How Artists' Brushes are made


By Evan Woodruffe

I like mixing business and pleasure – it shows us the working side of a culture as well as the tourist attractions. The town of Nuremberg in Germany is a postcard medieval town sitting on the cross roads of east-west and north-south European trading routes, making it a centre for traditional skills like brush-making and gold-beating for centuries. So as well as seeing the amazing Renaissance art in the old city, I wanted to visit my friends at da Vinci Defet, brush-makers par excellence.

Hairs are agitated in a brass cup to sort the length (left), then short hairs are then pulled from the bundle by hand (middle), and the hair is portioned out (right), depending on the size of the brush. 


I was amazed that over 10,000 fine artists’ brushes are made by hand here every day. This is not some sweat shop, however. The silence of concentration from a couple of dozen brush-makers is interrupted occasionally by the gentle hum of agitators and the tapping of brass cases on the marble work benches, a beat somewhere between Dixieland and marching music! I was not so surprised to learn that to become a Master Brush-maker (yes, there is a school in Nuremberg for this) takes longer than studying for a MFA. 

How do they sort hair that is upside-down and round-about? Lay them out, rub them with a stick of wood – this simple method separates them into rightside-up and upside-down piles, because sable hair has a “belly” in the middle. And I always thought they sorted it hair by hair… 


Although synthetic technology since the 1960s has supplied reliable & inexpensive brushes for many painting techniques, natural hair brushes still out-perform them in some applications and remain important tools for the serious artist. These hairs have been used in Western painting at least since the Renaissance, and come from Siberia and northern China, where the extreme winters produce sturdy hair in the sables (a type of ferret) and black squirrels.
Natural hair brushes must be made by hand. The hair is too fine, and the static charge that builds up in it is unsuitable for machines. Many hog-bristle and synthetic brushes are also made by hand, depending on the type and shape. Many shapes must be hand-made – extra fine pointed brushes, dagger stripers and filberts, for instance; one reason why these shapes are more expensive than flat brushes – they take longer to make.

A sack of sable tails in the vault. There are different qualities of sable – in the middle image, red sable on the left is quite different (and much cheaper) than Kolinsky sable from the male winter coat on the right. The difference is the length of hair, all important to the serious watercolour or oil painter. 


There are different qualities of natural hair. The most expensive and valuable soft brush hair comes from the male winter tail of the sable mustela sibirica and is called Tobolsky or Kolinsky after the Siberian river valleys. Hair of other species of sable, such as Asiatic weasel, or the female animals, is not as fine & springy so sells for about half the price. Unfortunately, the purity regulations are abused more and more, and some call this second-grade hair “Kolinsky”, but the difference is soon realised by the artist! 

Black sable has been an important to oilpainters since the 19th Century, prized for its ability to blend and layer wet oilcolour. These tails have to be prepared by specialist tanners before becoming sorted bundles of hair, ready to be made into brushes. Each tail may only yield a gram and a half of suitable hair! 


While natural hair and high-quality bristle brushes are hand-made, many more brushes are made using semi-automated production. Some early machines were developed for easy jobs like fitting handles, but very high-tech machines, specially designed and made by da Vinci, produce over 3 million mainly synthetic fibre brushes a year. I was not allowed to photograph these unique machines, but can tell you it was fascinating watching the renowned German manufacturing brilliance in action!
Da Vinci invest a lot of time and money into developing new fibres, not only to replace expensive natural resources, but also to suit new styles of painting. Their unique blended fibre technology produces synthetic brushes that hold far more fluid than standard synthetics, making them particularly suited to fluid acrylic techniques, ink and varnish applications, and as economical watercolour brushes.

Specially designed jigs (left) make these mottlers quicker to put together, but they’re still all made by hand! Maesto-2 filberts are shaped using special hot irons (middle). Many crazy brushes can be made when you have the experience! This one on the right is a cosmetic brush, but uses a similar technique to the da Vinci Vario-Tip brushes. 


Now there are new fibres on the near horizon, as da Vinci develops special synthetic fibres that mimic as close as possible the natural hairs. They wanted my opinion on a couple of these prototype brushes they were testing; one of which performed so closely to squirrel, even the way it floated open in water, that it completely fooled me. I needn’t feel bad – it also fooled a brush-maker of 20 years experience! Another was so fresh, they hurriedly fixed a handle to it so I could take home with me to try in my studio. I can’t reveal too much about this one, except to say it works really, really well. 

A push-me pull-you brush (left) made from human hair – these Germans are crazy! The middle brush was made in a café while the owner of da Vinci was talking to an artist, who cut some of his hair and attached it to a pencil with the foil off his cigarette packet! But no matter what brush, they usually end up like these on the right – used for colourful creations and ending up much loved. 


Handy Brush Tip – dealing with frizzy brushes 
We often get asked about frizzy brushes. Often this is due to scumbling (or dry-brushing) with synthetic brushes, which just won’t cope. Hog hair brushes are better suited to this. However, after washing, hog hair brushes tend to “fluff open”. Here's an old tip for dealing with both kinds of frizzy brushes:
To deal with hog hair brushes, give them a thorough cleaning using da Vinci brush cleaning soap (which will condition as well as clean), paying special attention to where the hair meets the ferrule, shape the brush and tie a thin strip of cotton round the brush head. Thin ribbon is ideal. This will ensure it dries in shape.

For synthetic brushes, after cleaning, one can steam the hair over a boiling kettle or dip the brush head into just boiled water for several minutes before tying it in shape in the method above. Watch your fingers, children! Make sure it’s just the synthetic hair that is in contact with the water, not the metal ferrule, as otherwise you can ruin the brush.
Remember: the only way to save money on good brushes is to look after them. Don’t leave them in water, and always promptly clean using da Vinci brush-cleaning soap – it’s magic!

You can be firm with your brush on the soap as long as you massage the lather from the ferrule to the tip. Use your fingernails to clean paint from around the ferrule. After thoroughly rinsing the soap from the brush head, make sure they dry in shape by giving them Rambo headbands! 

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