How to Repair Your Artist Quality Hog’s Hair Brushes (or how to recover those brushes you just can’t throw away)

If you’re like me, you have a lot of hog’s hair brushes. I have a problem throwing out oil painting brushes, even when my mistreatment of those brushes have quarantined them to a life in the “Dead Brush” jar. Sometimes these brushes are recoverable and sometimes not, depending on the severity of my neglect. In the early days, I was a bad boy.

These days I’ve gotten much better at maintaining and protecting my brushes. They are now lasting far longer than when I first began to paint. So with that in mind, here are a seven steps to help maintain your brushes. You may even find these steps will help you recover some brushes with hardened paint, but there are no guarantees here. I have managed to successfully recover most of mine, but it took some work to get good separation of the bristles with my fingernails to get the brush to even approach flexibility. Your brushes may not be so bad. Here’s what to do… as always click these images for a larger view.

Tip: If you take any hog’s hair brush and flick your thumb over the top of the bristles, and can see tiny bits of bristle flicking off in the light, or if you have rock-hard brushes that you don’t use anymore; this post is for you.

You will need:
3 rectangular containers to hold brushes (I use metal loaf pans)
2 smallish bowls or saucers
Hair conditioner (liquid is better than gel)
Dish soap
A neutral oil (safflower, canola, grape-seed or peanut)
Paper towel or clean dish towel
Slip-joint pliers

01 setup edit-01
The setup
This image shows how to compose your work area and the order in which to process your brushes. Use liquid conditioner and you only need a small amount, about a the size of a quarter. Dissolve it in about 2 cups of water.

02 old dirty brush
A Dead Brush from the Dead Brush Jar
I’m using this brush as an example. I’ve forgotten how old it is and it’s almost solid with paint and no flexibility. You can even see dried paint down in the roots of the bristles.

03 brush sits in conditioner
1. Soak in conditioner solution
The conditioner will start to seep down into the bristles and in between the blobs of hardened paint. Let it sit for no more than two minutes. Any longer and the wood will begin to suck up (and hold) the solution.

Important: The longer it sits, the more you run the risk of the conditioner breaking down the glue holding the base of the bristles together. This is also why it’s important to process your brushes one at a time, so no brush sits in the conditioner for more than two minutes. If the ferrule of your brush is already loose, re-crimp it with the pliers before you soak it.

04 scrub in palm
Scrub in the palm of your hand
Scrubbing the bristles in your palm helps work the solution throughout the bristles and loosen old paint.

05 rinse

2. Rinse
Rinse as much of the conditioner out of the brush as possible. If you watch the water carefully, you will see the conditioner leaving the brush as you work it in the water. I keep doing this until I can no longer see the foggy solution coming out of the brush. Change the water as necessary.

06 dip in dish soap

3. Dish soap for serious cases only
It’s all about how bad your brush is. This step is for extreme cases. For brushes that still have no flexibility, dip your brush in the dish soap. The conditioner will have begun to separate the old paint from the bristles. If your brush is not so bad, skip this step.

07 scrub in palm

Scrub in the palm of your hand
Generate suds by scrubbing the brush in your palm. The suds may have a slight colour. That’s the pigment being released from the brush. Generate suds until they appear white (clean).

08 rinse

4. Rinse, rinse, rinse
Rinsing is very important to stop the soap from soaking into the handle and dissolving the glue. If you run the bristles between your fingers, you can feel the soap still on the bristles. Rinse until you can no longer feel the presence of soap.

09 dry

5. Dry your brush
This step is also very important because the next step is oiling your brush and the oil won’t soak into the bristles if the core of the bristle mass is still damp. Using a clean cloth or paper towel, squeeze out as much moisture as your can. Running your fingers through the bristles will tell you if it’s still holding moisture.

I will put wet brushes together in a jar and in front of a vertical heater to help speed the drying. I turn the jar every 5 minutes. You can also simply let them sit and air-dry for a few days.

10 dip in neutral oil

6. Oiling your brush
Oiling your brush puts oil back into the hairs that they’ve lost over time. This will protect your brush and prevent the bristles from breaking off, and increase flexibility, durability and longevity. Do this again when the bristles begin to feel dry. I’m using canola here.

11 scrb in hand to spread

Scrub the oil in the palm of your hand
This will help work the oil deep into the bristles. Using a paper towel, squeeze out the excess oil. You only need enough to lightly coat the brush.

12 re-crimp at heel of ferrule

7. Re-crimp the heel
Old brushes in particular can become loose over time. Using the pliers, tighten the crimp at the heel of the brush. The heel holds the bristles in place with the ferrule. Test all your brushes at this point for looseness. If you can turn the ferrule, it’s loose.

parts of a bristle brush

13 re-crimp at base of ferrule

Re-crimp the crimp
The crimp holds the ferrule to the handle. This too can become loosened over time.

15 new brushh

The finished brush
From a rock-hard throw-away, to a completely revitalized brush. Even it’s flexibility has returned! In the inset, you can see how much of the old paint has been cleaned away at the base of the bristles.

So there you have it. Try this process with just one brush and I guarantee it, you will see a difference.

Because life is colourful.