The choice of best brush for miniature painting is personal, but the general consensus is the pointed round size #1 or #2, which has a bristle length of about 8-12mm, and a belly diameter of 1.5-2mm. For most 28-35mm scale miniatures, this brush size and shape allows for efficient paint application and blending for larger surfaces, as well as the precision to apply detail. Quality synthetic or natural hair bristles within this size range can be the go-to brush for a majority of miniature painting. Good snap or spring (the ability of a brush to retain its shape) and tip retention (the quality of a brush to hold a fine bristle point) are interrelated attributes to consider when choosing a brush for detailed miniature painting.
What is the best brush for painting miniatures?
Continue reading below for my thoughts on how I choose my favorite paint brush(es), and my tips for buying brushes for painting miniatures and models.
If you’re a hobbyist, scale modeler, or miniature painter for tabletop games, I wrote this article for you.
What is the best brush for painting miniatures?
When I did my initial research online, everywhere really, I wanted the tool that could do the most work (versatility) with precision and control.
I wanted a paint brush that would allow me to freehand or paint details of a miniature without frustration.
In other words, I was looking for specific qualities of paint brush size, shape, and bristle quality that were ideal for painting miniatures.
Finally, I needed a paint brush that was efficient. This means that the brush needed to hold a good amount of wet paint so I didn’t have to refill/dip it into my paint pot/bottle after every stroke.
When it comes to pure painting speed, getting the job done quickly, I discovered my favorite workhorse brush: the Citadel Medium Basing brush.
For more fine detail painting, however, I wrote this article for you.
Here, I put together as much information as I’ve learned about paint brushes as I could gather.
More specifically, I’ve focused on trying to understand what makes a paint brush worth investing in for painting miniatures.
If you’re looking for the best paint brush for painting miniatures or fine scale models, e.g., Warhammer 40k, or other wargaming minis, read on below.
Paint brushes are diverse, like people!
Brushes are unique tools, each with a different behavior and dare I say personality.
There are so many types of brushes out there, it can be hard to even decide on the special few (or one) that you’ll need for painting miniatures.
If you are like me when I first started painting miniatures, then you’ve probably chosen the kinds of brushes that you saw at your local game or craft store.
Or, maybe you’ve watched others paint in videos using various brushes.
As someone who is also learning, I’ve seen the gamut of brush types just by walking through all the art stores I’ve visited.
I’m guessing that they all have uses, like all tools that have developed over generations. Each with a purpose and a specific application.
And, you wonder sometimes if your painting could improve if you just had that one perfect brush that could make that technique this much easier….
Well, with any tool you kind of have to know what your goals are. Once your goal is set, it does become easier to decide what materials you’ll need to accomplish what you want to do.
The same is true for miniature painting. Your paint brush is a tool for a single task.
So, our goal is easy, right?
So then, choosing the right and best brush for miniature painting should also be easy?
Yes and no.
Again, there are so many techniques and approaches, and I think the problem starts with nailing down what you actually are trying to do when painting a miniature.
What is the best brush shape and size for painting miniatures?
Two things to consider in shopping for a paint brush for miniature work:
- Brush size
- Brush shape
The best brush shape is a pointed round. This shape gives you the most surface bristle area to apply paint (using the sides of a brush, in a swishing or feathering motion), whilst the sharp tip provides for the precision to perform controlled line work required for applying details.
The best brush size for miniature painting is a brush with bristle lengths of about 10mm (0.39 inches), and a belly diameter of 2mm (0.79 inches).
For most 28-35mm miniatures, this brush size allows for efficient paint retention in the “belly” of the tuft (see below).
The length is long enough to provide good belly (where most paint would be held for a period of time over a series of applications on larger surfaces), and short enough to keep bristles “snappy” or “springy” so they reform after deforming after a brushstroke.
Brushes have numbers to define their size.
But, the brush size number of a particular brand may not mean the same thing for a different brand.
Manufacturers all have slightly different standards for brush sizes. This is part due to the fact that really high-end brushes are made-by-hand. Inherently, there will be variation in the product.
For example, a pointed round size #1, does not mean it will have bristles of the length or diameter that is ideal for your miniature painting needs.
Painting miniatures is a unique creative challenge
Miniatures require a different perspective compared with traditional art, e.g., canvas paintings, drawings.
This also means that the tools must be special, too!
But, in a way, painting miniatures is simple compared with painting a canvas or other 2D plane surface.
The scariest thing in the world for a traditional painter, or even a writer is the blank canvas. Where do you start? The entire surface is empty.
Maybe you start with a sketch, or a draft under-drawing.
However, with the art of painting miniatures, you have a prepared working surface in 3-dimensions. Your shapes, forms are ready to receive a coat of paint.
It’s the small size of the subject that underlies the painting challenge.
There are certainly larger miniatures, which are usually from the historical military genre, e.g., tanks, planes, dioramas.
For this article, however, we’ll focus on what paint brushes work best on miniatures at the 28-35mm scale size, which seems to be the more popular and least expensive of the miniature painting hobby.
So, we have a sculpture, albeit a small one.
They are usually made of metal or plastic, and we want to apply beautiful coats of paint to make them come alive. A painted miniature is an amazingly different creature than the blanks they start out as.
The challenge is that miniatures are small 3D objects. Our tools must be capable of giving us the control to apply paint in a precise controlled fashion.
And, with any physical limitation based on scale, the smaller an object, the higher the resolution we will need to interact with that object.
You need a “high resolution” paint brush.
Want to save money and time in the pursuit of the best brush for your miniature painting hobby? Take it from me.
I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on all kinds of expensive brushes.
(Over many years!)
I’ve invested a lot in trying to find the single brush that would end all brushes.
What are the 3 parts of a paint brush you need to know?
Before we dive further, here’s some brush anatomy that can help you understand what makes a good brush tick.
Paint brush anatomy and physiology 101.
It’s important to know these basic parts because as you do your research elsewhere, you’ll hear these names of a brush part a lot.
There are many parts to a brush, and many other sites describe them well (better than me; and it’s kind of boring to talk about).
Really, at the end of the day all I want is to put paint on the miniature as efficiently as possible in a controlled fashion.
What does my brush need for me to do this, and how do they help me control paint application to my miniature?
Here’s the 3 parts of a brush that you should keep in mind:
- The handle
- The ferrule
- The tuft (or bristles)
- It’s usually wood. But, I’ve seen some plastic ones.
- But, it doesn’t matter what the brush handle is made of as long as it’s comfortable for you.
- Control of a brush in part from being able to manipulate the handle, which is connected to the bristles.
- If the brush is comfortable you’ll likely use that brush for longer periods of time.
- I’ve said this elsewhere, there is no substitute for good miniature painting than a lot of in-the-seat experience with your tools.
- The ferrule is that metal part that connects the brush to the bristles or tuft.
- I never knew why, but knowing about the ferrule is an important for determining a good brush from a bad one.
- I’ve discovered that a lot of the high quality brushes have ferrules that don’t have crimps on them. A crimp is a bend or crease formed in the metal ferrule.
- Good quality brushes have ferrules that are smooth near where the tufts/bristles come out from under the metal.
- Crimped ferrules low on the brush, near the tufts, on cheap brushes usually fall off after a while.
- My suggestion is to look at the ferrule and find brushes that have smooth metal attachments near the tuft. These seem to be the better assembled miniature brushes.
- Often poorly made brushes feel a bit wobbly when you have a good grip on ferrule. It can be quite unnerving when you’re painting details.
- The tuft is the bristle end of the brush.
- There are many configurations of bristle bundles or tufts attached to a brush.
- You’ve got the pointed round shapes (the primary shape for miniature painting), flats, fans, mops, liners, pin-stripers (which are fun), and all kinds of other funny names.
- At the end of the day, of course, the attributes of the tuft are what determine the overall ability for you to control the paint application to a miniature.
Should I buy natural or synthetic brushes for painting miniatures?
This is a common question.
In choosing the best brush for miniature painting, I generally recommend that everyone start with a natural hair brush.
Here are some advantages of why you should choose natural bristle brushes for painting miniatures:
- Natural hair brushes of good quality hold their shape much longer than their synthetic relations, and yield a more subtle (dare I say smoother) paint application feel.
- Until recently, natural hair brushes also have had better water retention attributes than compared with synthetics that make paint stay consistently wet while painting.
- Finally, natural hair brushes also have another advantage in that they are generally easier to clean.
Of course, more expensive synthetic brushes may close the functional gap with natural bristle brushes, e.g., have similar working properties, but these synthetics aren’t as easy to find.
Keep reading for more details about what kind of natural or synthetic brushes you may want to consider for painting miniatures.
What kind of natural hair brushes should I get for painting miniatures?
There are broadly two kinds of natural hair brushes I recommend you should consider for painting miniatures:
Red Sable – This is your bog-standard, best-bang for your buck natural hair brush.
- A problem with deciding to buy a red sable paint brush is that their origin varies, a lot.
- Many don’t realize that red sable can come from any animal within the weasel family of mammals.
- It’s hair taken straight from their bodies.
- So, as you can imagine the quality and characteristics of red sable may behave differently across different brands and paint brush lots.
Kolinsky Sable – This is the premium, top-of-the-line, mink tail hair; the highest quality red sable available.
- Kolinsky sable is the go-to for professional watercolor artists, and now in recent years, the most popular among commercial studio artists for miniatures in the gaming/modeling community.
- Kolinsky sable is soft, but holds its original shape. It is also durable and long-lasting.
- I’ve had quality Kolinsky sables (of the famed “Winsor & Newton Series 7” brand) last years before needing to be replaced, and I have painted for hours on a daily basis.
There are other kinds of natural hair brushes; including, horse hair, squirrel hair, sabeline ox hair, or even camel hair. These all have their special uses and applications. But for miniatures, red sable and kolinsky sables should be the top choices.
What kind of synthetic brushes should I get for painting miniatures?
Synthetic hair brushes are great for many reasons.
Although they may not be as durable, or feel as nice to paint with than a good kolinsky sable brush, synthetic brushes have a strong place in a mini painter’s toolset.
In general, synthetic brushes are less expensive, and sometimes are even mixed with natural materials.
Synthetic brushes are an excellent choice for the miniature painter who isn’t looking to break their budget.
Modern high-end synthetic brushes have many of the qualities found in natural brushes. They can hold their shape, are resilient to abuse, and can be great for controlled application of paint.
The biggest issue I’ve found in my experience with synthetic brushes is that even the high quality brushes tend to have bristles that form into “hooks”, “curls”, or “curved” tips that won’t go away.
You can work around these permanent deformation in the synthetic tufts, but if you have a tad of obsessive compulsive tendencies like me, then this will get on your nerves very quickly.
There are a few things you can do to prevent or try to restore the curve hook tips on a synthetic brush:
- Don’t stab or jab the tip of your synthetic brush while you paint.
- Rotate the sides of your brush as you paint, so keep the forces evenly distributed around the bristles
- If a tip or curl has formed, clean the brush thoroughly, and dip the tip in boiling hot water (don’t dunk the entire brush otherwise you’ll melt the glue within the ferrule). Reshape the bristles back into their original shape. Rinse and repeat until you’re satisfied. It probably won’t go back to the true original, but you may get the brush back to a tolerable state.
What is my recommended buying strategy for paint brushes?
I recommend buying a brush with a tuft made from pure Kolinsky sable.
Purchase a high quality brush such as a Winsor & Newton Series 7 or Raphael 8404’s.
I’ll add that you should try and find these brushes in a local art store so you can try them out in-person.
Because good paint brushes are assembled by hand, and with hairs that come from animals (which themselves may have hairs that are diverse, even with family species), you’re never quite sure what you’ll get until you get up close and personal.
Every brush is looks good from afar until you get to know them.
If you’re unsure you can do this, and are only able to purchase brushes online, then you may want to buy a brush with synthetic tufts. Synthetic brushes are generally less expensive, and they are manufactured through factory machines.
This provides a better guarantee of quality control and consistency across a brush line. A synthetic brush from a good company has the least risk of being a lemon in the mailbox.
How can you test the quality of a sable hair brush?
Sable brushes are expensive.
I’ve spent hundreds of US dollars on good kolinsky sable brushes over my miniature painting career (…err hobby).
You should test your sable brushes before you buy them.
Most art stores and craft places that are reputable will let you test-drive a brush before you buy it.
Here’s 5 things you can do to make sure the brush you are buying is a good one:
- Dip the brush in clean water. Ask the sales representative nicely to let you do this. Be gentle, you didn’t buy the brush, yet!
- Swirl the bristles around to remove any of the powder/binder that was used to hold the shape of the tuft. A brand new brush will have bristles that are tightly held together with a powdery substance. Wash that off.
- Flick the brush against your hand, then swirl the bristles again.
- Remove the brush and snap the handle against your wrist to get rid o the extra water.
- Did the tip of the bristle come back to a perfect round point?
- If yes, this is the sign of a really good brush.
- If you have to use your fingers to reform the bristles back into a fine tip, then this particular brush doesn’t have the “spring” or “snap” you’re looking for in miniature painting.
- If the bristles do not form into a sharp tip that is uniform around the entire circumference of the brush looking down the handle, then be wary.
- Some of these flaws reveal themselves only a little, and when you get home, rear their ugly heads when really put the brush to the test by painting.
If you got to #5, and confirmed the auto-tip reformation properties of the wet-flicked natural hair brush, and the presence of a fine-sharp bristled tips that uniform all around, confidently pull out your credit card or wad of cash and hand it over.
How do care for my expensive sable paint brush?
Follow the professional tips below to properly care for your kolinsky sable or synthetic paint brush (source):
- Rinse after every paint session and in-between color changes.
- Try not to let paint dry too long, too far up the bristles near the ferrule.
- Acrylic miniature paint polymerizes very fast and forms into an incredibly hard and durable product after the liquid medium dries up.
- If bristles are trapped in an unnatural shape, they will become damaged at the microscopic level.
- Yes, there are ways to restore brushes, but they really won’t behave the same after this kind of neglect.
- Store your brushes flat on your table or upside down with the bristles down. Excess water that seeps up into the ferrule toward the handle will cause the wood and hairs underneath to swell.
- Swelling will pop glue and binders out of place and accelerate brush deterioration. A bald brush isn’t very functional.
Snappy or sloppy: What is better for painting miniatures?
Go for snappy.
Simple as that. What do I mean by “snappy”?
A snappy brush has a tip that holds its vertical shape after it is wet with paint and following application to a miniature.
After applying paint, a snappy brush will have bristles that literally spring back into their original position, and preferably back into a sharp tip.
Brushstroke after brushstroke, you want a brush that can automatically return to its original shape.
This lets you apply paint consistently and predictably during a painting session.
So when I do need a floppy brush?
You need a floppy or soft brush when you want to be gentle to your working surface. Or, if you’re trying to create soft blends of paint.
A floppy brush is useful when you need to apply heavy coats of wash over a delicate layer of airbrushed acrylic paint. Without varnish, under paintings are easily damaged. A floppy brush can help you paint more gently.
What is my recommendation for choosing the best brush for painting miniatures?
The best brush for miniature painting can significantly affect the overall appearance and quality of your painting work. If you’re looking to achieve a professional look, investing in the right tools goes a long way.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best brush for miniature painting will have the following specific qualities:
- Natural, Kolinsky sable tufts
- Metal ferrules that do not use crimping to attach the tuft to the handle (crimping is a sign that the assembly isn’t of very reliable quality)
- Bristle or tufts should be shaped with a pointed round configuration
- Bristles with about 10mm in length, and dense enough to form a circular even diameter of around 2mm
- The total responsiveness of the bristles should be snappy or springy enough to return to their total original shape following deformation after paint application, and while still wet (this should be tested in-person before purchase)
- The tips should be sharp and uniform without many stray hairs in a brand new brush (which could be a sign of underlying issues that arise later after real miniature painting use)
You can expect the cost of a brush with all of the above qualities to be between $15-35 USD. Although this may seem expensive compared to many hobby/craft level brushes, or those brushes you find in your local game store, getting the right brush for miniature painting can make learning and just simply doing the hobby more fun and relaxing.
This is article is based on my experience and time with painting hundreds of models, for many years. I’ve scoured the internet, e.g., forums and social media, trying to see what the most popular brush type, size, material composition, and brands the professional artists use.
My 2 recommended brushes for painting miniatures:
Examples of models I painted with just one kolinsky sable brush (Winsor & Newton Series 7 Pointed Round #1)
(…excluding the base coat paint application, which I generally do with a bigger brush or airbrush)
Do you have a favorite brush for miniatures that you constantly reach for?