Natural vs. Synthetic Brushes
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Recently I received the opportunity to write an article for the Spring issue of UpcycledHOME Magazine. (This online Refurbishing Lifestyle Magazine is FREE to subscribe and will be delivered right to your inbox! - (Subscribe to UpcycledHOME Magazine) The article, "What is the BEST Paint to Use on Furniture" will be published in the next couple of weeks and I will be sharing that article with you as soon as I can, I PROMISE. In the meantime, I thought what better topic to pair with paint than helping you choose the perfect paintbrush! Choosing the right paint brush can feel overwhelming - there are so many shapes, sizes and bristle types available and many popular paint brands also sell and recommend brushes for use with their products. Knowing the difference between natural and synthetic bristle brushes can really help you to figure out where to invest for your next DIY project.
Natural Bristle Brushes
Natural bristle paint brushes are made from natural animal hair such as hog or badger.
Bristle hairs naturally split creating more surface area for picking up, holding and distributing your paint. This ability to hold more paint can help to speed up your painting process as you will not have to reload your brush as often allowing you to cover a greater surface area at a time. Bristle brushes are ideal for use with natural paints like chalk mineral, clay and milk paints. The soft flexibility of natural bristle brushes aid in the application of thin layers of paint with reduced streaks and even distribution. When using these brushes with natural paints (chalk/clay/milk-based) there is less chance of streaking than with synthetic brushes. Natural bristle brushes may shed the first few times you use them. If you have purchased a quality natural bristle brush, the bristles should stop shedding after the second or third use.
PRO TIP: To break in a new paint brush, brush the bristles back and forth against your hand to loosen them. Slap the brush on a hard surface and then spin it between your palms (using the handle) to free any loose bristles and minimize shedding.
Synthetic Bristle Brushes
Synthetic bristles are made from materials like nylon and polyester or a combination of both. Modern synthetic paint brushes are excellent quality and typically cost much less on average than a natural bristle brush. If you look after these brushes, they’ll last you for many years. The first synthetic brush I ever purchased, a 2.5" Wooster from Home Depot, quickly became my favourite and after almost 4 years of use this brush is still in excellent condition.
Nylon - nylon brushes are durable, have excellent paint pickup and create a smooth finish. Nylon bristles can soften when used in hot weather (or stored in a hot garage) or after heavy use with latex paints.
Polyester - polyester brushes maintain their shape and control making them ideal for detail work however they have a lower paint pick up compared to nylon brushes requiring that you reload your paint more often. The majority of paints currently on the market are created using fast-drying ingredients which can stick to polyester brushes making them harder to clean.
Combination - nylon/polyester blend brushes combine the positive qualities of both nylon and polyester and are a popular brush choice. The smooth texture and springiness of the bristles make for an even finish on furniture especially when working with high gloss or water-based wood finishes. Rough surfaces can break the tips of natural bristles, ruining your brush. A firm synthetic brush is best for rough surface paint applications, regardless of paint type, because they are very durable and will resist wear from the rougher surface.
What happens if I use the wrong type of bristle for the paint type I'm using on my project?
Choosing the right brush will help your project go smoother but choosing the wrong paint brush is not the end of the world. If you apply a chalk or clay-based paint with a synthetic brush you will likely have more streaks and poorer coverage than you would achieve with a natural bristle brush. If you're wanting to achieve a smooth finish you may also have to put in a little more effort sanding out your brush strokes.
On the other hand, if you try to apply latex paint with a natural bristle brush, the bristles will absorb the water from the paint and become limp making it difficult to spread the paint smoothly. Latex paint does not sand smooth easily (think chunky, warm plastic) - so clean up on this project may be a harder lesson to learn but it CAN be done.
It's important to remember that paint is only paint - it's pretty hard to "do" something that can't be "undone" with a little hard work and elbow grease. These little mistakes - which totally suck and ruin all our fun - teach us more than any blog and truly make us better painters!
There are so many brush shapes and sizes, so which ones should I buy?
The brush you use will largely be determined by your project but here are some basics to help you to figure out how to get started:
Larger 4-6" brushes are ideal for painting large, flat surfaces - these brushes are not really needed for painting furniture (although they can make quick work of a piece such as a large, flat armoire) - when you're just getting started you can skip on purchasing anything of this size. Medium brushes, 2-3", are the most commonly used size for painting furniture. Smaller brushes are good for smaller projects, detailed pieces and trim work - I recommend having at least one 1 - 1.5" brush to start. I also recommend having a small assortment of artist brushes for getting in tight corners and carved details etc.
The shape of your brush will determine how the paint moves from your bristles and onto your furniture. A brush with a flat, squared-off end works well for flat surfaces and will spread paint evenly across your surface. Angled brushes, often referred to as cutting brushes, have bristles that have been cut at a slight slant and are ideal for getting paint into corners. They also allow for more control and straighter lines. Oval paint brushes are commonly sold along side natural products such as chalk mineral paints. Oval paint brushes hold much more paint than flat-edged brushes and will reduce the look of brush strokes in your painted finish.
Another thing to consider when purchasing a paint brush - especially if you choose not to purchase a specialty brush made for furniture - is the handle length. Long handled brushes are not ideal for reaching around legs and inside corners making it all too easy to accidentally bump your freshly painted surface and ruin your finish.
Are those really expensive brushes worth the money?
As a general rule, when it comes to paint brushes you get what you pay for. There are a lot of variables that go into determining which brush you love - How comfortable is the handle in your hand? Does it shed unreasonably? Is it the right type of brush for your preferred paint type? Personally, I own 7 different brands of paint brushes and I am always adding to my collection. I like to experiment with paint types, paint brands and different finishes so for me each brush has it's purpose. I have brushes in my collection that I purchased for upwards of $45 that I don't use that often (the reason being that the oval is too large and doesn't fit well into my paint can and I am a paint out of the can kind of girl - silly, right?!) and I also have brushes I purchased for $15 that I use at least once a week and have owned for years. If you are just getting started by all means purchase a Wooster from your local Home Depot! Remember, if you're wanting to grow your hobby into a business it's important to reinvest a little and continually upgrade your toolkit - so when you sell a piece or two splurge a little and add a new brush to your collection!
Below I've listed five quality paint brush brands worth trying. However, all of these brands are "stand alone" brands - meaning they were not created to pair with a specific brand of paint. Keep in mind that many popular furniture paint brands also carry their own line of brushes. If you typically use the same brand of paint again and again then I would highly recommend purchasing their brushes and giving them a try!
Cling-On! - shop online
Paint Pixie - shop online or find a local retailer
Purdy – available at most home improvement stores
Wooster - available at most home improvement stores
Zibra – shop online
Do you have a favourite paintbrush? If you do, I'd love to hear which brush is your go to and what you love most about it!
DISCLAIMER: This is not sponsored content. This is a personal review and the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed herein are strictly my own. I did not receive financial compensation from any of the brands mentioned in this post.