Finishing - Natural Hair Brushes

The standard brushes available at my local paint shop
I have used and abused more paint brushes than I care to remember. I was a vandal when it came to these brushes, bought for no more than Rs 15 or Rs 20 from the local paint shop. They did the job, but badly and I never knew better until I stumbled upon a natural hair paint brush. It came with long, thick, black bristles made, I later learnt, from Chinese hog hair. The brush had a spring to it and the experience of painting was so much better. This brush held more paint than the thin listless ones I was used to and left a far superior surface largely free of brush marks. It was amazing how much difference a good quality brush could make to the painting process.

Since then I use only natural animal bristle brushes for painting, applying shellac and polyurethane (the three finishes I generally use). I do not use varnish or lacquer and could not therefore tell how these brushes would work with them. Though I believe they should excel with varnish, which is a form of oil paint.

Hog hair brush (Black)
Natural Hair Brush (White)

However, it is said that natural hair brushes are unsuitable for water based finishes as they tend to clog up. I stick with the standard synthetic brushes when applying water based products.

For paint, shellac and poly nothing can beat a natural hair brush. They are marginally pricier than synthetic bristle brushes and seem to come in two colours: white/cream or black. The bristles of the black one are thicker, rougher and longer; in my opinion better for poly and oil paints. The white bristles work very well with Shellac as they are softer and silkier.

Not all paint shops stock natural hair brushes and many of the local ones had no idea what I was talking about. There was a time when very good quality natural hair brushes were widely and cheaply available in India. That was before the government banned the harvesting of animal hair, mainly I am told on grounds of cruelty. Since then the manufacture of natural hair brushes in India has virtually died out. Today, most natural hair brushes and bristles are imported from China.

I bought my first natural hair paint brush for Rs 60 in Bangalore. Found some in Calcutta's Chandni Chowk area and finally located a source in Delhi's Chawri Bazar. These brushes seem to cost about Rs 60 for the two inch variety in most places.

Storing a brush during a project

After having ruined untold numbers of brushes, I now regard a good paint brush as a tool that must be cared for and used wisely. Cleaning a brush properly with the right solvent is key to preserving a brush. Use rectified spirit for Shellac, Turpentine for oil paints and proprietary thinners for polyurethanes.

During a paint job which might stretch for a few days, I do not bother to clean my brushes after each application but store them immersed in a bottle of solvent. This keeps them from drying out and stiffening. If the hollow area under the ferrule where the paint is held dries up, then the brush is pretty much finished.

After the paint job is over the brush should first be cleaned thoroughly with solvent and then washed with water and dishwashing liquid. Once most of the paint has been washed away the brush should be wrapped in paper and left to dry so that it maintains its shape. Believe me caring for a good brush is worth it, as is the case with all hand tools.

Indranil Banerjie
8 June 2015


  1. Anonymous09 June, 2015

    Excellent article but I would like to add a suggestion if I may? My old dad was a signwriter by trade so brushes were very important to him. After removing paint using a solvent, he always washed the brush using water and shampoo. After all, he would argue, bristles are simply hair. Harsh chemicals can remove oils from the bristles and shampoo will not was his reasoning I guess.

    1. Very wise. Perhaps shampoo would be better than dishwashing liquid.


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