How To Soften A Hard Paint Brush? (10-Step Guide)

Last Updated On September 22, 2023

Are you wondering how to soften that old, crusty, hard paintbrush for your next paint project?

Not to worry, you're in the right place!

In this guide, you'll learn:

  • What you need to know about softening a hard paintbrush
  • Supplies you'll need to soften your paintbrush
  • The steps required to soften your paintbrush

And much more!

How To Soften A Hard Paint Brush? (10-Step Guide)

So, if you want to restore that paintbrush back to its former glory, keep reading to learn everything you need to know about maintaining clean paintbrushes in the future!

What Do You Need To Know About Softening A Hard Paint Brush?

Brush cleaning is an essential part of maintaining your paintbrushes long term.

Why? Because those brush bristles deserve some love! They do a lot of hard work and they interact with all those chemicals in the paint that you're using.

So whether they're natural hair bristles or synthetic, they still need to be maintained in order to keep performing year after year, project after project.

This all starts with having a good clean up technique that will help you clean brushes with care and (ideally) immediately so that paint doesn't have a chance to turn into hard paint that will ruin your brush in the long run.

However, if you do have a brush with a bunch of hard paint stuck on it, don't worry! 

You can still restore those bristles with good cleaning and a few simple hacks. 

But we'll get to that in a minute, first let's talk about brush care!

Being Gentle With Brushes

There's one important thing to call out here before we jump into the actual steps necessary to soften your brush bristles, and that is how you attack those brush bristles!

Quality paint brushes deserve quality care and attention. And that's not just because you should treat your nice things well...nicely...but it's also because being gentle with those bristles will actually contribute to the paintbrushes longevity.

This is for one simple reason: glue.

Glue? Yes, you read that right. Those bristles are glued into the part of the paintbrush called the ferrule, which is the metal bracket just below the bristles that holds the bristles in place.

If you go in and attack those hardened bristles with some vigorous scrubbing, you run the risk of pulling some of those bristles out of place.

While losing a few bristles during a brush cleaning isn't the end of the world, it can certainly add up over time.

And when you're working with quality brushes, you want to maintain their quality - and their bristles - for as long as possible.

Did you know: Nylon bristles are the most commonly used in paint brushes today. Luckily, unlike other types of bristles, they're resistant to rodents, insects, and fungi and that means you can store them safely for long periods.

Supplies You’ll Need For Softening Your Paint Brush

When you're going to clean any brush, it's important to remember that there are some key supplies you'll need to get that dried paint off. 

However, it's likely that you have quite a few of them on hand already, and you'll only need the other ones if that dried paint just won't come off with your basic cleaning supplies.

  • Hot water
  • Dish soap
  • Glass jar
  • Brush comb
  • White Vinegar
  • Fabric Softener
  • Paint thinner

Read More >> What Are The Best Paint Brush Cleaners Out There?

How To Soften A Hard Paint Brush (10-Step Guide)

  1. Saturate the brush bristles with warm soapy water
  2. Apply dish soap and lather it up
  3. Place the brushes in a glass jar and swirl into a lather
  4. Rinse with warm water
  5. Apply vinegar or fabric softener and repeat lathering steps
  6. Use a brush comb to eliminate excess paint
  7. Rinse
  8. Place brush in a glass jar with a small amount of paint thinner
  9. Rinse
  10. Apply more fabric softener and repeat

Step 1 - Saturate The Brush Bristles With Warm Soapy Water

First things first, let's get those brush bristles as saturated as possible with warm soapy water.

I know that might be tricky if this brush is stiff as a board, in which case I'd recommend using hot water to the point that your hands can tolerate it. Our goal is to melt some of that hard paint and penetrate the bristles just a little bit.

Even if you need to soak it in hot water for a little bit, make sure you're able to regain a tiny amount of pliability first.

(Pro Tip: This only works in some instances, but I've had success dousing my paintbrushes in coconut oil before. Sometimes it takes fat to dissolve the dried paint and that can really help you gain some traction on this step. But if you don't have it, don't worry, the other steps will still take care of it!)

Step 2 - Apply Dish Soap And Lather It Up

Once you've gained some pliability on these darn bristles, do your best to lather them up with a TON of dish soap.

I mean a ton.

Because most of it is going to roll right off. This isn't your typical dishwashing procedure, you want to make sure the dish soap is getting as deep into the bristles as it can so that we can lather it as much as possible.

You really need to do your best to gently work that soap into all of the bristles and hopefully, they'll start to loosen up a little. But if not, don't fret, the next step should help you get some progress going.

Step 3 - Place The Brushes In A Glass Jar And Swirl It Into A Lather

Now for the fun part, find a glass jar or some other appropriate container (that you're not worried about staining) and fill that container with a small amount of warm soapy water and some additional dish soap. You'll want to fill this up just enough to submerge the bristles.

Then you want to swirl like there's no tomorrow!

The edges of the container are helping you out here. They're going to slowly shake off some of that excess paint and you'll know it's working when the water starts to change color (this is my favorite part, so satisfying).

Read More >> How Do You Clean A Paint Brush (In General...Before It's Hardened)?

Step 4 - Rinse With Warm Water

Once you've had fun with some vigorous swirling, it's time to rinse the bristles off and see how much progress you've made.

 Are those bristles starting to move a little again?

If so, great! Make sure to rinse off as much soap as possible and get those bristles warmed up again. The enemy of this process is cold water because cold makes things harden and hot makes things loosen, so rinsing in warm to hot water will continue to keep them pliable.

And if you're not seeing progress yet, don't worry, we still have a few more great tips up our sleeves!

Step 5 - Apply Vinegar Or Fabric Softener And Repeat Lathering Steps

Now if you're still with us, chances are you want to see a bit more progress than you did with the dish soap. Enter: fabric softener.

If you don't have fabric softener here, you can use vinegar and vice versa. Both of them will take it a step further. But since our goal is to soften the bristles, it stands to reason fabric softener will help loosen up those hair fibers. Plus it smells lovely!

Alright, so go back to your glass jar or container again and toss that old dingy water down the drain. Fill it up again with as hot of water as possible and then add about a teaspoon of fabric softener or vinegar.

(Some people use boiling vinegar as well here, which will do the same thing, so feel free to try that if you want to.)

Again, we're going to swirl vigorously to really work that fabric softener or vinegar in there.

At this point, you should start to feel them loosening up again and see more of that paint coming off in the water. Keep swirling until the water is muddy brown.

Step 6 - Use A Brush Comb To Eliminate Excess Paint

If you're fortunate enough to have a brush comb on hand (you can find a cheap one on Amazon like this) this can be your saving grace here. It might be able to eliminate a few rounds of scrubbing and rinsing by allowing you to work that softener, soap, or vinegar through the bristles thoroughly.

It's like getting conditioner through horribly tangled hair. Once you get all those hairs saturated with the conditioner, things start to loosen up and get even easier!

So take that comb and start combing the fabric softener through those bristles diligently. It might also help to add a few drops of fabric softener to the comb itself to really make sure it's getting deep into the paintbrush.

Read More >> What Is A Synthetic Paint Brush (And Why Does It Matter?)

Step 7 - Rinse

Go ahead and rinse out the remaining fabric softener and paint and see how far you've gotten. If you're happy with the progress you're seeing, keep repeating the fabric softener or vinegar steps and going through the bristles with the comb until the brush is clean.

But if you're still feeling stuck with a gross, hard paintbrush, move on to the next step.

Step 8 - Place Brush In A Glass Jar With A Small Amount Of Paint Thinner

Now that you've gone through the fabric softener step, if you're still not happy with the results and you don't want to keep going through the rinse/repeat steps, it's time to bring in the big guns: paint thinner!

Note: Paint thinner is really caustic stuff and it's important to be very careful with it. Make sure you're wearing a mask, gloves, and goggles to ensure that it's not getting into your eyes or airways.

Now that we've gotten the safety steps out of the way, go ahead and put some of that paint thinner (or mineral spirits) into your glass jar or container. Again, only put enough to submerge the brush bristles.

Then, let it sit there for a little while. Ideally around 10 minutes, but if you have more time you could leave it for up to an hour.

You can do some minor swirling action once it's been submerged for a bit, but be sure to keep splashing to a minimum.

Step 9 - Rinse

So now that you've soaked it in paint thinner, you should see some serious progress in the pliability of the bristles. Go ahead and rinse the bristles with hot water again and see how much softer they are!

Step 10 - Apply Fabric Softener And Repeat

If at this point your brush is still hard, you can go ahead and add a bit more fabric softener to the bristles again and consider soaking them in a diluted fabric softener for about 30 minutes to an hour.

This should be the final nail in the coffin of those pesky hardened bristles!

And if not, you can go ahead and repeat some of the steps above until you get those bristles back to their former glory.

Final Thoughts On Softening A Hard Paint Brush

So now that you know the process of getting rid of that hardened paint you can feel much more confident in restoring your brushes going forward.

Hopefully, implementing these painting tips and making sure you're cleaning your brushes as soon as possible after you finish a painting project will keep your paintbrushes in great condition for years to come.

If anything, it'll prevent you from having to buy a new brush every time you find one has hardened to this degree.

Say goodbye to those sad, hard paintbrushes and hello to some new, shiny, happy brushes!

Meet Your Pro Paint Corner Author

Madison Rude

Madison Rude

I’m kind of a painting nerd. My mom taught me how to paint when I was nine, and since then I’ve painted rooms, name it. I’ve written technical advice for Wagner sprayers, and I’ve spent a lot of time DIYing my own home. I’m no expert, but I love to learn. And here at ProPaintCorner, I learn more about painting every time I work with one of our painting pros to bring you the best product reviews and How To advice available. Together, let’s make your next painting project the best it can be!

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Madison Rude

Madison Rude

I’m kind of a painting nerd. My mom taught me how to paint when I was nine, and since then I’ve painted rooms, name it. I’ve written technical advice for Wagner sprayers, and I’ve spent a lot of time DIYing my own home. I’m no expert, but I love to learn. And here at ProPaintCorner, I learn more about painting every time I work with one of our painting pros to bring you the best product reviews and How To advice available. Together, let’s make your next painting project the best it can be!

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