How to Clean Paint Brushes

Five dirty paintbrushes of various sizes on wooden surface

Kinga Krzeminska / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 - 30 mins
  • Total Time: 15 mins - 8 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Whether you are painting a wall, refinishing furniture, or creating art, good quality paint brushes produce better results. They are also expensive, so you want them to last as long as possible which requires proper cleaning.

The method you use to clean a paint brush depends on whether you are using water-based, oil-based paint, or lacquer. Water-based paints clean up easily with soap and water while oil-based products require a petroleum or citrus-based solvent.

How Often to Clean Paint Brushes

No matter what type of paint is used, a paint brush should be cleaned thoroughly after each use.

The exception is if you need to take a break for a short period—an hour or so—but plan to return to the painting task. To place the brush "on hold", wrap the bristles and the ferrule (the metal component that holds the bristles to the brush handle) in plastic cling wrap. This will prevent the paint from drying on the bristles making it more difficult to remove later.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Sink
  • Old bucket or disposable container
  • Rags
  • Rubber gloves
  • Paint brush comb
  • Paint brush spinner

Materials

  • Paint thinner
  • Mineral spirits
  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Newspaper

Instructions

How to Clean Paint Brushes Used With Water-Based Paint

Water-based paints include acrylics, latex, watercolors, and tempera.

  1. Use up the Paint on the Brush

    If the brush is still loaded with paint when you finished the project, you need to remove as much of the wet paint as possible. Squeeze and scrape the bristles up and down along the edge of the paint can or container to release the paint from the brush.

    Or, paint the excess paint onto a newspaper or scrap of wood until no more paint is released from the bristles.

    Tip

    When painting, do not dip the brush too deep into the paint. The paint should only cover about one-third of the length of the bristles. This will make clean-up easier if the paint is not too deeply embedded in the ferrule.

  2. Mix a Cleaning Solution

    In a small bucket, mix a solution of hot water and dishwashing liquid. The amount you need depends on the size and number of paint brushes you are cleaning. Use a ratio of one teaspoon dishwashing liquid per one quart (four cups) of hot water and mix well.

  3. Swish and Squeeze the Brush

    Wearing gloves, swish the paint brush in the cleaning solution to saturate it well. Use your fingers to squeeze the bristles to help release the paint and wipe the bristles on the sides of the bucket.

    A paint brush comb will help remove excess paint. Work the comb through the bristles from the ferrule down to the edge of the brush.

  4. Rinse and Dry

    Once all of the visible paint has been removed, rinse the brush under hot running water. If there is still paint clinging to the bristles, mix a fresh cleaning solution and repeat the steps.

    Gently squeeze out the excess rinse water. Shake the brush vigorously or use a paint brush spinner (uses centrifugal force to force water from the brush). Hang the brush (bristles down) to air-dry slowly or dry it flat.

  5. Dispose of the Cleaning Solution

    The cleaning solution can be safely poured down a drain or sanitary sewer.

  6. Cleaning Brushes That Are Stiff With Dried Water-based Paint

    If the water-based paint has already dried on the brush, you'll need to add an extra step.

    Mix the cleaning solution and allow the brush to soak for an hour or up to overnight. Be sure that only the paint-coated bristles are submerged in the solution. Check the brush occasionally to see if the paint is loosening from the bristles. Continue with the remaining cleaning steps, repeating the cleaning and soaking as needed.

How to Clean Paint Brushes Used With Oil-Based Paints

Oil-based paints are often referred to as enamel paints. The colored pigment is added to either alkyd (synthetic) or linseed (natural) oil. Cleaning paint brushes that have been used with oil-based paints require more than soap and water.

  1. Remove Excess Paint

    Remove as much paint as possible from the brush by pressing it along the edge of a container or painting the excess paint onto newspaper.

  2. Choose a Cleaning Solvent

    Several products will remove oil-based paint from a brush,

    • Paint thinner: A general term for a product that usually includes trimethyl benzene (chemical solvent) or turpentine (organic solvent). The product is flammable and potentially produces toxic fumes.
    • Mineral spirits: A 100-percent petroleum distillate, mineral spirits has low levels of fumes but is still flammable.
    • Citrus-based solvent: These solvents contain terpenes, organic compounds derived from plants. They work more slowly in removing paint than stronger chemicals. While biodegradable, they still contain some harmful chemicals.
  3. Allow the Solvent to Work

    Working in a well-ventilated spot with no open flames, pour a small amount of the solvent into an old glass jar or disposable container. Only use enough to cover the bristles of the brush. Dip the brush into the solvent and swirl it around to loosen the paint. Wearing gloves, use your fingers to work the solvent into the bristles and then a paint brush comb to get all of the paint out of the bristles.

  4. Finish With Soap and Water, Rinse, and Dry

    Once all of the paint is removed, mix a solution of hot water and dishwashing liquid to wash away the solvent. Work the soapy water into the bristles and then rinse the brush thoroughly with hot water.

    Gently squeeze out the excess water and pat the brush dry with an old cloth. Hang the brush or place it on a flat surface to dry.

  5. Dispose of the Solvent Properly

    Paint solvents and oil paints should never be disposed of down a sink drain or sanitary sewer. Leave the open container in a ventilated spot to allow the solvent to evaporate and the paint to dry. Follow the recommendations of your local municipality for safe disposal.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. What You Should Know About Using Paint Strippers. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission