Brush Rehab

Q. Synthetic brushes are a boon to acrylic painters, but I’ve found that after using them for only a short time they begin to splay, even after cleaning the brush and hand-forming the fibers. Do you have any suggestions for returning the brush to its original condition?
R.C. Doc Weaver
Santa Fe, NM

A. First of all, because acrylics dry quickly and are apt to destroy natural hairs if not cleaned and cared for properly, synthetic brushes truly are a boon to acrylic painters. To re-form them once they’ve begun to splay, some manufacturers suggest dipping the fibers in near-to-boiling water for a few seconds, then taking them out and reshaping them. But in my experience this process hasn’t worked well enough to make it a regular exercise.

Probably the best method for re-forming brushes is the practice of good brush care in general, because the two topics are so closely intertwined. Synthetic brushes should be treated much the same as natural hair or bristle brushes, but the rule of never resting brushes on their tips is even more important with synthetics. When working, rest your brushes on the ferrule, not on their heads in a jar. Some synthetics have a “memory,” and malformed tips can be difficult to correct, as you’ve probably noticed. In this case, however, where the tip has been malformed by resting the brush improperly, the technique of dipping it into very hot water may be useful.

When you finish a work session, wipe the brush clean of paint with a paper towel before cleaning it with the appropriate solvent. Then wash the brush using lukewarm (not hot) water and soap (not detergent), or a commercial artist’s brush cleaner, and repeat the process gently as often as necessary to remove any residual color or binder.

If any paint still remains, use a soft brush (such as a toothbrush) to gently work the lather in, starting from the edge of the ferrule and moving outward to that most critical area, the tip. Then rinse and re-form your brushes by hand. Let them dry flat, except in the case of non-resilient hair brushes, such as squirrel, which should be air-dried while suspended head down to allow any moisture to flow out of the fibers. Natural fiber brushes may be treated the same as synthetic brushes, but they may also be dipped into a weak solution of gum arabic and water before being shaped.

Finally, be sure to air-dry your brushes in an open environment. And for storage, folding bamboo brush holders are especially good because they allow air to reach the brushes by circulating through the ribs.

In 1992, Jack Reid was awarded the Commemorative Medal by the Canadian government for his contribution to the arts. His paintings hang in collections around the world, including the Diamond Jubilee Collection in Windsor Castle. Reid waselected Life Member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1998. He’s the author of two books on watercolor painting and a sought-after workshop instructor. E-mail Reid at

You may also like these articles: