The paint brush is a very old device. Probably invented so long ago that the origins are lost in the mists of time. No doubt the very first ape-like hominid to apply red ochre to a cave wall was confronted by the decision to either dab the brush to the wall, and create an image, or smooth the slimy mud mixture along the rocky surface, creating the first brush-mark in humanoid history, and make the paint go farther.

Most of us learned to paint with a brush while helping a parent or older sibling to do some remodeling. Applying paint to the kitchen wall or the garden shed was a simple matter of learning to control the liquid paint so that it didn’t splash on anybody or anything, and then, somehow, avoid “wasting” the paint by applying it too liberally. It seems that most of us learned early that once we were able to control the brush enough to apply paint, the parent or significant other would stress that applying “too much” paint would result in “runs” and as anybody who has visited a foreign land can tell you, “runs” are bad.

This kind of apprenticeship leads to a bad habit of “scrubbing” the paint into the surface to be painted. It leads to a tendency to want to “brush” the paint on instead of “flowing” it on. But what does a spray-can do but put a nice wet coat of paint on a surface? If the paint goes on dry we get a gritty, powdery disaster. Too wet and it runs and drips. The goal of any type of painting is to apply an even, wet layer of paint. Nowhere in this specification is there a call for scrubbing the surface with the brush as the paint is applied.

I suppose that there may be people who apply paint to scale models with brushes, and “scrub” the paint into the surface, and get excellent results. But I’m not one of those people. I do my best to “flow” it on, even if my “dabs” take the form or “strokes” or “pats” and the brush does end up being pulled over the surface–such “pulling” is not my goal. I may “pull” the brush across a drip or run to even it out, but I try to avoid doing that if the paint has begun to set up, and it will set up quickly because I am using a modern, acrylic paint that dries very fast. So the “trick” is to put the paint on “heavily” but NOT too “heavily”– avoiding the possibility of a run or drip by paying careful attention at all times. It’s not easy, but it is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

I dip the brush in the paint and apply it to the model. I don’t draw the brush along the edge of the jar/tin/bottle if I can help it. Using a “large” brush (such as a 1/4 inch brush) would result in a flood of paint, drowning a little model. So I use small brushes. The sizes of brushes are indicated by a number (the larger brushes in the U.S.A. tend to be measured in inches). I use a number 2 for just about everything. I use a number 1 for most other things, and for fine details I use the smallest brush I can get– something like a “10-0.” Small, in other words, is beautiful.

I only use a “larger” brush when applying Future floor finish to the model as a clear coat. Future goes by a dozen different names just in the U.S. and it’s impossible to get in some places. But it does the job for me, acting as the perfect clear coat, flat coat, decal fix and adhesive. When applying it to a scale model I use a large brush and “scrub” it on as if I were eight-years-old and learning to paint the shed. But that is the only material I scrub on with a “large flat brush.” Everything else is applied using a small brush, for control.

I use brushes made of animal hair, or “fur” if you prefer. If you’re a super-vegan animal rights activist I don’t have an alternative for you. Brushes made of synthetic material are way, way too stiff for me to use and get good results. I have never felt the need to explore all of the brushing options out there. Animal hair works just fine. I use so-called “camel hair” and “sable hair” interchangeably. I don’t see any large difference. Camel hair is actually squirrel hair. “Sable” is supposedly made from the fur of the sable, but I wouldn’t bet a large amount of money on that.

Two brushes, both made of “sable,” and both with the same number– let’s say a “2”– can be entirely different in the way they behave during actual painting. Even two brushes made by the same manufacturer can be entirely different. Like so many other things in life, you have to feel your way into an understanding of brushes. An expensive brush can be a mess. The cheapest (or free!) brush can be a delight. I own about eight times the number of brushes that I need, because I’m constantly buying cheap brushes or brushes that “look good” and trying them out. I gave up on the idea that a “good brush” can be purchased by going to the art supply store and spending a lot of money on a “name brand.” Name brands mean nothing when it comes to the quality of the finish. Some makers do make good brushes, and some brushes are notoriously bad, but in order to find out what works for you, you will have to acquire some brushes and test them. Too many model builders try one expensive brush, have a bad experience, then decide that they’ll be buying an airbrush sooner rather than later. Especially if they have read somewhere that in order to get a “good finish” they have to use a “large flat brush for large areas.” That’s nonsense. If you needed a large flat brush to apply the coating, then the technique required would be far above the level of a beginner. My methods work for beginners as well as old-timers. A large brush, smoothing-out the surface of the paint as you go, requires some very specialized skills, not usually found in a person who is just learning about this hobby.

Two high-quality brushes, both marked size number 1.

So go cheap. One of the best purchases I ever made was a large bag of cheap-o brushes purchased at a place like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. On the other hand, I once ended up with a bag of poorly made brushes from the same source. I consider a “bad” brush to be one that sheds hairs into the paint– that’s a brush that’s going into the trash. But most of the inexpensive brushes I’ve tried work just fine. The only exceptions to this are the very small brushes for detail work. I can’t emphasize enough the secret to getting a good brushed-on finish is to use a good paint like MM Acryl or Revell Aqua Color and a small brush. A brush larger than a “2” is just too large, in general. Of course, some “4’s” are the size of some “2’s”– so there you go. For detail work, and I mean any kind of detail, smaller is better. A 5-0 is good. A 10-0 is better. These brushes, made from “sable” or whatever unfortunate animal was nearby, are expensive but worth every penny.

A 10-0 (“ten oh”) brush. Yeah, it’s small . Small is good.

There is no big money savings with brush painting, unless you count medical expenses. Your brush collection will grow, and become just as expensive as an airbrush setup, even if you buy some brushes from the discount store in a large bag, you will also end up with a collection of very, very small brushes– which are expensive. And they wear out. You’ll need to replace them.

I’ve read many times that a model builder needs a “detail” brush (4-0, maybe?) and a “large, flat brush for large flat surfaces” and that both brushes should be expensive, because “you get what you pay for.” The universe described by these words is not my universe. I need a number 2 brush, a number 1 brush for painting straight lines, a large flat brush (1/4 inch) for applying Future floor finish, and a 10-0 (or 5-0 if I can’t get the smaller one) for details. They don’t have to be expensive, they just have to work.

The basic “brush set.” 1, 10-0, 2, 1/4″ (or inch royale if you use the metric system).

I hope this brief introduction to the world of paint brushes has been helpful. If you have any specific questions, send me a message or leave a comment.

Here’s an image of an Airfix Hawk 81 being painted in a scheme that answers the question, “what if” the French hadn’t withdrawn from the war in 1940 and had employed the Curtiss fighters they had already paid for?

The smooth finish is the result of good paint and a small brush!


  1. Greg

    Nice, lets see those videos as you obviously have a completely different way of doing things to me, and I want to know how you do it.

    While I am here, do you use a brush cleaner to clean out the old paint? This has allowed me to keep some of my old brushes (even a few Humbrol-Heller senator brushes from the 80s) rocking along nicely.

  2. Brushpainter

    I use running water to clean my brushes, with a little liquid hand soap because that’s by the sink. It works and it’s low-odor. Does the brush cleaner you use have a smell?

  3. Greg

    A little. Nothing overly drastic. It comes in a cake and you add a little water and slather the brush over it, then rub the soap into the bristles before rinsing it all out under lukewarm water. It has always done a great job with my brushes.

    Aha, here you go. A handy video is even on the webpage.

    I have tried other, smellier cleaners but they haven’t done anything that this one cannot do, except give me a headache.

    And you can don a beret and pretend you are a real artist…maybe…

  4. Greg

    Oh, and I have also successfully gotten old dried out acrylic off brushes by soaking the brush in methylated spirit overnight, before rinsing and soaping it the next day.

  5. Carl

    What brush sizes would you recommend for 1/48 aircraft?

  6. Brushpainter

    The only problem that arises in using a smaller brush on a large object is that the paint may begin to dry even before you can complete a single coat. Tamiya acrylics do this if they are “untreated” (a drop of Liquitex Slo-Dry should be added). In general, brushing over a semi-dried patch can tear the paint or just dissolve it, leading to the situation that makes Tamiya’s acrylics so challenging to brush, but the same thing can happen with any paint if you try to put on a second coat when the first one is “set” but not dry. I don’t think that using a larger brush is the best way to avoid the problem, but it might help. On a really large model, I would try using a No. 4 or 6 instead of a 1 or 2. But the best way to avoid this problem is to work fast. Of course, speed only comes with practice. The key thing is be able to put all contiguous paint onto the surface quickly enough to avoid brushing over “half cured” paint. On a really huge model, I might use a larger brush than on a 1/72 scale model–but the goal is still to keep the brush small. Small brushes give me the control I need.

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