.

Maintaining Paint Brushes for Reuse

Some paint brushes aren’t worth cleaning and reusing, but those that you have invested in are, so you need to prepare them for their next job. Find the right solvent to use on brushes depending on what paint type was used. Check the directions from the brush manufacturer for what to use.

For example, latex paints are water-soluble, so rinsing the paint from brushes can be done with dish detergent. Push the bristles down on a surface so they spread out when cleaning to ensure you get all the paint out. Dry brushes carefully and use a paint brush comb if needed.

Now it’s time to choose your paint brushes and start your project!

Product Compliance and Suitability

The product statements contained in this guide are intended for general informational purposes only. Such product statements do not constitute a product recommendation or representation as to the appropriateness, accuracy, completeness, correctness or currentness of the information provided. Information provided in this guide does not replace the use by you of any manufacturer instructions, technical product manual, or other professional resource or adviser available to you. Always read, understand and follow all manufacturer instructions.