Arguably the most important tool you will ever have to make a choice on when you are a miniature war gamer is the paint brush. Beyond anything else, this is the most common way to get paint on your miniatures. Even folks who utilize an airbrush still need to dip bristle in paint for those details and that extra control. Now, there are a lot of different beliefs on how you should choose your paint brushes. Some favor very expensive professional brushes, others brushes designed specifically for miniatures, and others favor whatever cheap acrylic brushes you can get at the local hobby or craft store. There are pros and cons to each school of thought.
What’s in a Brush?
The basic construction of a paint brush is simple. The handle can be anything from plastic, acrylic, metal or wood of varying nature or make. The handles account for most of the weight and balance of the brush, and also determine how you will grip the brush while using it. The Ferrule is the part at the end of the handle that helps to secure the fibres to the handle. This can be made of plastic, metal or really any other rigid and tough material. Not only does it keep the handle and the brush hairs together, it also strengthens the end of the handle to help prevent splitting or warping, as that will be where most of the pressure and tension will be while you’re painting. The actual fiber part of the brush tends to be the most important and it can range from materials of Synthetic Fiber, Nylon, Mongoose hair, Squirrel hair, Sable and Kolinsky Sable. There are other possibilities, but those are the ones you will likely hear about the most. This material will be responsible for carrying your paint in the belly of the brush, as well as delivering it onto the miniature as you want. These are often graded by their durability, cost, spring and the ability to retain their shape and point. Materials have varying costs, as well as pros and cons associated with each. Beyond that we are also spoiled by choice, as almost every game company produces their own brand of paint brush, and there are entire lines that have been developed with the wargamer in mind.
Synthetic brushes tend to be extremely cheap, usually only a couple of dollars per brush, but can range in quality. You will wind up replacing these more often than other brushes, but they can still serve you well if you’re strapped for cash. Mongoose, Squirrel and other natural hair fibers, while they may be funny for you, are good middle point brushes cost wise. Ranging from as low as $5 USD or as high as $15 USD a brush. They offer more durability than Synthetic brushes, but vary in quality depending on manufacturer and can be difficult to find locally depending on your region. Sable brushes are the top of the line, as far as your choices go. Red Sable is the softer of the sables, and Kolinsky Sable is the most durable, but they are by far the most expensive brushes. I’ve seen some brushes exceed $100 USD for a single brush!
So how do you go about choosing the type of brush that is right for you? Well, beyond cost, you need to consider your skill level as a painter. The better you are the higher quality brushes will appeal to you. Windsor and Newton, a rather large name in traditional art, even makes their own line of miniature brushes called the Series 7. If you’re just starting out, you may want to keep to the budget and synthetic side of the spectrum, or with brushes from miniature companies or miniature painting companies such as Games Workshop or Army Painter. Ask around, and in some rare cases local stores may have brushes on display for you to hold and feel and see if they are comfortable. If you do decide to go with brushes not designed for minis, try to stick with shorter haired brushes with a sharp or fine point. Long haired ones can be unwieldy and difficult to use effectively.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a couple of secrets here. As a commission painter, I make a livelihood out of painting figures, and brushes are incredibly important for me. Now, a lot of folks think that I use only the top quality brushes, and while I do have a set of Windsor and Newton series 7 brushes for very special projects, I tend to be incredibly hard on my brushes and use mostly synthetic brushes or mongoose hair brushes for the majority of my painting and to mitigate any costs I incur from damaging my brushes. I do have a selection of brushes from Games Workshop and Army Painter for some specific applications such as Washes and super fine detail brushes, but most of my daily use comes out of brushes that cost less than $3 USD a piece. It is OK to have a wide variety of brushes from different companies and of different materials, don’t think you have to maintain any sort of brand loyalty at all. The second part of this secret is that, despite being the cheapest of the bunch, I get a long life out of those synthetic brushes. Proper care of your brushes in terms of cleaning and storage are probably the most important things you can do to keep your brushes working for you for a long time.
Cleaning your brushes
To the average person, cleaning your brushes is rinsing them in water and then setting them to dry. Whether natural hair or synthetic, your brushes need to be properly cleaned, as acrylic paint can be very hard on them. Properly cleaning them will add months, or even years, to the life of your brush and help protect your investments. To accomplish this, you will need a couple of items. First thing you’re going to need is two cups of clean warm water. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of it, but enough to dip your brush in. You want to make sure that this is clean water and not from the cup you were using to rinse your brush in while painting. The next item you will need is brush soap. There are a lot of options available to you when it comes to brush soap and it can come in either bar form or liquid soap. My recommendation is the ones that come in the bar soaps. My top choice tends to be Master’s Brush Cleaner, a relatively inexpensive soap that not only removes even the most caked in paint but also has a mild conditioner that keeps the brush hairs from drying out and becoming brittle. You can pick small jars or bars of this at your local craft store or online, and you can pick up a 2.5oz container for well under $10USD. It may not sound like much, but a little bit will last you far longer than you would expect.
Once you have your brushes, soap and water ready to go, it’s time to get started on the actual cleaning. First thing you want to do is give your brushes a good rinse in one of the cups, being careful not to submerge it past the ferrule. Once this is done, you will want to take the still damp brush to the container of brush soap. You will want to draw the brush over the surface of the cleaner just like you would if you were painting a miniature, turning the brush to make sure gently work the cleaner throughout the brush. You want to be careful not to bend the fibers too hard or you can risk deforming the brush, just take your time. You will notice that a little bit of a lather starts to build on the brush, and that’s exactly what you want. After that you will take the brush over to the second cup of water, give it a rinse and a shake in the cup, and then go back to the soap. The number of times you will need to do this will depend entirely on how much paint you’ve got on the brush, but if you’re diligent you can bring back to life even some of the most neglected brushes with this cleaner.
Once your brush is completely clean, give it one last dip in the water and then use a paper towel or cloth towel to take off the excess water and then draw the brush very lightly over the cleaner, twisting it as you pull it across the surface to get a light coating, but you are not going to rinse the brush this time. Then take your clean hands, and you want to make sure they are clean hands, and form the tip of your brush using your fingers to remove any excess cleaner. Now, again, the good thing about this cleaner is that it has a conditioner in it, so leaving just a little bit in your brushes between uses is a good thing. After your brushes have been cleaned, you’re ready to set them to dry and get ready for storage until the next time you use them.
Drying and Storage
So now that you have your brushes cleaned, it’s time to get them set aside to dry and be safe until the next time you are going to use them. Now, there are several ways you can do this, and again there are many conflicting thoughts on how to store your brushes, but one thing almost everyone agrees on is that you do not want to store them flat on their sides on a regular surface. Now, the old school thought is that you will need to store them with the fibers pointed up. There are several commercially available storage units that let you do this, or you can just put them in a jar or cup with the points up. This is a tried and true method, and extremely cost effective in terms of getting the hardware to accomplish the desired result. Personally, I do not like this method. When you store the brushes after cleaning or even just use, there is still moisture in the bristles. As they sit, if they are point up, that moisture tends to settle into the ferrule. Now, the hairs on the brush are adhered to the handle usually with some form of adhesive. Over time, as moisture keeps gathering in the ferrule, that bond can break down, causing your brush to have a hard time maintaining shape and point, or flat out losing fibers, no matter how well you clean them. I’ve found this to be particularly true of “gamer” brushes over the years, and I’ve had this happen with the old Citadel Brushes, Army Painter brushes and several others. That’s not to say that they are bad products, but rather they just require a little additional care and consideration.
I am now of the mind set of storing your brushes point down. This allows for gravity to do it’s thing and draw the moisture away from the ferrule, and just overall improving the health of your brushes. Now, storing them point down can be tricky, since you don’t want to rest them on the actual fibers and cause additional stress or warping of the brush. There are several commercial solutions available, brush stands that allow you to store the brushes point down and let them dry and rest until your next use. Traditionally they have some form of spring or grabbing system suspended over a pot or cup to collect the falling moisture. Some brush cleaning kits even come with one. You can purchase them at local craft or art supply stores and they can run you anywhere from $10USD to upwards of $100 USD, depending on what materials they are made out of. They do the job very well, and are worth the money if you plan on using this method.
There is however another more cost effective way to achieve the same result with a simple little home hack for storage. Now, it requires a little work to assemble but will give great results, what you will need is a tupperware storage container that is taller than an inch, and a foam pool noodle and a hobby knife. Sounds goofy, I know, but bear with me. Cut the foam noodle so that it will fit over one of the sides of the tupperware container and then cut it length-wise down one side. The foam noodles usually have a hollow center, so you’ll want to cut all the way to it. If it doesn’t, just make an approximate guess of about halfway through. Slide that over the side of the container. Next, make small incisions on the side of the noodle that faces the inside of the container. You don’t have to carve out sections, just make some small shallow cuts. When you’re done, you can push your brush handles into the cuts you have made, and the pool noodle will grip them and keep them suspended over the container so the bristles don’t touch the bottom. If you find that the noodle isn’t holding them quite as tight as you would like, you can also use a small bit of bluetac or poster tac on the handles to help the foam grip it. This build also has the additional bonus of protecting the brush tips from incidental collision if you have to move them around your desk. I personally like this build because I have a lot of brushes with very oddly shapped handles that commercial stands do not accommodate, and it lets me customize to suit my brush needs. The entire project can be built for under $3 USD and the materials can be found at dollar stores or discount sections of your local mega mart.
With a little extra care, and a little extra knowledge, you can not only pick the brushes that are right for you, but keep them working for you for a long time. With all the money we spend on our miniatures, getting that return on investment for all the items involved in our hobby makes sure we can spend more time painting and playing than just replacing worn out tools.