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#18: Paint Brushes 101 for Furniture Makeovers & My Favourites

What is UP my friends and fellow busybees. Today we are taking it back to basics and talking about, honestly, probably the most important tool in my world of furniture painting and refinishing, which is the paint brush. I basically always hand paint my furniture pieces because I absolutely love the process. I find it so therapeutic and I find that it is a lot less wasteful with product compared to spraying or rolling so I often opt for it.


However, there is a certain standard of quality that I want to make sure my furniture pieces uphold for my clients who are purchasing the makeovers and one way to ensure I meet that mark is by choosing proper paint brushes for the project, the look and finish I’m hoping to achieve, and the shape and size of the piece. It can really be the difference of ending up with a shoddy finish and one that looks more professionally done.


When I first started out doing this as a hobby, I was really cheap (still am, if I’m being honest) and so I would prioritize keeping costs down and would buy my paint brushes from Dollarama, which is the dollar store here in Canada. It was like $1-$2.50 per paint brush and they had a few different shapes and sizes and types of paint brushes to choose from. However, I quickly noticed the annoyance of having the bristles fall out, sometimes in huge clumps and chunks from the ferrule which is that metal piece at the end of the bristles that holds everything in there. I also noticed that it was harder to get a smooth finish with some of them because the bristles weren’t all the same length, or some of them would break and it wouldn’t leave the nicest finish.


All that to say, I quickly realized the benefit of investing in some more expensive but better quality brushes, and they are brushes that I still use ‘til this day for the most part and that haven’t lost any bristles and still provide a great finish. It’s all about finding the right ones for the job, and also taking good care of them and maintaining them properly.

So let’s do a Cole’s notes overview of the different types of brushes you can come across when looking for ones to work on your furniture pieces.


First, let’s talk bristles. Typically you will come across two choices when looking at paint brushes that work best for furniture painting, which are natural bristles or synthetic bristles.


Natural bristles tend to be a little bit more coarse and rigid because they are made from animal hair, and so they are typically best used for things like applying wax and creating textured looks. A lot of the time you will see people using these types of brushes when applying chalk paint as well, again because there are a lot of techniques using that medium that require you to create some texture. One added benefit of natural bristles is that they typically hold a little more paint for longer, so you can paint for longer without having to dip back into your paint over and over again.


This type of bristle is actually what I had unknowingly initially been using primarily when I was getting my brushes from Dollarama, because I was using what I would now refer to as a chip brush. These days, I use them when I’ll be using oil-based finishes like stain or top coat because they are cheaper and thus it doesn’t hurt as much when I throw it out after I’m done using it for the project. You can clean them out with the proper products that would clean oil-based products, but like I said, they often start falling apart pretty quickly so it isn’t usually worth the hassle. As a result, they aren’t the most sustainable choice so I use them sparingly when I really need to. But natural-bristled brushes in general are great for waxes like I said, so I do have a few brushes in my kit that are made for that purpose.


The shape of them is also made for that purpose, so they are in a circular formation and the bristles are really densely packed so they don’t move around too much so you have a lot of control on where and how the wax is being applied. I like to have at least 3 wax brushes so that I have one specifically for clear wax, one for white wax and one for black wax so that I don’t risk cross-contaminating the different colours if they aren’t perfectly cleaned out. Since the density actually works for the better, these are the brushes I’m a little more lenient about cleaning up because if they stiffen up a bit it helps me out the next time I go to apply wax, since I basically only want it to sit on the tips of the bristles and not get too deep in there. The wax brushes I currently have, use and like are the Colorantic Wax Silk Brush (use code MEL10 for 10% off if you order!) and the Country Chic Wax Brush. I also have one natural bristle brush that I keep solely for applying furniture salve so it stays a little oily but nicely moisturized, and for that I use the Annie Sloan Medium Round Paint Brush.


Synthetic bristles, on the other hand, are made out of materials like polyester, nylon, or a mix of the two. Since they are manufactured materials, they often provide a smoother finish and are softer, smoother to the touch and are also easier to clean. This type of a brush is what I use the large majority of the time when painting furniture, and there are about a million different types of brushes with synthetic bristles that you can find. I don’t like to be wasteful, so for the most part, I still use the ones that I first got and have gotten some new ones over the years to add to the collection, but by no means have I tried every brush on the market so take my recommendations with a grain of salt. There’s likely tons of others out there that work just as great, maybe even better who knows, but these ones have worked for me up until now and I haven’t had a reason to look elsewhere.


That being said though… If you have a favourite brush that I don’t mention in this episode, please do sent me a DM on Instagram @MelDidItHerself and let me know what it is or send me an email at Mel@MelDidItHerself.ca because Christmas and my birthday are coming up in a few months and I’m always looking for items to add to my wish list!


Alright, so now that we know what the brushes themselves are made up of, what other factors do we need to look at?


Your budget is definitely one of them, because there is a large spectrum of brushes available and some are just a few dollars and some are like, a hundred dollars, maybe even more. Just because they’re more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean they are better performing than the rest, so try not to get sucked into the marketing, especially when you’re first starting out and likely trying to save on costs wherever you can. Most of the brushes I have range from around the $9 mark to probably like $60 is the most expensive brush I have.


If you’re going to be doing a lot of hand painting with that brush, I also recommend going in store to see brushes in person if you ever can because it can help you to find out if the brush will actually be comfortable in your hand when painting. I have pretty boney hands that can tend to get crampy fairly easily, so there’s some brushes that are just too big and don’t fit properly into the grooves of my hand and when I use them for extended periods of time, I definitely pay for it afterwards and need to do some extra hand stretches. So especially if you’re going to be investing some coin into one, feel it out or even if you order it online, hold it in your hand for awhile when it comes in before opening up the packaging to make sure that it will fit well with you and your needs.


Now I want to go through the different types of brushes, or categories of brushes, that I have found to be useful to have in my stash and at the ready as I have moved through my many furniture makeovers over the years, and I’ll provide a recommendation for what I use within each category.


First up, you will always want to have a few different smaller artist brushes for the hard to reach corners, small detail spots or if you need to finish off some detailed lines or any finework like that. I typically just get a value pack from Michaels in their craft section of little artist brushes that people would usually use for acrylics or whatever, and they have worked great and actually lasted a really long time before the bristles started to shed. I recommend having some teeny tiny ones whose bristles go to a point at the end and ones whos bristles are more fanned out and are a straight line, and then ones that have those shapes but are a little bit bigger for the times you need to do that fine tuned work on a larger space. The pack that I currently have was actually a set for watercolours called the Mont Marte Gallery Series. I couldn't find the exact link, but here's a similar set from Michael's.


Another great shape of brush to have in your kit is a round brush. Instead of using ones with natural bristles, I have used a synthetic bristle round brush in the past for waxes so that is definitely an option, but what I find them most useful for is when you’re painting things like spindles on a chair and other circular shapes like that. The positioning and shape of the bristles really helps to mould to the shape you’re trying to paint without much splattering or excessive paint going everywhere. The one I use and love is the Zibra Round Brush*.


Now, for larger, flat surfaces, I will admit that I have gotten into the habit of sometimes using a roller just because it does go on nice and thin and quite flawlessly (although sometimes you end up with the dreaded orange peel finish which annoys me to no end), but for the people who want to brush these parts, having a good, flat brush that is a decent size will be really helpful. Again, it depends on your hand size and what your wrist can comfortably hold and the typical sizes of your pieces that will determine how big you need to go with this style of brush. The one I often reach for is the Zibra Chiseled Wedge* which is two inches and the bristles are angled so I find it provides a nice, even, flat finish.


Paired with my other tips from #11: How To Get a Flawless(ish) Finish When Hand Painting Furniture, you can ensure it ends up looking silky smooth. In addition to the tips in that episode, for larger flat surfaces like a dresser top for example, I find that slightly overlapping my lines of paint as I go back and forth helps to make sure there’s no visible lines that end up in the finish and it all melds together really nicely. Also worth noting that having a good paint that is for that intended use will add to it looking great, too.


Now, it’s great to have a big brush that can cover a good sized area, but what if that space you need to paint is in a tighter spot, inside of a cabinet door for example, where a normal-sized brush with a 6” handle won’t necessarily fit and allow you to reach all of the sides of that space? You need a little stubby buddy in your life! This is a paint brush that typically has a normal-sized head but the handle is much shorter, basically the size of your hand, so that you can get into those harder to reach areas. My personal favourite is the Wooster Shortcut Angle Sash brush that I got from Home Depot. I find the rubber handle super comfortable and easy to use because you can kind of bend it if you need to, and the bristles are well-packed. One that I don’t find quite as comfortable for whatever reason so I don’t often grab for it but I hear a ton of people rave about is the Zibra Palm Pro*.


The last specific-use type of paint brush that I would recommend furniture artists have in their kit is one that is specifically for top coating pieces. Again, if you’re going to be using oil-based top coats then I recommend using a roller or something more disposable if you don’t plan on doing the proper cleaning of those items. Sometimes people use foam brushes for top coating-- Personally I find they don’t leave that nice of a finish for me and I don’t like how they perform because for whatever reason, they are often starting to fall apart by the time I’m done using them on a project.


But even if you are using water-based top coats like polyurethane or polycrylic, I always recommend having one or two specific brushes that you only use for this purpose. This will ensure that you’re never accidentally contaminating your product if you had a brush that you had previously painted with then cleaned but then use in top coat and found out the hard way you missed a little clump of black paint that was deep in the bristles but then fell loose into your top coat which is now turning a milky blue colour, much to your dismay. Trust me, it can happen. So going this route of having one brush used just for this purpose will help avoid that. For larger, flatter surfaces when top coating - again, sometimes I’ll use a roller, but often I’ll use my Zibra Fan Brush*. The bristles, like the name suggests, fan out really nicely but there’s just the right amount of them so it doesn’t pick up more product than you need, and it disperses it really nicely and things don’t get all globbed up. I actually have two of these and use one for painting and one for top coating, it's a really nice all around brush. Highly recommend!


Another one that has become a recent favourite that actually cleans super easily so I break my rule a bit and sometimes use it for top coating and sometimes use it with mineral paint is the Country Chic Oval Brush. It’s just really sleek with densely-packed bristles that provide a really nice, even finish with both products.


I also will sometimes use my sort of Go To everyday brush that I just tend to pick up often because it works in so many different circumstances on so many projects. It’s the Dixie Belle The Belle brush. I’m actually now on my second one because I think I went a little too hard with the first and eventually the head of it fell off, so one of my awesome friends bought me a new one for my birthday. I ended up gluing the first one back together but the second one seemed a little bit different in terms of having more bristles that are really tapered which lets you get into smaller ledges and nooks if you need to. The thing that I think makes me really enjoy using this brush is that the shape of the handle has a bit of a, I don’t know how to explain it, a blob? In the middle where you hold it. It gets bigger in that area and so it makes it really comfortable to hold and ensures that you’re always holding it in the right spot. I like it a lot.


I was hoping to go over ways to clean and care for your brushes but I think I’ve rambled on for long enough today, but I’ll be sure to add that to the list to plan for a future episode! So make sure you’re following or you’re subscribed to the channel depending where you’re listening in from today so that you don’t miss that episode when it goes live :) And somewhere I’ll also be sharing different tips about doing furniture makeovers, including things like how to care for your paint brushes, is in my Friday Furniture Focus newsletter where I’ll be bringing weekly furniture flip inspo, sharing tips and tricks to help you transform pieces, and a Q&A with some awesome furniture artists I’ve come across online and getting to know more about them, their work and their business. If you’re interested in receiving it, head to my website, MelDidItHerself.ca, and scroll down and sign up to receive these updates because I will be launching that very soon.


And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.


So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is: I’m here to get it right, not to be right.


Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!


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