Easy methods to take your crusty acrylic brushes and get them back to fighting shape
As you sit down for your next big painting project, you notice some of your brushes are looking beat-up and worse for the wear; some bristles are frayed; others have lost their shape completely, while others are literally caked with dried acrylic paint from a past project and you forgot to clean them in time (oops!).
Instead of panicking and throwing all your brushes out in a fit of madness, there are several methods for reviving your damaged brushes and restoring them back to their former glory.
So, take a deep breath, Janet. It’s gonna be ok.
The best ways to repair and maintain your acrylic paint brushes include the following:
- Clean off the dried paint with acetone, rubbing alcohol, or hand sanitizer
- Reshape the brush with the help of boiling water
- Prevent future damage by following proper brush cleaning techniques like washing with soap and water during and post painting sessions
- Condition your brushes with oil or preserver to maintain it’s shape over time
After reading this post, you’ll have several tactics up your sleeve for restoring your damaged brushes back to fighting shape and know how to keep them working better for longer.
Before we do that, let’s talk about the main causes of brush damage and how you can avoid them in the future.
What exactly causes brush damage?
There are lots of ways that your paint brush can get damaged, many of which happen due to negligence or simply not quite understanding how to treat a brush. Now, before you beat yourself up for being a bad brush parent, I want you to know it’s totally ok to mess this up.
Trust me. I have messed up my brushes many times in the past, so I had to learn a lot of these lessons the hard way.
A big reason why most brushes get damaged and lose functionality has to do with dried paint getting into the ferrule, aka the metallic area that fastens all your bristles together.
When this happens, your brushes become extremely difficult to manage and use, the ferrule itself may rust, or the brush handle will warp, often resulting in your brush’s inevitable demise into the trash can.
Other forms of brush damage include poor brush handling (like leaving your brushes bristle tip down in your water cup for extended periods of time (whoops!)) or just not cleaning your brushes after finishing a painting session (I also was totally guilty of doing this when I first started painting).
So as we dive into the damage repairing techniques, I want you to know that these are last-stitch efforts to recover your brushes, and there really isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to save your brushes. Plus, I wouldn’t condone doing this to your brushes all the time- because that is just silly and super damaging. But instead, look at this as a cautionary tale of why it’s SO important to take care of your brushes in the first place.
Disclaimer: some links I include below are affiliate links, meaning I will earn a small commission if you choose to purchase using these links at no extra cost to you!
How to clean dried paint off brush bristles
Let’s start with one of the biggest culprits of brush damage….. dried acrylic paint on the brush bristle.
I’m sure you know exactly how it happened.
You were in the middle of a painting project, you put down your paint-soaked brush to tend to another pressing matter and 3 hours later, you find yourself with a stiff, cake-y brush that is now rendered unusable.
It sucks and looks really really bad. But, fortunately for us, there are ways to clean off dried paint and get your brushes back to fighting shape.
First of all, don’t ever do that again.
Always always always clean your brushes with water while you are working with them, just so you can avoid catastrophes like this. Make it a priority so you can avoid having to do all the recon later.
Ok, now that that is covered….
You can effectively remove dried acrylic paint from your brushes by one of several methods:
Acetone/Nail Polish Remover
In a well-ventilated room, dip your brush bristles into an acetone solution up to the ferrule, letting the acetone penetrate the bristles and release the dried acrylic paint buildup. Let sit for a few minutes.
I would suggest using a cloth to help wipe off the bristles post-dipping to aid in the paint removal or use a steel-wire brush (brushing away from the ferrule) and finish off by rinsing the bristles in water to remove any excess acetone. Depending on how much dried paint you have, you may need to repeat this process several times until all your acrylic paint is removed.
Less pungent than acetone, isopropyl aka rubbing alcohol is another great solution to taking out dried paint from bristles. Simply dip your affected bristles into a solution of rubbing alcohol up to the ferrule level, letting it penetrate the bristles and release the acrylic paint buildup. Let sit for a few minutes. Use a cloth to help wipe off the bristles after each dip to aid in the paint removal process or use a steel-wire brush (brushing away from the ferrule) to remove excess paint and then rinse with water to remove any remaining alcohol. Repeat as necessary until all the paint has been removed.
Who knew hand sanitizer would be an effective way for getting dried acrylics off of brushes! Thanks to the ethyl alcohol content, hand sanitizer can penetrate the bristles and release paint buildup, in very much the same way as acetone and rubbing alcohol.
To use, you can simply squeeze a small amount onto your bristles and using the palm of your hand or a plate, simply swish your brush in a round-motion until the paint is removed. If the paint is refusing the budge, consider using a steel-wire brush and brush away from the ferrule to get the paint off. You may want to repeat this process several times until all your paint is removed. Then give your brush a final rinse with water.
How to remove dried paint from the ferrule
Now, what if you happen to have dried paint nestled deep inside your brush ferrule. How can you remove it? Pretty much the same way as we mentioned before, with either acetone or rubbing alcohol.
In a container that can fit your entire brush on its side, add your acetone or rubbing alcohol solution and add your brush, completely submerging it in the liquid. Let sit for a few minutes and using a cloth and a swirling motion with your brush, get as much of the dried paint off as possible. Then rinse with water and repeat if more paint needs to be removed.
ONE MAJOR CAVEAT: as tempting as it may seem, do not leave your brush or bristles in acetone/rubbing alcohol for long periods of time. This can severely damage your brushes and make them damn near unusable. If you want to give your brush a fighting chance of returning to its former glory, do not soak them in caustic solutions. They will hate you forever.
How to reshape frayed paint brush bristles
Sometimes our brushes really take a good ol’ beating from one too many paintings, leaving the bristles looking frayed and shaggier than 80’s hair. When this happens, your brushes become very difficult to handle and create unintended paint strokes – especially if you’re dealing with a frayed detail round brushes that simply refuse to give you sleek, crisp lines.
To repair your brush shape, ensure that there is no dried acrylic stuck to the bristles. If this is the case, follow the above steps for removing dried paint off the brush itself. Once cleaned, follow the steps below to return your brush back to its original form.
- Step 1: Boil a pot of water
- Step 2: Place your brush inside the boiling water, tip-side down, and rotate the brush for 5 minutes. As you’re doing this, you’ll start to notice the bristles coming back together, thanks to the heat of the water.
- Step 3: Remove your brush and dry it using a cloth or towel, making sure to carefully wipe away from the ferrule, not toward (this will cause the bristles to get caught and warped, so be mindful of the direction you’re wiping).
- Step 4: Add a plastic guard or wrap your brush tip in aluminum foil to preserve the shape and set aside. Within a window of 3 hours, your brush shape should be back to normal.
Proper brush handling techniques every artist needs to follow
Ok, so you’ve repaired your brushes and dodged the bullet of repurchasing new brushes. Now, let’s keep it that way. In order to help your brushes stay in the best condition possible, you will need to put in a tiny bit of effort – especially while the paint on the brush is still wet and workable, so I’ve outlined two major steps you will need to follow for optimal brush care.
Step 1: Wash your brush while paint is still wet
I cannot recommend this method enough! The best sure-fire way to keep them in good fighting shape is to clean it with water – both during and after your painting session. When washing your brushes, there are two types of techniques I like to follow.
Technique #1: Wipe and Dip
The wipe and dip technique is one I personally like to use during my painting sessions – mainly because of how quick and effective it is. Simply wipe any remaining paint off your brush using a cloth or spare piece of paper, dip the brush into your water and stir the bristles around the bottom to push any paint off the brush body. Then, repeat this process with wiping and dipping until all your paint has been removed. Once your brush is cleaned, set it down on your working station.
As an added tip, I have heard some artists like to add marbles or rocks to the bottom of their water cups so that their brush has a multi-textured surface to squeeze out paint while dipped. This is a great hack to try so I figured I would mention it!
Technique #2: Cleaning with Soap and Water
This is the technique I like using the most simply because it assuredly cleans the entire brush body, and I use this technique once I am done with my painting session. To clean your acrylic paint brush, you simply mix your brush bristles in equal parts liquid soap and oil. I love using olive oil for this step since this will keep your paint brush bristles slick and ready for its next adventure.
Then, I simply rinse the paintbrush bristles with warm water. I use the palm of my hand or a hard surface like my paint palette to push the acrylic off my brush. I know my paintbrush is clean when there are no paint streaks left while brushing. As a bonus, I included a video below demonstrating the steps I just outlined:
Step 2: Dry your brushes in the proper orientation
Once your brush has been sufficiently cleaned, it is time to dry them. I have seen lots of beginner artists throw their cleaned brushes into a cup with the bristles pointed down.
DO NOT DO THAT. This will mess with your brush bristles and the overall brush shape!
Instead, orient your brush so that the bristle tips are pointing/slanting down so that gravity can work it’s magic and get the water to properly drain from the ferrule and bristles. You can get really creative with how you decide to orient your brushes, but here are just a few methods I have tried or other artists like to use to dry their brushes properly. Whatever method you decide to use, be sure nothing is touching the bristles!
Method 1: Make Your Own Brush Holder (for those artsy DIYers)
You can always go down the DIY route and make your own brush holders. In fact, Pinterest and google have some really great ideas, but one particular design caught my attention – and all you need is a pool noodle.
Cut several small slits into a pool noodle and a major slit on the backside of the noodle. The major slit can be used to secure the entire noodle on an edge, like a box or container. Place your brush handle into the tinier slits, pointing the brush tip at a downward angle. To get more details on how to make this, here is the step-by-step DIY brush care holder tutorial from instructables.com.
Method 2: Purchase a Brush Holder
When searching for manufactured brush holders, I did not find a lot that oriented the brushes in the correct direction. However, I did find these two brush holders which hold wet brushes in the correct position; these can be used both during your painting session and after washing your brushes.
Step 3: Condition those janky brush bristles
One of the final steps to proper brush care is to condition your brush bristles. Now, you won’t have to do this every single time you clean your brushes, but I would recommend doing it once every month or two, depending on how many times you use your brush.
To prep your brush for conditioning, first make sure all excess water is removed from the brush by simply pinching the brush with your fingers; then grab your choice of conditioner like olive oil or a manufactured preserver like The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver (lots of artists love using this!), lightly stir your brush into the conditioner (make sure your bristles don’t bend all the way back), squeeze off any excess with your fingers, and then use your finger tips to shape the brush.
Once finished, simply slip on a plastic guard or wrap your brush in aluminum foil to help keep its shape. To help better see this concept in action, I included a quick little tutorial showing you how to use The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver in more detail.
In conclusion, just take care of your brushes, mmmkay?
My number one rule for dealing with paint brushes is to take care of them right the first time. Honestly, I know I have been hammering you over the head with this throughout this entire post, but I really want to make this point clear. A good well-cared for brush will last for years, as long as you follow the preventative cleaning steps after every painting session. If your brushes get messed up (which can happen), see these repair tips as your last resort to restore them back to working condition. Make brush care a priority and a habit, and you will save yourself time and headaches in the long run.
What did you think of my tips for repairing damaged acrylic paint brushes? What methods have you tried before? Comment below and let me know!