Sometimes you want to neglect your tools and just get to work! Go ahead and abuse your brushes; paint like nothing else matters. You need cheap synthetic brushes for painting miniatures—these are the brushes you can treat like crap.
Art is about capturing the moment. Don’t hesitate, apply your passion and stick those synthetic bristles in oil paint, mineral spirits—splay them across a dirty canvas. Leave them soaking in a pot of water over night. And, by all means dry brush with them!
Enter the cheap synthetic brush.
Synthetic brushes are impervious to abuse (not really, but who cares!). Every miniature painter should have some toss-away brushes for a variety of useful reasons. Oil painting, glue application, and dry brushing are some of the most common things you can do that would ruin most expensive sable brushes.
In this article I highlight some of the reasons you need super-cheap brushes for your miniature painting hobby. I also show you some of the abusive things you would NEVER want to do to a high-quality sable. Finally, I recommend 3 synthetic brush sets (less than $1 per brush).
Read on for more!
5 Ways to Destroy Brushes for Painting Miniatures and Models
Sometimes you can’t avoid doing things with your paint brushes that end up killing them. A lot of the tools in our miniature painting hobby are expensive.
If you’re a scale modeler, or work with miniatures and gaming models, then you know how damaging some of the chemicals we use are. Glues, adhesives, and general cleaning agent wreak havoc on the delicate parts of our brushes.
Have you ever left a paint brush in your cleaning water pot, bristle side down? I have. And, it sucks. The result is loosened bristles, and swollen wooden handles with a metal ferrule coming off at the slightest touch. Well, this is an example of a preventable action. Oops.
But, there are things we NEED to do normally to get the job done.
Here are the 5 harmful things you do to your miniature paint brushes:
1. Glue Application
- Every miniatures painter needs a set of inexpensive, low-cost brushes that they can misuse and toss away. I’ve been known to use these cheap brushes for applying white glue for adding terrain. They are perfect for that. Glue application! Get any kind of glue on your miniature bases or terrain pieces — because synthetic brushes are easy to clean with harsher methods, and you could care less about their ultimate shape (e.g., you don’t need them to stay pointy and sharp; all you need is for the brushes to get “art medium ‘x’” to “surface ‘y’”).
- PVA, or white glue, is usually cleaned off a brush with soap and water. Hot water may be useful, but a good scrubbing with running water will take off most of the glue.
- Avoid super glue on any brush as that stuff is an insta-brush killer (trust me, I’ve lost quite a few brushes to uncured super glue getting onto bristle tips). The only way to recover a brush is to snip off the glued tips with a scissor. On the bright side, that’s how a dedicated dry brush is born.
2. Oil Paints
- I paint with oil colors, which requires the use of some nasty solvents (see an example here). This includes clear mineral spirits and turpentine. Both of these chemicals would destroy a natural hair brush. Oil paints are incredibly useful in acrylic miniature painting. They work great over a solid base of acrylic paint as either a color modulator (look up “dot filters”), or as a darkening wash to increase contrast.
- I apply oil paints using various synthetic nylon brushes with different shapes. For dot filter applications, I use small stiff brushes with the point tips, and for washes, I like using larger brushes with a belly (to hold more paint).
3. Dry Brushing
- Good dry brushing technique is great for painting miniatures. They approach easily adds contrast (read about how this is important for speed painting here). But, good dry brushing technique also DESTROYS brushes. Friction and pressure against a miniature is horrendous for bristle integrity.
- For this approach, I find using cheap cosmetic brushes are the best for this purpose (you can find several bundles of these repurposed dry brushes for under 1$ here).
4. Liquid Masking
- Do you airbrush? If you do, then you’ll probably know about using liquid masking fluid for protecting areas of a model you don’t want to spray. Liquid masking fluid is usually made of a latex that dries fast. It has a very sticky-glue like characteristic which is easily removed from miniatures. But, when it clings to the filament bristles of a brush, it’s impossible to clean!
- A trick I use to apply masking fluid is to first dip your brush in liquid hand soap (I put some soap in a ceramic palette and just dip my cheap brush in it before using masking fluid).
- Even with care and a thorough washing, masking fluid will render any brush useless for regular detail-type painting. Use a cheap synthetic brush to apply masking fluid and you avoid the hassle of worrying about how to clean it off. Also, synthetic brushes are easier to use than disposable solutions for applying masking fluid (e.g., toothpicks, cotton tipped wooden applicators).
5. Brush-on Primer
- Priming miniatures is best done with an airbrush or aerosol primer. That is how you get the even, thin coats on a model that make the subsequent paint job much easier—and even better looking. But, if you don’t airbrush or want to avoid the issues of using a spray can primer, then you’ll have to brush it on. This is especially true if you’re using thicker primers, such as automotive primers, that are commonly used for 3D prints.
- Use cheap synthetic brushes, preferably a flat headed one that allows you to apply abundant amounts of primer and spread it around efficiently. Have fun! You don’t need to worry about the brush. Jam it into the crevices, or slosh around the primer onto a rough, textured surface (like a base with a sandy or stone texture). Grind the bristles to the ferrule!
How to Clean Cheap Synthetic Brushes?
It’s so easy to clean synthetic brushes. That’s why I keep them around my painting desk. I’m able to get the simple, horrifying methods (for normal brushes) completed quickly without the mental stress of worrying about how my brush will fair. They won’t fair well!
Ultimately, though, you’ll want to at least do a careful job of keeping your cheap synthetic brushes as clean as possible.
Here’s what you do (don’t do this with regular brushes!):
- Use hot water – how hot? You can use boiling water (212F or 100C) to clean your synthetic brushes. In fact, the use of hot water may help you retrain the shape of your synthetic brushes. The horror of hot water for normal brushes is that it can melt the glue off from under the metal ferrules making the bristles fall out. However, with synthetic brushes, especially nylon brushes this isn’t a huge problem. First, the bristles are usually “clamped” into the ferrule so they are held in by more than glue. Second, you can actually glue back the ferrule or even loose bristles! Or you, this is kind of the bonus idea, you can throw out your RUINED brushes (cuz they are so dang cheap!)
- Harsh solvents – sometimes you might have to use a strong solvent to clean your brushes. Oil paints require mineral spirits or turpentine to clean off. Soap or strong detergents can also help for the more thorough cleaning. I’ve heard that nylon brushes can be cleaned very easily with alcohol (90% or greater rubbing alcohol or denatured alcohol). After using alcohol you can dip those brushes in the boiling water to reshape them. Cool, yeah?
- Mechanical (ultrasonic) cleaning – I’ve put my synthetic brushes in my ultrasonic cleaner. Crazy, right? It works though. An ultrasonic cleaner is a bath of water (or other fluid you put in it) that emits very high frequency sound waves to agitate the objects in the bath. The sound waves produce bubbles that “scrub” whatever you’re trying to clean. It’s very effective for airbrushes—I use mine a lot for that purpose. But, I also found it’s great for some of my synthetic brushes. It’s quickly gets rid of the larger, caked-in, paint and pigments in the bristles that I can reach with normal manual scrubbing under running water. Then, if I need to, I follow up with the methods above. It’s lazy, it’s harmful to the brushes, but again…synthetic cheap brushes make this a convenient option.
What About the Environment?
Just because I’m advocating “fake” synthetic brushes, doesn’t mean I’m neglecting the sustainable direction I think our hobbies should take.
The great thing about synthetic brushes over other applicators is that synthetic brushes can withstand re-use despite abuse. You can clean them with the methods described above and they will keep on truckin’.
A synthetic brush can last months or years despite some serious abusive handling. Unlike natural sable brushes, synthetic brushes have bristles that are resilient to harsh chemicals, cleaning agents, and aggressive scrubbing. YOU DECIDE when the brush is “dead”. If it continues to do the job, you can keep using that brush. So ultimately, a single synthetic brush will take the place of hundreds of cotton-tipped buds, wooden or plastic applicators, or other disposable solutions.
My Favorite Synthetic Brushes
If you’re like me and want to have a bunch of cheap synthetic brushes, here are a few options for under $1 per brush!
- I bought this set at a local art store (Hobby Lobby). It comes in a pack of 10 various-shaped brushes. I think they are made of nylon, I’m not sure. But, they are stiff bristles which makes them ideal for applying glue for basing, or for using brush on primer. I’ve used them for oil washes, but find that they don’t hold a good amount of liquid (their bellies aren’t very absorbent). They are easy to clean, though they stain with the colors that you use them with (but who cares!). Some of these brushes are also great for your kids (if they are really young) and double as arts/crafts brushes for various home projects.
- As you can tell, I go for those paint brush sets that have a variety of paint brush shapes. That’s because at some point in my miniature painting work I’ll find the need for a specific shaped-applicator. The broader brushes are really good at applying medium or paints to large surfaces, or getting a good volume of wash onto a model quickly. Those kinds of brushes are also really good as dry brushes for the larger models I work on. The smaller synthetic brushes are useful for glue application in tight spots (like around the feet of a miniature), or for smaller areas of dry brushing–where you don’t want to apply pigment to specific areas.
- I find cosmetic brushes to be excellent for a variety of uses because they are soft and flexible. They carry a good amount of paint (acrylic or oil) and clean up nicely with soap and hot water. As you can tell with this set, some of them have really large bellies, so the larger brushes in the set work well as brushes for applying huge amounts of medium to a model (e.g., priming and washes). The great part about these brushes it that they are really cheap (less than $0.75 cents per brush). If you ruin one, not only did you not spend a lot, but you have a bunch more in the set ready to go!
- One of the best deals I’ve found for synthetic round brushes. These are synthetic round-pointed brushes that come out to close to $0.50 per brush. There are a variety of sizes here, but most of them are within the range you’d want for more precise miniature painting work (even fine detail). Of course, with this lower cost, you also probably get brushes that lose their shape easily. But, if you follow some of the instructions above about keeping your brushes clean, using alcohol and boiling hot water to reshape the tips, then you should be able to get some really long use out of these. And, inexpensively!
- The best part about pointed-round shaped brushes is their versatility. So, I know these would be useful for all sorts of things that you could do with a more expensive sable brush (with some limitations). Generally, I like have these around also because I don’t need to baby them if I’m traveling with my paint kit, or want to roam and use a different room in the house for painting work (i.e., the kitchen table). If I forget to leave the brush somewhere, or if my two year old gets a hold of them, no worries — these are expendable. Just relax, keep painting, and have fun.
Obviously, with any hobby tools, there isn’t a best kind or type. It’s your personal preference. As a principle, having cheap tools around can be a huge boon as your productivity isn’t reliant on the need to keep things in tip-top shape. Just roll with your instincts to get something done.
Cheap synthetic brushes fill a versatile slot in your hobby toolkit. Although you can get more precise high quality work done with your more expensive sable brushes, there are times when expendable brushes are more useful.
Cheap synthetic brushes are the expendable grunts, the cannon fodder, that protect the expensive hardware from the literal dirty work. Art is about moments, but creating art is a battle. Prepare for casualties!
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Any other uses for cheap brushes that I forgot to list here? Let me know!