Thursday, July 1, 2010

Paint Brushes 102 – Synthetic or Natural?

Paint brush bristles can be made from many different types of fibers. The type of bristle determines the brush’s quality, longevity and behavior. Brushes are made with either synthetic bristles or natural animal hair bristles. Each type has its benefits and draw-backs.


The most common synthetic materials are Nylons and Taklons, which both come in white and gold colored bristles. Nylons mimic the soft natural sable-hair bristles and tend to be more delicate than the Taklons, which while Taklons also mimic sable, they tend to be more robust and hold their shape when loaded with paint. For the life of me, I have not noticed a difference between the gold and white Nylons/Taklons, and about 30 minutes of intensive internet research tells me there is no difference aside from aesthetics.


While almost all animal hair will work in a pinch for a brush, (examples being goat, camel, boar, badger, horse, deer, rabbit and tiger for starters) the most common that we’re concerned about are Sable bristles harvested from small mammals called martens.

Cute, yes?

So why is it called a “Sable” brush and not a “Marten” brush? According to the Internetz trappers nicknamed the Marten the “Sable” for whatever reason and the name stuck. Sable brushes are what I tend to run into at art stores.

Another very popular type of natural brush is the Kolinsky, which oddly enough is not named after a person, but the Russian Kolinsky mink from which the bristles are harvested. Kolinsky brushes have been dubbed to have the highest quality and most desirable spring and absorbency (the amount of paint the brush can hold).

The Variables

So now that we’ve discussed the two generic types of brushes, (natural and synthetic) let’s talk about the attributes of a brush and how each type performs.

Absorbency: Like a fountain pen, the brush holds a reservoir of paint that allows it to be used for more than a stroke or two. Absorbency is how much paint a brush holds. Technically, natural brushes have a better absorbency because the individual hairs are “scaled” as shown in this microscope picture.

These scales give more surface area to the hair, allowing more paint to be held. Synthetic bristles are smooth and therefore cannot hold as much paint. I have been told that the scales also hold onto the paint better, giving you more control because the paint flows off the brush at a steadier pace. Since synthetics do not have these scales, paint can collect at the tip or rush off the brush when stroked. Realistically, with the amount of paint scale-modelers use, the difference in absorbency between natural and synthetic is nearly indiscernible.

Spring: I’ll also call this the “action” of the brush. When the brush is stroked, the bristles bend based on the amount of pressure applied. The more pressure applied, the more of the length of the bristle is touching the surface, the more paint is applied. The more pressure applied also means that the bristles can fan out, giving you a larger area of coverage. While Kolinskies are considered to have the most desirable spring, I find that Taklon is a close second. I consider Spring to be intrinsically connected to my next attribute, Reliability.

Reliability: What do I mean by reliability? I mean that every time you stroke with the same amount of pressure, the brush behaves in the same way, the bristles spread out to cover the same area, the same amount of paint flows onto the model. If your brush seems to behave differently on the same stroke, consider getting a new type!

Longevity: Literally: how long the brush will remain consistent and usable. If your brush loses its point and frays out after a few strokes (I call this “getting tired” and it’s indicative of a brush nearing the end of its life, though sometimes it just means you need to clean it,), if it starts to curl at the tip, or get stray bristles poking out at odd angles it’s probably time to toss it in the trash. A long lifespan does not make or break a brush, because high-quality long-lasting brushes are usually expensive.

Ability to Hold a Fine Point: Your brushes absolutely MUST be able to hold a fine point. As mentioned in 101, rookies often make the mistake of buying teeny-tiny brushes like Spotters for fine detail work. Unfortunately Spotters have almost no Absorbency, which can make for a frustrating experience trying to do free-hand or eyes. A good No. 0 Round or 5/0 Liner that can hold a point will serve you better, simply because it will have a better paint capacity.

Cost: Cost must be balanced against all the above attributes, and it really depends on how much you paint. For example, a weekend-warrior who logs only four or five hours a week at his paint station can probably buy a $15 Reaper Kolinsky No. 0 Round and have it last for several months or even a couple years, provided he doesn’t abuse it with excessive base-coating/washing/dry-brushing. I log between 40 and 60 hours a week painting, I use my No. 0 Round for hours at a time every day. I’ve found that the $15 Reaper Kolinsky No. 0 Round lasts me about six to eight weeks, while a $5 Reaper Taklon No. 0 Round lasts four to five weeks. Financially, it makes more sense for me to by two Taklons instead of one Kolinsky; I simply wear out brushes too quickly, even if they’re the “high-quality” ones! But more importantly, I can get the same results with a fresh Taklon as I can with a fresh Kolinsky. I used to buy a new Kolinsky every month until I tried the Taklon on a lark and discovered what I know now.

I use the same approach with my other types of brushes. My favorites are these:

I get them at Wal-Mart for less than $5 a bag. They come with 10 brushes, and I regularly use all of them with the exception of the Glaze ¾” which I still use on tanks. Sure, they don’t last more than a month, but if I paid $5-$10 per brush for a high-quality natural-hair, or even $3-$6 for a high-quality Taklon they’d still get destroyed almost as quickly. Not that I always go for the cheap and easy, though! And it’s not like I’m saying there’s no difference between the cheap and expensive, but for my purposes, with how much abuse my brushes take, there’s really not a difference for me. I often go to Michael’s or United Art and Education and see what’s on sale, spend about $20 and get four or five high-quality brushes. Sometimes I’ll even spring for a $15 Kolinsky just to treat myself!

Hope you enjoyed reading Paint Brush 102! Join me next time for Paint Brushes 103: Proper Maintenance and Cleaning.



  1. +1 sable.

    I use WinsorNewton series 7 rounds almost exclusively now.

    Nice article!

  2. Thank you for starting this site. As someone who just got into 40k this year these are great tips.