The Care and Feeding of Sword Brushes
by Annabel Sherwood
How to Choose, Trim, and Maintain A Striper's Best Friend
Imagine loading up a favorite striping brush with paint, only to have it shed hair all over the palette; or reaching into the trusty kit, only to discover a bunch of gnawed sticks. Believe it or not, many products stripers have sworn by in the past can actually cause brush hair to fall out or be eaten by mice.
While these are worst case scenarios, poor maintenance can ruin a brush. However, with the proper care, a brush will last indefinitely - or at least long enough for its owner to make a reasonable profit with it.
Like many aspects of pinstriping, the basic rule for choosing, trimming and maintaining brushes is whatever works. As one painter puts it, "Ask 10 stripers and you'll get 11 different opinions," Although this is true, there are several commonly agreed upon ways to ensure sword brushes have a long and prosperous life.
A good craftsman takes proper care of his tools. For top performance, nothing beats a properly trimmed, cleaned and stored sword striper.
Choose Your Weapon
There are two main tools to choose from when it comes to pinstriping - swords or daggers. Often referred to synonymously, each brush is distinctly different. " The sword's longest hair is on the top and then it slowly tapers back to a short length on the underside. A dagger comes to a point and is double-edged, explains Rick Glawson, owner of Wilmington, Calif.-based Fine Gold Sign Co. and Esoteric Sign Supply. Although daggers are useful for small, curved work, versatile swords remain the brush of choice for most stripers.
The sword brush originated on the early assembly lines, used mainly for automotive paint touch-ups. Over the years, brushes have evolved to better suit pinstripers' needs, with short and long handles, large and small bellies (the middle section where the paint is carried), and different kinds of hair - squirrel hair being the most commonly used. Brushes range in cost from about $6.50 to $25, depending on their style and manufacturer.
Each company has their own scale for sizes, usually designated by numerals or a series of zeroes. The bigger the number, the more hair in the brush, the more paint it holds, and vice versa.
Selecting a brush is largely a matter of personal preference. " It depends on what fits into the person's hand and what they have the greatest comfort with," says Wappingers Falls, N.Y.- based striper Howie Nisgor. However, he does suggest a shorter handle length for beginners, since it gets up inside the hand for greater control.
Testing out different brands and types is an ongoing trial and error process for most painters. " You don't really know what kind of brush is right until you've got it wet and you're actually using it," says Nisgor.
Peter Millar of Quill Hair & Ferrule, a brush distributor in Columbia S.C. agrees. " Its highly individualized as to what works for the individual person. It also depends on what kind of work they want to do," he says.
For painting curves, Millar recommends brushes that have little hair in the belly section. " If you have a lot of hair in the belly and you go to make a tight corner, the hair kicks out and causes your line to go fat," he explains.
Conversely, pulling long lines requires a thick belly. "Ideally, you want something at least five or 10 feet at a time or more," says Julian "Mr. J" Braet, a Lyndhurst, NJ. based striper and inventor of the Xcaliber brush. "Everybody has their own favorite," he adds. And what do stripers do after finding a favorite? What else, they customize it.
The Brush Cut
Manufacturers and painters are divided on the subject of trimming brushes. Although most brush companies discourage trying to reshape any part of the brush, trimming is widely practiced.
"Almost every pinstriper isn't happy with the brush when they get it, " says Mike Fast, owner of Jonesville, Mich. based brush manufacturer, Andrew Mack & Son Brush Company. "We don't advocate trimming, because you take the softness away if you trim it to much," he says. Even so, he accepts the fact that most stripers work with trimmed brushes. "That's the way a lot of stripers do it, and that's fine," says Fast.
Brushes are made of three sections - the root, where the ferrule (the wire band or thread that keeps hairs attached to the brush) is located, the belly section in the middle, and the end tip. Most artists either blunt the normally pointed tip of the brush, or slightly alter the belly.
Because a water-soluble sizing is used to keep brushes stiff during shipping, they need to be cleaned right out of the package. " A lot of people don't know what to do with sizing, so they throw the brush into a bucket of water and let it soak until the hair floats free, and it starts losing hair when they take it out," says Glawson. Instead of soaking it, he suggests holding the brush under a stream of water, putting a dab of dish soap in, washing it out, and then drying and oiling it.
After the sizing is rinsed out, the brush is ready to be shaped.
Nisgor's procedure for trimming the tip is to wet the hair, lay it flat down on the palette and put the razor blade straight down through, with a small, quick clip off the tip. "I blunt the tip on a 45 degree angle, going from top left to bottom right, aiming back towards the handle."
Yuba City, Calif. based striping veteran Jim Bradley also trims up the point of the brush, cutting off about 1/16 of an inch. "I like the intersections of my lines to be really square," he explains.
In addition to trimming the tip, some stripers take a little hair out of the belly to achieve tighter lines and sharper curves. This is usually done by taking a few hairs off at the root of the brush.
Both of these techniques must de done very carefully. "If you take to much out of the belly section, the brush will lose its snap and the ability for the paint to flow out of the brush in a consistent manner," explains Millar. When this happens, painters get what are called dry stripes, which means the paint isn't flowing out smoothly because there's too much hair at the tip of the brush. "
The biggest mistake people make in trimming a brush is in trying to cut too much hair out of the brush to re-shape it," agrees Nisgor. "If you try to alter the belly of the brush, you alter the entire flow of the paint. I think you're better off trying to get a brush you don't have to modify much," he says.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
After a quick rinse, a careful trim and some serious striping, it's time for the most important, and least exciting step- cleaning the brush. How this is done depends on when the brush will be used again and the type of paint - lettering enamel, acrylic lacquer, or urethane enamel.
Most stripers paint with lettering enamel, since it wipes off easily and is less harsh on the brush. Expect a much shorter life span from a brush when using lacquers and urethanes. These paints dry faster and their solvents can eventually dissolve the glue holding the brush together.'
According to Millar, the trick is to use a nice blend of solvents that are strong enough to loosen up the paint, but mild enough not to damage the glue compound, and that varies from brush to brush.
As a rule, it's best to use the brand of reducer or thinner prescribed for the paint. For lacquer-based paint, use lacquer thinner, for urethane enamel, use urethane reducer and for lettering enamel, use the same brand of reducer or mineral spirits.
For day-to-day striping with lettering enamel, most artists don't entirely clean out the brush. " I just put it in a mixture of half brush conditioner and half mineral spirits, and lay the brush flat down in a pan," says Nisgor, crediting Blairstown, NJ based painter Alan Johnson with the method.
To completely clean a brush, Nisgor gives it a quick rinse and suspends the brush from a clothespin in a tall container of thinner, so the paint is drawn out of the brush to the bottom. He picked up this trick from Canonsburg, Penn.- based striper, Bill Beckner.
Once the paint is out of the brush, Nisgor puts it in a mixture of thinner and brush cleaner, and gives it a final rinse with thinner before oiling it.
Mr. J opts for a slightly different method, using dirty reducers to get the majority of the paint out of the brush, then cleaner reducer, some new mineral spirits, and lastly, Xcaliber brush preserver. " I get as much of the paint out as possible, not scrubbing it, just washing it out well. Then I drag it across a paper towel and then, of course, oil it well," he says.
Checking The Oil
Stripers have been known to use Neatsfoot (beef oil), linseed oil, olive oil and vegetable oils, but any type of food based product tends to either lose its viscosity or get gummy.
Automotive and lard oils also pose problems. " Painters have stored brushes in transmission oil and motor oil, and that was okay in 1930, but there have been so many strong detergents and other additives put in the oils that make them better for cars, but worse for brushes, " explains Millar.
The trouble with lard oil is that, besides coagulating on the brush in cold weather and making a watery mess in the summertime, it can also go rancid or attract vermin like mice and cockroaches.
According to Millar, stripers should find an oil that washes out easily, doesn't contain abrasive cleaners and is stable in hot or cold weather.
Nisgor recommends using a light-bodied oils like Xcaliber. He also has a trick for brushes that get bent out of shape. "Clean the brush out thoroughly, use hand soap and lather the hair well, shape it, lay it out flat for about a week, rinse the soap out and the brush will be re-trained."
Ask a striper what kind of oil they use to retain the shape and moisture of their brushes, and the answer is likely to include anything from Vaseline to Johnson & Johnson.
However, some oils are better than others, for a variety of reasons, Xcaliber, Sapphire, and other oils specifically formulated for brushes have the highest recommendation.
Uses For a Dead Brush
Even with the best of care, there comes a time to say goodbye to Old Reliable. Fortunately, there are some imaginative uses for spent brushes.
"If a striper was really clever, they could trim it up and see what they could do with it," suggests Bradley.
If that doesn't yield any useful results, there's always the fine art route. "I have a magnificent sculpture Pooch (Andy Cappuccio) epoxies, painted, mounted and made out of a single dagger striping brush," says Nisgor.
Some stripers find more practical uses for old brushes. "If it's to the point where I really can't work with it, but it's still pliable, I'll hand it over to one of my body shop guys and they can do touch ups with it, " say Mr. J. But for the most part, he just tosses them.
Whether they end up as tribute or trash, well-maintained sword brushes are essential to good pinstriping. Just remember what Nisgor points out: "If you don't take the time to take care of that brush, the brush can't take care of you when you go to use it."
Brush Preserving Oils & Cleaners
Andrew Mack & Son Brush Co. 225 East Chicago St. PO Box 157 Jonesville, Michigan U.S.A. 49250
Phone: 517- 849- 9272 Fax: 517- 849- 2251
©2007 Andrew Mack and Son Brush Company