Choosing the best paint brush

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When embarking on a painting or decorating project we would hope to achieve the best finish possible. This requires good surface preparation, appropriate choice of coating, and selecting the best paint brush for the job.

Paints and coatings have evolved a in recent years as a result of EU directive 2004/42/EC which applied strict limits on the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions found in decorative paints since January 2007. This was implemented to reduce the negative impact of solvent-laden paints on human health but has a significant impact on the formulations of coatings. Traditional paint brushes designed before this time may not have been optimised for use with today’s coating formulations and may not offer the desired level of performance.

In recent years we have seen paint brushes with synthetic filaments grow in popularity due to their suitability with low VOC coatings. As we developed the Coral line we were committed to restoring faith in the Great British paintbrush and have used all our knowledge and expertise to develop truly best in class products.

History of the paint brush

The paint brush can be traced back as far as the Phoenicians (circa 1330 BC). At this time they were produced by attaching the open end of an animal’s horn to bristle with the aid of twine. The concept remains the same today but enhanced with modern manufacturing techniques and contemporary materials.

The standard components of a paint brush include:
  • Handle – typically either wood or synthetic materials;
  • Ferrule – a band that holds the filament and the handle together and often secured with nails or staples;
  • Filling materials – the filaments or bristle at the working end of a brush
  • Plugs – these are spacers placed between the filament to create a reservoir to carry paint
  • Setting compound – a strong adhesive used to secure the filaments within the ferrule

The working end made up of the filament, ferrule, plugs and epoxy is often referred to as the head of the paint brush and the manufacturer can select from literally thousands of configurations. Acknowledging this, the performance attributes of a paint brush head can vary dramatically and with it large price variations are justified.

Paint brush handle guide

The ferrules of a brush have an important role to play in the assembly of the brush, however the material used in assembly is generally a cosmetic choice, with the main types being:
  • Plastic – the plastic ferrule is a fairly new concept but has great benefits in that it is comfortable, durable and will not corrode in the same say some metals will;
  • Stainless steel – found is the highest quality brushes, this material is highly durable and rust resistant;
  • Copper-coated – another quality choice that is rust-resistant and has a very attractive bright copper colour finish;
  • Brass-plated – this is a middle quality enamel coating that is durable and noted by its bright finish;
  • Tin-plated – often found with a bright mirror-like finish, this is often found on entry level brushes and is susceptible to rust.

Paint brush filling materials guide

In brush making we refer to filament for synthetic fibres, and to bristle for hair that comes from the suidae animal family being swine, hog, pig sow or boar. To the eye bristle can be identified by its irregular surface and flagged tip, whilst filaments will have sheen and a more consistent shape. Normally bristle would be taken from near the spine of the back of the animal. As a filling material bristle generates less static than a filament and the performance attributes of the main filling materials are summarised here:
  • Pure black bristle – thicker and more rigid than other bristle types which can give an excellent finish and impressive levels of durability. Note that white and grey bristle can be dyed black which results in a bristle that looks similar but with difference performance characteristics.
  • Pure white bristle – a thin bristle with superior fine tips resulting in more flexibility, softer to touch, and a very fine finish making this a great choice for achieving a superior finish on interior applications.
  • Grey bristle – is a blend of white bristle and can be found in DIY brushes or exterior wall brushes. This is a cost effective grade that has greater rigidity than pure white bristle but is softer than pure black bristle.
  • Bristle and filament blend – blends of this type have grown in popularity in recent years and bring together the positive performance characteristics of natural and synthetic that can represent good value. Blends of this type are well suited for general purpose painting across water and oil based paints, and wood treatments.
  • PET filament – or (polyethylene terephthalate) is a common form of polyester synthetic fibre which does not absorb moisture but can absorb oil. As such PET is not ideally suited for to oil based paints.
  • PBT filament – or (polybutylene terephthalate) a form of polyester synthetic fibre that has many of the desirable performance characteristics of Nylon. The most notable difference being that PBT absorbs less water which results in improved rigidity in wet and dry conditions. PBT is a premium filament with excellent all-around performance, great bend recovery and solvent resistance.
  • Nylon filament – a highly durable and versatile synthetic noted for its high abrasion resistance and excellent bend recovery. Importantly, Nylon is resistant to most common chemicals and has a high temperature softening point.

The life of a brush head can be determined by the filling material used and the shape of the filaments, with the main shapes being noted here:
  • Hollow Round – a hollow filament type with a uniform diameter across its length
  • Hollow Round Tapered – a hollow filament type that has a larger diameter at one and narrows to a smaller diameter at the opposite end
  • Solid Round – a solid filament type with a uniform diameter across its length
  • Solid Round Tapered – known as SRT this is a solid filament type that has a larger diameter at one and narrows to a smaller diameter at the opposite end

The tapered filament format is superior and provides for a gradual bend along the length of the filament with SRT being the highest quality type. Hollow filaments can normally be identified by bending a filament towards the ferrule as a solid filament is likely to recover its original position, whilst a hollow filament will break for hold its new position.

Aside from the type of filament and the material it is made of there is another important factor that can make a big difference to the finish and that is the tip. It is hard to see the tips of filaments or bristles with the eye, but under a microscope you would notice major differences. Under magnification the tips of bristle would appear to have branches splintering out from the end which is referred to as flagged ends, and generates good paint pick up and release and can provide an excellent finish. Filaments are produced with a consistent tip without splinters but can be further mechanically or chemically processed to achieve a superior finish.

No loss paint brushes
In the UK & Ireland the concept of a no-loss paint brush became well renowned a couple of decades ago thanks to skilful marketing. At the time, most brushes were produced using bristle and synthetic filaments were emerging as a popular alternative. Simply no-loss referred to the synthetic filament filaments which were less likely to break, snap, or come loose compared to its natural alternative. As a result every well-made synthetic paint brush could be classed as no-loss so this alone is no longer a differentiating feature.

With that said some premium brushes are deep-set meaning more of the filament length, typically an extra 6-7mm is immersed into the setting compound for even greater fixing of the filling material to the ferrule.

Paint brush plugs guide

Plus can be made in a variety of shapes and from a variety of materials including wood, plastic and cardboard. Ideally plugs should be centred in the brush head creating a decent reservoir to improve the paint holding capacity of a brush head.

The quantity of plugs used varies depending on the width of a paint brush and its depth. The use of many plus or extra-large plus can reduce the density of the head and with the filling material often being the most expensive component of a brush this can be used to bulk out lower quality brushes. Doing this increases the reservoir which in turn can improve paint holding capacity and make give the brush head easy clean attributes, however there may be a trade-off with the rigidity and paint release performance.

The best paint brush

When choosing a paint brush it is worth remembering that many factors influence the performance of a paint brush including the coating being used, surface being painted, and the humidity or environmental conditions. However, there are certain principles can help you select the best paint brush for your needs, with a key principle being its rigidity.

A very firm brush has maximum rigidity, impressive durability, and a constant firm response making these heads a good choice for textured and rough surfaces. A very firm blend will provide a precise line (‘cut-in’) and will perform well in the summer months or in hot and humid conditions. This would be a good choice when working with low VOC coatings that are fast-drying and other thick coatings and primers.

A firm brush benefits from good rigidity whilst also providing for a flex that should provide a nice glide motion when painting. A firm blend is normally developed for general purpose painting on both interior and exterior surfaces, and are often characterised with impressive paint pick-up and release for a balanced brush. Being a general purpose design these brushes perform well on most coatings including enamels and acrylics.

A soft brush has the greatest flex in use, and smooth glide with minimal resistance making them a good choice for interior applications where a fine finish is required. The soft nature of the head would typically perform better in cooler environments with low levels of humidity. A soft blend is well suited to fast-drying coatings and wood stains.

The highest quality brushes will contain either 100% high quality bristle or 100% SRT filaments. Inferior brushes are likely to contain hollow filaments, or low grade and poorly treated bristle. Blends of filaments and bristle are normally produced with the objective of lowering cost as high quality natural bristle is very expensive.

If it’s worth painting, then it’s worth painting well. Choosing the best paint brush for your project is important and whilst every project is different here are some points to look for in a quality product:
  • A tapered brush head for improved paint release and control
  • A stainlessness steel or plastic ferrule to prevent the occurrence of rust
  • The plugs should be centred and not oversized or over populated
  • If you’re buying a bristle brush is it made with Chungking bristle and triple boiled?
  • If you’re buying a filament brush is it made with SRT filaments?
  • Consider a Kaiser handle if the brush is 3” or less and a beaver-tail for a width greater than 3”
  • A sash handle for working at a distance

Rough surfaces

The natural split ends you find on a pure bristle brush can create a very smooth mirror-like finish; however they are susceptible to damage. In particular working on rough surfaces such as masonry could break off the tips of pure bristle. A durable synthetic filament such as PBT or Nylon would be more suited for rough surfaces or alternatively a wide diameter PET filament would result in better wear resistance. Nylon filaments can have over 5 times greater abrasion resistance than bristle and provide longer usable life in all brush applications.

Content provided by Coral Tools Ltd

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