How to Clean Paint Brushes

Cleaning tips that'll make your high-quality brushes last

Good paint brushes are worth the money, whether you're painting with latex, oil or shellac. Here's how the pros clean up their expensive paint brushes.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Video: How to Clean Paintbrushes

Cleaning paint brushes

If you're like me, the last thing you want to do after a long day of painting is clean brushes. I used to avoid the chore by wrapping the brushes in a plastic bag and sticking them in the freezer. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, that lasted until my family noticed our frozen pizza was starting to taste like freshly painted woodwork.

A good brush, if kept clean, will last for dozens of painting jobs. My friend Kevin, who paints interiors for a living, has brushes that have outlasted many marriages. In this article, we'll show you the right way to clean a brush, no matter what kind of paint you use, and how to keep its shape once you've cleaned it. We'll even show you how to revive the hardened brush that you've been using for a doorstop.

NOTE: You can buy all the solvents and the brush comb from paint retailers or good hardware stores.

To get a good paint job, buy a good brush

It sounds like one of Benjamin Franklin's maxims, but any pro will tell you the same thing: You get what you pay for. One expensive brush is way better than a handful of cheap brushes. Get a good nylon or polyester brush for painting with latex and a good natural (animal hair) bristle brush for oil paints.

Don't use a natural-bristle brush for water-based paints like latex. The natural fibers will swell, lose their shape and eventually lose their strength, too. If you can't get the buying information you need from a home center or hardware store, go to a retail paint store for assistance.

Five steps to clean water-based finishes and latex paint

Follow these tips to get your brush completely free of paint and properly shaped for the next job. Even if you're not cleaning water-soluble paint, pay special attention to Step 5 immediately below; you'll need it no matter what kind of paint you need to clean out of your brush.

  1. Scrape off excess paint. It may seem obvious, but be sure the brush is as free of paint as possible. Use the rim of a can and then work some of the paint onto newspaper before cleaning in soapy water.
  2. Wash the brush in a pail of soapy water. Work the paint free of the bristles with your hands and a brush comb.
  3. Spin the brush in a pail. Remove any remaining paint and water.
  4. Rinse the bristles in a pail of clean water. Work the bristles with your hand. After a few minutes, spin the brush again and then rinse it in another pail of clean water.
  5. Wrap the brush with heavy paper. Prefold the paper as shown, then wrap it around the brush and tie it loosely with string. This step is critical to retain the shape of the brush.


Spin flammable solvents only in well-ventilated areas away from furnaces, pilot lights and electrical devices of all kinds. Outdoors is best.

Six steps to clean oil-based varnishes and paint from brushes

The process here is very similar to cleaning off latex paint except you'll use paint thinner (mineral spirits) instead of soapy water to rinse the brush clean. Again get the brush as free of paint as possible before cleaning. This is especially important with oil-based paints and varnishes so you can use less thinner and have fewer mess and disposal hassles.

  1. Rinse the brush thoroughly in paint thinner. Work the bristles with your hands (wear chemical-resistant gloves, which are available at your hardware store or home center). If necessary, use a brush comb to get rid of paint clinging to the brush. This is less of a problem with oil paint than with latex.
  2. Spin the brush for 10 seconds. Use a brush-and-roller spinner after nearly all the paint solids are out of the brush.
  3. Dip the brush into a clean container of paint thinner. Work any remaining paint out of the bristles. Agitate the bristles for at least two minutes.
  4. Spin the brush again.
  5. Dip the brush into a container of lacquer thinner. Agitate the brush for about a minute to remove any remaining paint residue. Shake the brush onto newspaper to remove the lacquer thinner and residue. Lacquer thinner is extremely flammable—be sure to do this outside.
  6. Clean the brush in a bucket of soapy water. Use laundry or dish soap. Work the bristles for only one minute. Purists may not want to do this, especially with natural-bristle brushes. A quick cleaning with water won't damage the bristles, though. Spin the brush free of water and then shape the brush as shown above.


Don't dump the paint thinner when you're finished. Let the paint solids settle to the bottom of the jar, then pour off the rest into a clean container. Let the solids dry outdoors and then dump them in the trash for landfill or hazardous waste. Call your local trash service for proper disposal.


Always work in a well-ventilated area when cleaning brushes in solvents such as paint thinner, lacquer thinner, alcohol and ammonia. In fact, it's best to work outside. Don't ever clean solvent-laden brushes around water heaters, stoves or any device with an open flame or potential electrical spark. Keep the solvents in proper, well-marked containers out of reach of children and pets.

Shellac-based paints

Cleaning clear shellac varnish or pigmented shellac paints requires a different solvent than does latex and oil. You must use denatured alcohol or an ammonia household cleaner.

When using an ammonia solution, mix it with warm water at twice the strength recommended for cleaning floors. Then rinse the brush in lukewarm water, and spin and wrap it as shown above. When using denatured alcohol, follow the same steps as for the oil-based paint cleanup, but use the alcohol instead.

Petrified brushes

Chances are you have some petrified brushes. Here's how you can revive them.

You can buy either of the brush cleaners shown above to dissolve the crusty hard paint on your brushes. However, choose carefully. The solvent-based cleaner on the left is great for any brush (natural or synthetic), but the water-based cleaner on the right is only good for synthetic brushes.

Both solvents will remove hardened latex and oil-based paint. The brushes must soak overnight (cover the container on the left with foil in a well-ventilated area). If the paint isn't softened after 24 hours, let the brushes soak another day. You must suspend the brushes as shown or the bristles will look like hockey sticks as they soften and settle into the bottom of the jar.

Once the bristles are supple, remove the brush and comb away any solids. If you're using the solvent-based cleaner on the left, soak the brush again for an hour in clean solution to remove any more solids, then follow the procedure for cleaning oil-based paint from brushes. If using the water-based cleaner, wash the brush in soapy water and follow the directions for cleaning latex paint from a brush.

Video: A Trick for Storing Paint Brushes Overnight

When you're in the middle of a painting project and you need to stop for lunch or for the day, you don't want to clean your brush, but you also don't want to come back to a dried up mess. This video shows the best way to store paint brushes so you can use them again later. During your next painting project, you'll be glad you watched this video.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Bucket
  • Jar
  • Wire brush
  • Rags
  • Paintbrush
  • Paint brush comb
  • Paint brush/roller spinner

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • Denatured alcohol
  • Household ammonia
  • Lacquer thinner
  • Newspaper
  • Paint thinner

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