Saturday, November 2, 2013

Brushes on a budget

While I was looking for some small, inexpensive stencil brushes for a moku hanga class I taught a few months ago, I found some cheap, Chinese, bristle brushes for about $3.50 each. These were disappointing. They were too stiff and shed hairs like crazy. The students had a really hard time getting any decent coverage and they left lots of very streaky marks on their prints. So I had almost abandoned them as a waste of money. (Worse since I had twelve students and so was left with 12 brushes...).
But a few weeks ago while I was prepping some new brushes I had gotten from Japan I decided to try singeing and shaping a few of these to see how they would perform if I modified them the way I do my good brushes. Surprise, surprise they worked pretty well; on small blocks, they covered well and now that they were singed and the hairs split/tapered they spread out the color evenly enough to use them for my last print--and well enough that my "Pinwheel" print was printed using just these brushes for the color blocks.
before and after
Pretty good color coverage using these cheap brushes AFTER prepping them.
While almost worthless as purchased--after a trim with some scissors and a brief stint singed on a hot plate and then worked on a sandpaper "sharkskin" it's a whole new brush.

Nowhere near as soft or well-made as my professional brushes and much harder to clean but at $4.00.....I can afford to spend more time washing them...and for beginners they're more than adequate.

So after this small success I looked around the house for bigger, better quality Italian brushes:
Italian, "pura setola" brushes
I found these two brushes that were designed for painting wooden trim--the one on the left has been trimmed, singed and then worked on a piece of sandpaper to soften the tips. They too worked pretty well for moku hanga. They were a bit too soft...but color blends were decent and they're pretty serviceable if you don't need perfectly smooth coverage.

So, emboldened, I headed out to the craft store nearby that caters to the faux finishes and interior house turns out that Italy is also a pretty significant brush making country and the OMEGA line of brushes included lots of different sizes and types of bristles.

Unfortunately, they're all marked "Pura Setola" which I can only loosely translate as animal hair.....some were clearly pig bristles, some made from horse tail and some are probably ear and back hairs....some are beige and soft, some are white and stiff and some are black and coarse.

I decided to shell out some real cash and I bought two fairly big brushes and one small detail brush. They set me back $5.00, $12.00 and $17.00for the larger brushes that if they were good Japanese brushes would have each cost over $75.00.....
The above photos show the brushes as purchased (with long, flexible black hairs), then after singeing the brush to a soft curve, and lastly with the brushes finished after trimming them with scissors, singeing them on a hot pie tin over a gas flame and then worked across a strip of sandpaper for 20 minutes.
These look and feel like horse tail...they're fairly coarse....definitely a little coarser than my professional Japanese brushes.
They look pretty good.
They feel pretty good.
Definitely a little coarser and stiffer than my other brushes and the handles will be harder to use than the "shoe brush" maru bake I like to use.

I'll let you know how they work out: I'm still working on 4"x6" prints and will have to break out a big block of wood to test these brushes to see how they do.

I will say that while in the brush shop I also picked this up:

 I used it during my last paper sizing trials....and I'll post about it soon.


  1. Nice, Andrew. I just picked up a couple of stencil brushes at a crafts store. I haven't tried them yet, but appreciate hearing your experiences.

  2. Very nice! I've found for smaller brushes that my old Nimbus toothbrush works a treat.

  3. Fun to experiment. Enjoyed reading your post :)

  4. That's a great post Andrew, Thanks a lot.