Volume 14, Number 3, Sept 1992, pp.15-18,

Zora's Column: Artists' Brushes

by Zora Sweet Pinney, illustrated by Peter Mendez

I've been running down parallel roads for several years now. Intense curiosity has kept me hopping from one to another to find elements that would fashion my personal labyrinth into an integrated form. But the elements just became increasingly enticing, and intersections keep cropping up everywhere. Now I realize that I must not abrogate control of my life to those lovely side trails that pique my curiosity so, but must go to a main conduit and converge with my mission--to complete my book on the history of artists' brushes. One commitment must be accomplished to present a clean corridor. I present it to you as my last Zora's Column, a synopsis of my brush presentation and what I learned from you at the 1991 WAAC meeting in Seattle.

In Seattle I talked about the parts of artists' brushes and the liaison between the tool and the user. I described bristles, hair, natural and synthetic fibers, their differences and variations in configuration, ferrules, handles and dimensions, including their usage and construction. To give you a better way to select brushes based on some of the components we take for granted, I'd like to define and describe some of their attributes below:


Fillers can be divided into four groups: hair, bristles, synthetics, and natural plant fibers (yucca and other plant fibers are still in use by artists and artisans). Mixtures of these are often used to combine qualities and maximize utility. There are other materials, including feathers, that are still in occasional usage.

Brush Heads

Brush heads are filled ferrules, ready to assemble onto a handle. They are made using natural and synthetic materials that come to the brushmaker in the form of bundles, "tufts" or "sets." The bundles of dressed, or partially prepared materials are supplied in weights determined by their specific type. "Tufts" are hair pre-formed and secured at the bottom with an adhesive, ready to insert into a ferrule and subsequently onto a handle. "Sets" are hair first tied, inserted into the ferrule, and then the tie is removed. All imported hair is subject to government regulations including the fumigation and the protection of natural resources.


Ferrules are devices that connect the hair to the handle and determine the size and shape of most occidental brushes. Metal ferrules first appeared between 1870 and 1895. Seamless metal ferrules are made of aluminum, copper, brass, or tin. They may be nickel or gold plated. Ferrules represent almost a third of the cost of each brush. They should, at least, be double crimped to secure the handle properly. Seamed aluminum or tin-plated ferrules are mostly used for school, craft, and inexpensive brushes. These brushes, exposed to too much moisture, may expand the wooden handle, and break the seam. Ferrules for flat brushes may be cylindrical in their original shape and flattened to achieve a particular brush style.

Ferrules for most watercolor brushes are conical, with the narrow end governing the size of the brush. Fine quality watercolor brushes are mounted into ferrules usually made of corrosion resistant metal such as cupro-nickel or aluminum, sometimes silver or gold plated. They are seamless to avoid splitting and the subsequent loss of hair.

Natural quills from the feathers of ducks, geese, and other fowl are still used for brushes by watercolorists and china painters in Europe, but are seldom used in the USA. Synthetic quills are increasingly supplanting natural quills.

Traditional Oriental brushes are most often made without a ferrule, but with the tuft secured into a prepared hollow in the handle.


Handles are generally made of hardwoods, selected for straightness. They are sealed and finished by dipping in lacquers. The end inside the ferrule is not dipped in a color coat but must be thoroughly sealed to prevent moisture from penetrating the wood and loosening the connection between the ferrule and the handle. Finishes vary between decorative and clear, and some may be susceptible to strong solvents. Plastic handles are also used in some art, craft, and scholastic brushes.

Handle lengths and shapes vary. Some have ends chiseled flat to provide a surface for burnishing, and with an edge for scratching back. Some handle shapes are designed with indentations to allow a comfortable grasp, and some are shaped to prevent rolling.


Sizes are not uniform from various manufacturers. Even within different lines of the same maker, numerical sizes have little meaning for the user. There is no assurance that a #10 brush will be exactly the same size in any direction from either the same or different manufacturers. You need to compare sizes and shapes and not expect uniformity in numbering systems. Flat soft hair brushes are identified by measurement of width at the edge of the ferrules. Flat bristles, in the smaller sizes, are customarily designated by numbers, from about 2/0 to 24. Extremely large flat brushes in both soft hair and bristles may be identified by their width in inches in those made in the USA, and in millimeters in imported brushes. They're not the same from manufacturer to manufacturer, and not necessarily the same in different series by the same maker.

Soft hair round brushes are available in sizes identified as being from 6/0 to #14. The small amount of hair in tiny brushes is difficult to fashion properly, and very small ferrules are more costly to produce than the larger ones. These two factors add considerably to the prices of these brushes.

Most people continue to use the brand of brushes they've been familiar with from their initial contact with art. Perhaps that has something to do with feeling comfortable with the familiar. Artists' brushes are almost completely made by hand. Each time you buy a brush, you are buying a different brush from the previous one you bought, even if it was sold by the same manufacturer, in the same size and in the same series number. Remember that artists' brushes made from natural materials are obtained under differing conditions, from diverse sources, and fashioned by hand. Even synthetic brush materials succumb to different configurations, conditions, and the manipulations of the human hand.

Below are illustrations and brief descriptions of some of the soft hair brushes WAAC members have been using:


  1. The English-style round, as compared to the European, has a fatter belly, further from the ferrule, and it comes to a more shaped point. It will be slightly softer, offer more liquid storage, and cover slightly larger areas.
  2. The European style has the belly closer to the ferrule than the English, and comes to a more gradual point. So it is tighter, with more elasticity, and is more easily controlled. It is often called a designer's brush.
  3. The spotter, most used by conservators for inpainting, has the belly almost at the ferrule and comes to a stiffer, shorter point. They are the brushes that come as small as 6/0, and because they have so little hair, only the best kolinsky should be used to get the finest points with the most resiliency and controllability.
  4. Popular in Europe, and more recently introduced to the USA, is this universal liner. It is frequently made using a mixture of hair. A long kolinsky tuft in the center, surrounded by a considerably shorter, more absorbent hair at the base. The combination provides a large reservoir of liquid material feeding a long, beautifully pointed, resilient tip.
  5. A script liner is a very long hair brush, preferably kolinsky, that under delicate hand can produce lovely, long, variable lines. It is often used for signatures.
  6. Side and front views of flat watercolor brushes. They have a square top and a fat belly about a third of the way up from the ferrule to provide a great deal of fluid and a clean entry. Ideally they come to a razor sharp edge and can be used to produce a clean entry for a long broad stroke. These brushes generally are available in sizes from 1/4 in. to 1 in. They're often found using mixtures of well pointing and absorbent hair to take maximum advantage of both qualities.
  7. Wash brushes are most often made using squirrel hair to exploit their ability to dispense an abundant amount of liquid material. They come to a fine point, but have no resiliency. Mops appear to have the same shape as wash brushes, but when wetted they do not come to a fine point. They are generally made of less expensive hair like ox, goat, and pony and are designed to deliver a profusion of liquid over a large space. The example shown here is in a natural quill ferrule.


Confirmed by the answers to my questionnaire distributed in Seattle, the most commonly used brushes by conservators are what are generically identified as watercolor round sables, or sometimes specifically kolinsky, in sizes 4/0 to 8. They are used for inpainting, local varnishing, adhesive, gel and local solvent applications. So it seems that watercolor rounds should be identified here by classification and designed purposes. "Spotters" seem to be used by a few for the same purposes, so for this article they will be in the group to be described.

Although the kolinsky and sable are both in the weasel (Mustelidae) family their species are different. The kolinsky is Mustela sibinca and the sable is Mustela martes zibellina. The qualities of their hair are very different. Kolinsky is brownish- red hair with a distinctive yellowish tint. Each hair gently tapers at both ends, with a needle sharp point at the tip. The male hair is superior and more costly than the female. Kolinsky hair has spring and resilience unmatched in any other material. The hair can be recognized by its "belly," situated about one third of the hair's length from the butt. Sable differs from kolinsky in length and thickness, with less resiliency. It is stiffer and a browner color, and the tips are a little blunter because the hair has a more abrupt taper. Sable hair is shorter than kolinsky, so there will be less hair visible outside the ferrule in a sable than a kolinsky brush in the same size. In rare cases, the best sable is almost indistinguishable from the kolinsky. Sable can make fine quality brushes when the hairs are selected for quality and are arranged properly during brush making. The finest brushes are made using kolinsky, either exclusively male or a combination of male and female hair.

Soft hair brushes are made using sable, squirrel, light ox hair, goat, pony, synthetics, or mixtures.

Squirrel hair is an exceptionally soft, absorbent hair used in brushmaking. All varieties produce a brush that is very absorbent, not springy, but comes to an excellent point. Talahutky is gray, the rarest and the most expensive. It is thicker, stronger but coarser than Kazan and is mostly used in quills for lettering brushes. Kazan is brown, thinner, weaker and softer than Talahutky and is the squirrel hair most used in watercolor brushes and mops. Canadian squirrel is a slightly thicker, less resilient, considerably shorter hair, with more belly and is variegated yellow and black. Squirrel is most often used in mops or in mixtures with other hair.

Ox ear hair is available in two colors: tan and dark brown. It also will not come to a point because of its cylindrical shape. It is inexpensive, strong, and springy, and in consideration of these qualities is often used in mixtures with other less resilient hair with pointing capabilities.

Goat hair will not point because it is cylindrical in shape. It is soft and quite wavy along its length. Although it is used primarily in cosmetic brushes and in mixtures for inexpensive brushes, I find it to be a great dusting hair brush.

Pony is another hair (sometimes called horse hair) that is cylindrical in shape. It's dark brown and generally used in mixtures with soft hair to produce body and reduce price. It is often used in lacquering brushes.


The second filler and shape of most importance to conservators is the flat bristle in sizes from 1 in.-4 in. It is most used for varnishing, varnish removal and adhesive application.

 [Illustration] Bristles come from the back and shoulders of a variety of hogs, pigs, and wild boars. Wild boars are the most desirable and the most difficult to obtain. Bristle has a natural curve and an extraordinary springiness. A rolled hog bristle was used as a balance spring in the first pocket watch. It is relatively stiff, soft, and elastic at the same time. It can be found in three colors: black, gray, or yellow-white, and is often bleached and boiled, sometimes several times to achieve particular qualities and properties. The most useful bristle hair has "flags" (split ends at the very tips) that makes them more flexible, possible to hold a great deal of heavy material. When the flags are loaded with moisture or any viscous substance, they tend to interlock and allow manipulation of paint in a controlled way. Each flag should have a needle taper, coming to a definite point for the best release of paint. The longer and more consistent the flags, the more paint the brush will hold. Look for the flags as shown above. You'll be able to distinguish them clearly.

Other sizes and shapes of bristle brushes are used for cleaning, inpaint texturing, consolidation, varnish application and removal, adhesive application and removal, local solvent application.

Badger hair brushes are the most commonly used by conservators for dusting dry paintings. The hair has a thick belly located close to the tips, giving it a voluminous appearance. It is quite long with light points and a dark brown strip just below the tips. The leading edge feels soft and the remainder has good body and is fairly stiff. Traditionally, badger has been used in painting as a blender because of these qualities.

Stencil brushes are round and constructed using bristles with the ends cut flat eliminating the flags. Used for pouncing material onto or into a surface.

The use of a brush for hot glue was mentioned by one conservator. I assume it was for the application of materials like hide glue. I believe the most practical brushes for this usage are inexpensive bristles. As much of a fuss-pot as I am, I've been known to leave my glue brush in the pot while it cooled, gelatinized and subsequently turned into a hardened sculpture. I do not recommend this practice.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic filaments for use in artists' brushes are mostly of Japanese manufacture. However they are also made in many other places, including the USA, Germany, and some Eastern European countries. They are extruded and treated in different configurations to resemble natural hair. Increasingly sophisticated extrusions are making it possible to produce much less expensive brushes with many of the same qualities as natural hair. Tapered synthetic bristles retain their shape better than "level filament" bristles (untapered ones). They are used in the same shapes as other brushes: flats, brights, filberts, and rounds. Synthetic bristles are made of nylon, polyester, or other filaments. Color is not a factor in judging their authenticity. Synthetic brushes combine filaments of different diameters to achieve various qualities.

Below are illustrations and brief descriptions of some of the bristle brushes WAAC members reported using:


  1. Brights, theoretically, show half the amount of hair showing of flats. But in many cases, they are simply shorter. Their purpose is for short, heavy, brisk strokes.
  2. Flats, because of the extra length, carry more material and produce longer, smoother strokes.
  3. Filberts are oval topped flat brushes formed from a combination of different lengths of bristle. Used flat for volumes and on their sides for linear forms and drawing, they make an excellent multiple purpose brush.
  4. Rounds are pointed drawing brushes, used primarily in the smaller sizes.

Note: All of these brushes can be found in different thicknesses and lengths. Brights and flats both have square edges.

Rules for Brush Preservation

  1. Restrict each brush's usage to one medium.
  2. When it's necessary to scrub or use a brush on a rough surface, use an inexpensive brush.
  3. When working, rest your brushes on the ferrule, not on their heads in a jar.
  4. When using strong solvents, try not to dip past the ferrule to keep from loosening the handle or dissolving the finish.
  5. The finest quality, natural hair or bristle brush can be more easily returned to its original state, exclusive of wear, than poor quality.
  6. Synthetic brushes should be treated much the same as natural hair or bristles. The rule of never resting brushes on their tips is even more important with synthetic brushes.
  7. Wipe the paint off the brush with a paper towel, from ferrule to tip, before cleaning with the appropriate solvent.
  8. When you finish your work session, wash and reform your brushes using lukewarm water and soap (not detergent) or a commercial artists' brush cleaner. Use a hand or tooth brush to remove paint starting from the edge of the ferrule and gently brushing the lather in, outward to the tip.
  9. Rinse your brush in cool to lukewarm--not hot--water, and repeat the washing process, as often as necessary to eliminate any residual color or resin.
  10. Let your brushes dry laying flat, except for non-resilient hair brush, like squirrel, which particularly benefit from air drying with the hair suspended head-down to allow any moisture to flow out.
  11. Air dry your brushes in an open environment.

About Zora

Zora Sweet Pinney is a fine arts technical consultant. She has written 14 columns for WAAC Newsletter since January 1988.

Other ZORA'S COLUMN articles that focus on the history and manufacture of artists' materials are:

"Zora's Column: Lead Down the Cedar Path, The Tale of the Pencil" in Volume 10, No. 1. Told by a No. 2 yellow pencil, this is a delightful article filled with fascinating historical and technical information about graphite pencils.

"Zora's Column: Cradle of European Brushmaking," in Volume 12, No. 2. Zora and her husband, Edward Pinney, traveled to Bechhoven, Germany, called by some "the cradle of European brushmaking." The Deutsches Pinsel und Bursten Museum was visited and described. A contemporary German brushmaker described the training required to become a licensed Master Brushmaker. Sources of hair for brushes are discussed. An oral history about early German brushmaking is reported.

"Zora's Column," in Volume 13, No. 1. Zora and Edward traveled to Poland. The history of the Polish brushmaking industry in reported. Today, the manufacture of artists' brushes in Poland is a cottage industry.

To correspond, write:

Zora Sweet Pinney
4496 Emerald Street
Torrance, California 90503

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