The Best Paintbrush for Oil-Based Paint: Which Bristles Are Best? (2023)

In This Post

  • What Types of Paintbrushes Are There?
    • Natural
      • China
    • Synthetic
    • Bristle types
      • Solid
      • Hollow
      • Split
  • The Best Paintbrush for Oil-Based Paint (and Why!)

As I’ve been planning ahead on things to do for the Keeper’s House (and there are plenty), I’ve been looking back, too. Part of the point of this whole project is to learn from my mistakes (so you don’t make the same mistakes).

One of the things I never thought about was paintbrushes. Or, more specifically, the best paintbrush. In fact, when it comes to paintbrushes, I didn’t realize there were different kinds of paintbrushes. I mean, I knew there were sponge brushes and bristle brushes and that the sponges and bristles can have different widths and shapes (angled, flat, and so on).

But, as I recently learned, there are different kinds of bristle brushes. And I also learned that there is a best paintbrush for oil-based paint (and a best paintbrush for water-based paint).

This is something I wish I had known before I started painting. While I’m sure a big part of my problem is cheap brushes (as I’ve said, this is not an inexpensive hobby), I now have a feeling that part of my problem is that I was using the wrong paintbrushes for my paints, which, as you might know, ended up being a mix of oil-based primer (oops!), and craft paints (which are water-based).

More importantly, I grabbed a brush based mostly on the task at hand and didn’t recognize the importance of “what did I last use the paintbrush for?” As it turns out, this was another newbie mistake.

What Types of Paintbrushes Are There?

When I talk about the type of paintbrush (or, for these purposes, the best paintbrush for oil-based paint), I’m only talking about bristle brushes. I did not check into sponge brushes for oil-based paint. But, if my adventures in dying wood are any indication, I’d say it’s fine in some cases.

And, when I talk about the best paintbrush, I’m also not talking about shape or width. The only thing I’m talking about is bristles.

As it turns out, there are two kinds of bristles. I honestly never thought about the bristles, let alone that there might be different kinds of bristles, but there you have it.

Natural bristles

The first kind of bristle is natural. Natural paintbrush bristles are made from animal hair — hog, sable, badger, and ox hair. I honestly never thought about a hog having hair or even long hair (like, long enough for a paintbrush). Interesting.

Also, a fun thing I learned about natural brushes is that they shed the first few times you use them. Kind of like your head when you brush it. I hope that explains my previous issues (link) with loose bristles in my paint job. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the heck happened!

China bristle

If you really want to break it down, some people say that China bristle brushes are the best natural bristle brushes. What’s weird is that, in most cases, the hair isn’t only from China. The bristles are made from hogs in China and ox ear hair (gross!) from German-raised ox.

Supposedly, using these China bristle brushes will give you the smoothest finish. I’ll get to that in a second. But, for fun, I priced a few. They are not cheap. But, quality is usually worth the price, so, if you can afford it for your project, go for it, I guess.

Synthetic bristles

Then there are synthetic bristle brushes. Those bristles are made from, you guessed it, synthetic fibers. There are three types of synthetic bristles:

  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Nylon and polyester

In some respects, synthetic brushes are all the same: they are cheaper than natural bristle brushes. The main difference, though, is that nylon bristles tend to be durable and result in a smooth finish while polyester brushes are better at maintaining their shape (meaning you get a more precise application). A combo brush gives you the best of both worlds.

Bristle types

Then, just to keep things interesting, there are different types of bristles. Again, I’m not talking about straight or angled edges. I’m talking about the actual bristle.

Solid bristles

Solid bristles are exactly that. Solid. They don’t lose their shape easily. If you bend the bristles (which can happen when you aren’t careful — cough, cough), no problem. The bristles spring back to shape pretty easily.

Hollow bristles

Hollow bristles are, well, hollow. They do lose their shape easily, which, depending on the project, is exactly what you want. Hollow bristles tend to “fray” (AKA flag) at the ends. When that happens, it’s easier to get a more even, uniform paint finish.

Split bristles

Best Paint Brush for Oil-Based Paint (and Why!)

These bristles are “pre-frayed” for you so you can get that even finish.

So, those are the different kinds of paintbrush bristles. That only leaves us with the lingering question: what is the best paintbrush for oil-based paint? And, more importantly, why?

(Imagine a drumroll in your head, please).

The answer is: natural bristle brushes are the best paintbrush for oil-based paint.

Cool. But, let’s talk about why natural bristle brushes are the best paintbrush for oil-based paint.

Why natural bristle brushes are best

Natural bristle brushes are made of, as we learned, natural bristles. Natural bristles split naturally, which, as we also learned, gives you a better finish. But, there’s more to a split bristle than “it helps make everything look pretty when you’re done.”

The split of natural bristles is better at picking up paint, meaning you can better control how much paint goes on the brush. Want a thick coat? Natural bristles have your back. Prefer a light coat? Again, natural bristles have you covered. And this control means the paint is evenly distributed throughout the brush, making it less likely you’ll end up with streaked paint.

But, here’s the other reason why natural bristle brushes are the best paintbrush for oil-based paint. Natural bristles are animal hair. And animal hair tends to soak up water. When you’re using a water-based paint with a natural bristle brush, guess what happens?

Yup. The bristles soak up the water. Then the bristles get limp (like when you get your hair wet) and can’t hold their shape. This makes it next to impossible to paint. I mean, you could, but I don’t think it would go so well.

Oil-based paints, on the other hand, don’t have water in them. Like the name says, they’re oil-based. When you dip the brush in the paint, there’s no water to soak up, the bristles maintain their shape, and you paint like a regular Picasso (or Pollock or O’Keeffe or whomever you like).

Any Random Brush Won’t Do

As a sort of side note, you can use synthetic brushes with oil-based paints. Synthetics don’t really care what kind of paint they’re in. That said, depending on the bristle (hollow or solid), you may not get as smooth of a finish you want.

However, that doesn’t mean you can grab any old synthetic brush and start painting. Once you start using a specific brush with one kind of paint, you should always reserve that brush for that kind of paint. Meaning, if you pick up a nylon brush and use it in oil-based paint, always use that nylon brush for oil-based paints until you get rid of the brush.

If nothing else, the way you clean the brush off will affect the bristles. If one time you’re cleaning up oil-based paint, then the next three times, water-based paints, then the next two times, oil-based paints, you’re making life hard on the bristles and, in the long run, you’ll shorten the lifespan of your paintbrush.

A Paint Job Isn’t Just About the Paint

Yes, getting the right kind of paint (or stain, I suppose), is a huge part of creating a quality paint job, no matter what you’re painting. But, as it turns out, so is getting the right brush.

Who knew? Certainly not me.

At least I’m not remotely done painting my dollhouse. So, when I go to apply the final coat, I think I’ll be investing in a quality brush or two to get this right.

What about you? Any thoughts or odd experiences with paintbrushes? Let me know in the comments!

The Best Paintbrush for Oil-Based Paint: Which Bristles Are Best? (1)
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