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How to Soften Paintbrushes (and keep them good as new!)

The softer the bristle, the better the painting
howchoo   (467)
August 25, 2023
12 minutes


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Pot x 1
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If you’re a painter, you’ve likely dealt with dried paint left on the bristles on your brush. Which means you’ve also probably wondered: how do I soften my paintbrush?

When left unchecked, dried paint can wreak havoc on the integrity of the brush itself, affecting how well the brush paints, your artistic ability and your art, too. In addition, hardened bristles aren’t malleable, making them impossible to use, which is especially painful if you’ve sunk a good amount of money into your brushes.

Removing dried paint might be an art in itself, but what about restoring those dried bristles to their soft fresh-from-the-package state of being?

That’s where the true art happens.

Here’s everything you need to know about removing dried paint, and how to soften your paintbrushes.

1 – Remove as much paint as you can

Before you work to soften the hardened bristles of your paint-encrusted brush, you’re going to have to remove as much extra paint as you can.

How to remove water-based paint

  • Soak your brush in warm water.
  • Put dish soap directly on the wet bristles.
  • Massage the soap gently into the bristles.
  • Run bristles beneath warm water, massaging the soap and paint until the water runs clear.

How to remove oil-based paint

  • Soak the end of your brush in paint thinner or turpentine.
  • Work the paint thinner/turpentine through the bristles by massaging the liquid into the brush.
  • Continue working with your fingers until the bristles are cleaner.
  • Rinse with warm water and dish soap to remove the painter thinner/turpentine.

Now that your bristles are relatively clean, you’re ready to soften them up! There are several ways you can do this, but we’ll focus on the top 3 easiest methods: The moisturizer, the vinegar, and the fabric softener methods.

2 – The moisturizer method

Using moisturizer to soften your dried paintbrushes is a great way to accomplish your goal easily because you don’t have to create your own mixture. Here’s how to use moisturizer to soften your paint bristles.

You can use any lightweight moisturizer or lotion that doesn’t leave behind a greasy residue. Residue can cause buildup in your bristles, negatively impacting your ability to paint in the longrun.

Tip: Look for any moisturizer or lotion that has oil-free written on the packaging.

How to soften your brushes

  • Squirt a peasize amount of moisturizer into the palm of your hand.
  • Run the bristles of your brush in a back and forth motion over the moisturizer.
  • Take care to work as much moisturizer into the bristles as you can, using your fingertips if necessary.
  • Continue to work in the moisturizer for a minute or until you feel confident as much of the bristles as possible are coated.
  • Use a clean paper towel to wipe off any excess moisturizer by applying medium to firm pressure on the ferrule and working your way to the tip of your brush.
  • Repeat until the moisturizer is gone.
  • Rinse and dry as normal.

Why the moisturizer method works

Moisturizer loosens the dried paint from the bristle, making it easier to slide it off when you run your paper towel over it.

3 – The vinegar method

Certainly the smelliest method for how to soften your paintbrushes, vinegar is a good option if you want to avoid using harsh chemicals.

How to prepare your vinegar

  • Pour a cup into a pot and place the pot on your stovetop.
  • Heat your vinegar on high heat until small bubbles start to form on the bottom of the pan (just shy of boiling).

How to soften your brushes

  • Pour your heated vinegar into a glass.
  • Submerge your bristles up to the ferrule.
  • Let your brushes sit for 20 minutes.
  • Check to see if your bristles are soft. If they’re not yet, submerge them once more for 10 more minutes.
  • Rinse with warm water and let them dry as normal.

Why the vinegar method works

Vinegar is a unique substance that is known for many things. Not only is it edible, it’s also a disinfectant, too and can be used to strip build-up from surfaces (and bristles!).

4 – The fabric softener method

How to make your fabric softener mixture

  • You can use the fabric softener of your choice, but I like to use unscented softeners.
  • If you’re softening a few brushes: mix 1 tablespoon of fabric softener with 1 cup of water.
  • If you’re softening a dozen brushes: mix 1/4 cup of fabric softener with 4 cups of water.
  • Make sure you’re using a hard bowl to combine your softener with your water. This will make it easier to work the mixture into your bristles.

How to soften your brushes

  • Submerge one brush at a time up to the ferrule.
  • Swirl the bristles through your mixture.
  • Gently press your bristles against the bottom of your bowl, moving the brush in circular or back and forth motions.
  • Repeat until the excess paint dislodges from the bristles and falls to the bottom of your bowl.
  • Once the bristles are clean and soft to the touch, you can set them aside to dry as you normally would.

Why the fabric softener method works

Fabric softener works to coat the individual fibers of whatever it comes in contact with, either clothes, towels, or the bristles of your paintbrush.

It also decreases the amount of surface tension between the liquid and your brush, making it easier for the water to penetrate all those nooks and crannies between the bristles once you work your brush against the base of your bowl.

There you have it! 3 ways to soften your paintbrushes, keeping them as good as new for as long as possible.


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When I was first offered a beverage flavored with whiskey simple syrup, I was in a coffee shop in San Jose, California. I wasn’t even really interested in drinking coffee. It was later in the day; I was already feeling a little tired; I figured coffee was the last thing I needed. But when the

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