Tools for Working Wood

The Art of Brushmaking

and

The Gramercy Tools Finishing Brush

Introduction

Like many woodworkers, we didn't have the space or money to commit to a fancy finishing system, with the requisite spray and safety equipment, large dust-free area, etc. But we weren't willing to give up our usual high standards about our tools and our end products. We realized that what we needed were some good finishing brushes. When we wanted to get our hands on the best possible brushes for finishing, we were a bit stymied. Most of the finishing brushes - i.e., brushes sold for use with varnish or shellac - are basically adaptations of paint brushes and none particularly impressed us. So we figured that we'd need to do some historical research in order to understand the design features of a great finishing brush.

The key bit about researching a topic, however, is there has to be something to research. In general, cabinetmakers and finishers in the early part of the 19th century and beforehand weren't particularly literary fellows, so the amount of literature on the subject of finishing is pretty minimal. And since brushes wear out, there are almost no brushes surviving from the 18th or early 19th century - certainly not brushes for finishing furniture. Another frustration for a would-be researcher is that when some early writer does decide to write something on the subject of brushes for furniture finishing, they insist on not telling us much. We can read their view that one should "only use the best camel hair brush for applying varnish," but why? What does such a brush look like? How big? What kind of ferrule? The sources are mostly silent. So we realized we need to do some practical research - buy and analyze every kind of brush on the market; interview finishers and brush makers; and give everything a test run - in order to understand why some brushes performed better than others. Here's what we found.

The Charatericstics of a good brush

The most important characteristic of a good brush is that it doesn't leave brushmarks. Lots of modern finishes are designed to be self leveling, which means that the finish will turn out okay even if you use a mediocre brush. However, fast-drying finishes like shellac dry before the finish levels, making the technique and the tools much more important. (One way to minimize brushmarks is to thin the finish, but you end up needing more coats. Some people avoid the whole issue by applying the shellac with a pad, which is the essence of French polishing, but it's pretty common to try to brush the first heavy coat of shellac on just to get some buildup. And applying shellac on carved or molded surfaces is hard to do without a good brush.)

Second, we knew we wanted a brush that had a large enough capacity for a store of finish, so that you can apply a large amount without puddling or having to re-dip the brush constantly. We also wanted a brush that would go around corners, edges and carvings evenly, without leaving blobs of finish. This is really important and makes the difference between a good brush and a great brush. We wanted a brush that was easy to clean and didn't degrade or lose hair with cleaning. In the context of making expensive furniture worth thousands, even a $40 brush could be considered basically disposable, but between coats you need to be able to store the brush in solvent without the brush degrading.

Third, we wanted a brush that didn't shed hair into the finish. Even a good brush will shed a few hairs on its first application, but we wanted a brush to be sufficiently well made so that its base would keep the hair in. Nobody likes picking little bristles out of a finished piece!

We knew a brush with these characteristics would satisfy our final requirement: that it should last for years.

The Hair

The best way to avoid brushmarks is use a brush with very fine hair. Most historical material says that the finest brushes use "Camel" hair, but our research indicated that there was no such thing as "Camel" per se - the term was applied to any fine hair. The best brushes we tested use European ox hair, though badger, skunk, and squirrel hair were also used - mainly for small, artists' brushes. Most brushes for finishing are made from "China bristle," which is actually Chinese boar bristle. The best China bristle is white, but it is usually too coarse for finishing. So brushmakers using China bristle beat the hair in a process called "flagging," which essentially splits the end of the hair into finer bits. This process gets you a finer but weaker bristle. Click here for a look at different types of hair used in finishing brushes.

Many modern brushes use nylon and other synthetic materials. While some people swear by their artificial brushes, most finishers find that natural hair's porosity, ability to grab and hold finish and other properties are hard to duplicate, and so agree that the best brushes still use natural hair.

After lots of testing we chose European ox hair for our brush. As our brushmaker commented to us many times, European ox hair is about the most expensive material you would ever put in a finishing brush, but its fine texture really makes a difference. Figuring out the right length of brush was also important. If the brush's hair is too long, you lose control because the brush bends and smooshes. If the hair is too short, the brush will be too stiff. With the European ox hair, we could have a fairly short bristle length and keep control but still have that all important softness.

Manufacturers often save money on their brushes by inserting a filler piece in the middle of the ferrule. The filler is a wedge of wood that takes up space normally filled by hair and divides the brush into halves. This creates a space just in front of the filler which is useful with a heavy material like paint - the space creates a well for the paint, letting you have a longer stroke - but it does make the stroke less predictable, and more importantly, the divided hair prevents the brush from breaking evenly over an edge. Since the disadvantages so clearly outweigh the advantages for a finishing brush, we made our brush with no filler pieces, and only very tightly packed hair.

The Ferrule

Traditionally a brush's hair was tied to the brush handle by wrapping with string. Some artists' brushes are still made that way, as are European shellac mops. The advantage, of course, is that there isn't any metal to rust. The disadvantage is that you are limited to round shapes. Modern metal ferrules can be excellent. Typically ferrules are made of some sort of plated steel, but copper is also used. The best material is stainless steel, which of course won't rust and contaminate your finish. Click here to see the different types of ferrules.

Assembling the Hair into the Ferrule

Taking the hair and packing it into the ferrule is a highly skilled job. Brushmaking by hand is nearly a lost art. In this short film (4½ minutes) , which might be the only film ever made of a brushmaker making finishing brushes (as opposed to much smaller artists brushes), you can see how bundles of European ox hair get inserted into a stainless steel ferrule - the first, and most critical process, of making a brush. This is where the character and style of the brush is determined. This is a difficult brush to make: the hair has to be packed densely in the ferrule and then brush has to be properly shaped at the tip. Our brushmaker, Norma, has been making brushes in New York City for over 30 years. You can see from the film the care and skill that goes into correctly forming each brush. She shapes the brush with a series of wooden forms, careful tapping and brushing. If you were to cut the hair to sculpt the shape of bristles, you'd lose the natural ending of tips - that which makes the natural brush work so well. There are very few trained brushmakers left in the United States, so we feel fortunate to have found such a craftswoman to make our brush.

Fixing the Hair in the Ferrule

Once the brushmaker has finished inserting and shaping the hair in the ferrule, the natural spring of the hair holds everything in place until the hairs can be solidly fixed in the ferrule. In the old days brushmakers used glue or rubber, but these days they use epoxy. A layer of thin epoxy is poured into the back of the ferrule to trap each hair permanently. Higher-end brushes such as ours use a special light-weight transparent epoxy.

Handles

When the epoxy dries, all that's left is to attach a handle and pack up the brush. There are dozens of designs of handles. One nice thing about a modern ferrule is that it can be of any shape, so brushmakers can choose a very nice handle. We chose a beaver tail handle. It just felt good in the hand. The handle is stamped with our logo and the ferrule is nailed on.

The final step: packing the brush for shipment. The important thing is to protect the hair from bending and other damage. Our brushmaker recommended that we pack the brushes in a traditional paper wrap so the hair could breathe. This prevents moisture damage and makes the hair last longer and perform better. So we followed her advice and use paper instead of the usual plastic.

Conclusion

We think these brushes are some of the best brushes made in the United States in the past generation or two. We hope you will agree. Researching this project was fascinating. Brushmaking isn't about forging steel, but is still a highly skilled toolmaking craft that woodworkers benefit from. And of course that's what it's all about.