How To Clean Oil Based Paint Brushes Safely

How to clean oil paint brushes

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Chances are your paint brushes are a large investment and you want to protect that investment after each use. Whether you are painting a house or are an artist, oil based paints and brushes share some quite common ingredients and materials and the cleaning techniques will work for either. In this article, we will be looking at how to clean oil based paint brushes after use.

In summary, the best way to clean oil based paint brushes is to use non-water based solvents such as Citrus thinner to detach the oil paint and medium from the brush bristles and then we want to follow that up a deep clean using soap, rubbed into the bristles. This is followed by a good rinse with running water as we remove both the soap and any excess solvents.

How to clean oil paint brushes
“How to clean oil based paint brushes”

Want to know which solvents work best? Because when I was researching what worked best I realized I was using the worst method, which was ruining my oil based paint brushes.

The alternative methods are also some of the cheapest available.

These techniques are not recommended for cleaning acrylic based paint off brushes, for those just use soapy water and rinse well and let air dry.

How to Clean Oil Based Paint Brushes – All Major Methods Listed

Now, you have finished painting and face the prospect of cleaning your brushes.

Cleaning the bushes before the paint dries is going to make the task far more enjoyable, and will reduce wear on the brushes.

These methods are not in any order, so the first is not the best.

Read to the end to see what works best.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes requires some form of solvent and many people swear by paint thinner

Paint Thinner

What is paint thinner?

Paint thinner is a solvent. It is used to thin oil-based paints.

Products that are sold as “paint thinners” in stores are generally mineral spirits (known as white spirit in the UK).

This liquid is a derivative of petroleum, which is clear, and these days pretty well odorless due to refining.

The white spirit (or mineral spirit) is insoluble in water and is used as an extraction solvent.

White spirit is the most commonly used solvent in the paint industry.

Mineral spirit is not the same as distilled spirit (distilled directly from fermented grains) or from a third substance called turpentine, which is a resin extracted from a tree.

When used for brush cleaning, the heavier components of the White spirit may leave an oily residue on the brushes.

Artists will typically use white spirit (mineral spirit) for cleaning brushes rather than turpentine, as it is less toxic, and not so flammable.

What you need

You will need a container (jar), paint thinner, regular hand soap (If you can get it, you should substitute “pink soap” for the regular soap as it has bristle conditioner in it).

Some old newspaper is needed as well as a regular comb).

The cleaning process

Pour some paint thinner (white spirit) into a container; a jar is perfect as it can be sealed afterward. Start by removing as much paint as you can by cleaning the brush with the old newspaper.

Once you have eliminated the bulk of the loose paint, use the comb to scrape the brush to remove paint from between the bristles.

Remove all the paint that has built up where the ferrule meets the bristles.

Next, you should immerse the brush and ferrule in a container of paint thinner.

Scrub the bottom of the container with the brush to loosen the remaining paint.

Remove the brush from the container and have another session of cleaning with the old newspaper.

Switch from the container to the newspaper multiple times until you are satisfied that the paintbrush has mostly returned to its normal color.

Next, place some soap in your hand and scrub the paintbrush into the soap contained in your hand.

The soap will gradually take on the color of the paint. At that stage, wash the brush and your hand with water and then place more soap in the palm and do it again.

Keep repeating this until the soap no longer changes color.

Some people prefer to use disposable plastic gloves as they have concerns with toxic material is some paint.

Finally, rinse out all the soap from the brush and use the old newspaper to dry it.

Taking shortcuts with this process will result in a deterioration of the brushes, which will impact both your work and wallet.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes without paint thinner.

Some people are concerned with breathing in toxins from using Mineral Spirits to clean their brushes.

If you are painting every day, I can understand why you would not want to overexpose yourself if there is an alternative.

Two common methods used to clean brushes are using baby oil and using vegetable oil.

I will now take you through both ways.

Later in the article, I will provide a list of various cleaners that can be used on the brush you have just finished with, together with some advice on how to recover long-forgotten brushes that hardened dry are like a rock.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes with baby oil.

Baby oil is, as the name suggests, used on babies to keep their skin soft.

Adults also use it frequently for the same reason.

Since they are used on babies, they must be a mild non-abrasive and non-toxic products.

There are two types of baby oils, the first is based on mineral oils, and the second is based on vegetable oils.

Mineral Based Baby Oil

The mineral oils used in baby oil are highly purified mineral oils, liquid paraffin, and Vaseline.

Both liquid paraffin and Vaseline are highly tested to ensure they are not hydrophobic, allergenic, and contain no pesticides or herbicides.

When you think about cleaning oil paint off a brush, it might seem odd to try and do this by adding baby oil (another oil).

However, it works very well.

Think about this. The reason that you cannot just wash your brushes in water is that the oil paint repels the water.

But the oil paint will not repel oil.


This is how you do it. You start by coating the brush in baby oil.

You then use your fingers to remove the oil and paint mixture from the brush gently, use an old cloth or newspaper to wipe the brush.

Be careful not to break the bristles. You will probably need to do this two or three times.

However, baby oil is not expensive, so it is a useful method.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes with vegetable oil

Linseed Oil

The most common vegetable oil used for cleaning brushes is linseed oil.

It is available quite cheaply and can be bought in most supermarkets these days.

Like baby oil, getting linseed oil on your skin is not harmful, and it works the same way as does the baby oil, it just uses a different form of applying the oil.


Pour some linseed oil on rough textured paper. Be quite liberal with the amount used.

Then place one side of the brush on the oily paper.

After that first side is soaked with oil, turn the brush over and do the same with the other side.

Make sure that all the bristles are wet.

Next, you simply paint using the brush on scrap paper, old newspaper; just keep painting until you cannot see any color anymore, and it is just clear oil.

You may need to go through the whole process a couple of times.

Wash with soap and water

With both the baby oil and the vegetable oil methods, you should wash the brush at the end using soap and water, as you did in the mineral spirit method.

Here’s a short video showing you how

Cleaning oil based paint brushes with Citrus Thinner

Some people have a preference for a product called Citrus Thinner.

Citrus Thinner is a product made by extracting Citrus oil from the waste from the juicing industry.

The peel would otherwise be thrown away, and instead, they take the peel and extract citrus oil.

This oil is then blended with “isoparaffin” to make a fantastic grease-cutting product-a non-toxic way of cleaning brushes.

It is a pleasant smelling natural thinner that is free from synthetic solvents.


To use Citrus Thinner, simply follow the same instruction that I provided for Cleaning oil paint brushes with baby oil.

I have to admit that I just love the smell of citrus that permeates the air when using it.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes with turpentine

This is not a good idea as it isn’t the safest method but I will list the method anyway as it still is a popular method and turpentine is readily available on most garage shelves.

Turpentine is manufactured from the resin that is harvested from living trees.

This resin is then distilled and used as a solvent.

At one time, turpentine was frequently used for cleaning brushes, but its harmful effects, which include irritation to the eyes and lungs.

Damage to the renal system if swallowed, and the fact that it can be harmful by touching the skin, breathing fumes, ingesting it, meant that it was not the best product to have around the house.

White spirit replaced the product.

Please note, as an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Cleaning oil based paint brushes between colors

Of course, it is not only at the end of the painting session that you will have to clean a brush.

You will need to clean the brush between the application of each color.

Of course, this time, you do not need to be as thorough as you do at the end of the session so that you can use a more straightforward process.

The best way is to have an open jar of paint thinner and a rag placed where you are working.

When you need to change color, simply swirl the brush around in the thinner and then using the rag to remove any remaining paint.

Of course, at the end of the session, you will do a much more thorough job.

Miscellaneous brush cleaning tips

In addition to the suggestions shown above, there are several other oil based paint brush cleaning tips.

The first one is white vinegar.

White vinegar is a versatile natural cleaning material, and if you have dirt paint-filled brushes, you can heat some white vinegar and dunk the brushed in the mixture.

Once done simply wipe the brushes with old newspaper, or cloth.

Do you have some old frayed, solidified paintbrushes laying around.

You can revive them by using hair gel and fabric softener.

Simply coat the brushes with the hair gel and then wash and soak them in fabric softener.

They will come back to life.

As we discovered at the beginning of this article, paintbrushes come in various shapes.

Once you have cleaned them, please make a point of reshaping them once you have done it.

Now that you know how to clean your brushes, keep in mind why oil paint needs more than just water.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients of oil paints to learn why we need harsher materials to clean paint brushes.

Ingredients of oil paint

If we are to understand how to clean paintbrushes fully, we need to understand the ingredients in oil paint and the terminology.

Oil paint has up to six parts:

Part 1 – a base

This is the solid matter that makes up the body.

Part 2a Vehicle (always an oil, typically linseed oil)

A liquid that is oily in which both the base and pigment are soluble

Part 3 – one or more coloring pigments

Part 4 – a solvent or thinner

Artists add liquid thinner to paints to increase their fluidity

Part 5 – a Drier

Driers are added to speed up the way vehicles dry.(Litharge, red lead)

Part 6 – an Inert filler

A cheaper replacement for the base used to reduce costs

Student grade oil paint v professional grade oil paint

A regular student grade oil paint will cost something like $10-$15 for a 200 ml (6 and a half ounce) tube.

To buy professional-grade, you may well have to pay $30 for a much smaller container (37 ml or 1 1/4 ounces).

There is a significant price difference but worth the price if you are looking to produce works that are meant to last a very long time.

Cheaper paints will lose their luster and the color will dull over time, and may also crack faster as the oil evaporates over the years as it hardens.

One noticeable difference in the ingredients is that all student paints use linseed oil as a vehicle.

Professional grades use linseed oil and Safflower oil, or just Safflower oil.

In student paints, it is normal to use cheaper pigments.

The best mass produced oil paints

Winsor & Newton’s Winton Oil Color is the best student grade oil paint.

The paint of choice by professionals would be Sennelier, which has been available since 1887 and was the paint preferred by Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse.

Artist oil paints v house oil paint

Oil paint is a general term for a slow-drying paint that is made from pigments suspended in a drying oil, typically linseed oil.

A solvent is used to thin the paint, and the paint made more glossy with the addition of varnish.


Many of the original pigments were later found to be toxic.

The most toxic of these have since been discontinued.

These include discontinued pigments are Paris Green (copper), and orpiment (arsenic sulfide).

However, some poisonous pigments are still in use today.

Oil-based paint may emit fumes that contain potentially poisonous substances.

These hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) offer a health risk if they are inhaled.

Household Oil Paint

Household paints used for decoration have been used in Europe since the 12th century.

Oil paint is used today to protect the wood, exposed metal structures, and on ships.

It is hard-wearing and is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use.

The time required for drying is a factor of how thick the coat is applied.

Whether using household paint or artists paint, you take care of your brushes the same way.

Don’t forget to clean your palette

Now we have cleaned the brushes, do not forget to clean your palette.

It is much easier to clean if the paint has not yet hardened.

You should use a combination of paint thinner or Citrus thinner and an old rag, and do it as early as you can so the paint is still soft.

Conclusion – Best way to clean oil based paint brushes is.

We have looked at various ideas to clean oil based paint brushes in this article.

Most of them revolve around the counterintuitive idea of cleaning oil with added oil.

We have looked at various kinds of oil and some different techniques.

Using newspapers, rags, and your hand.

We then looked at some unusual tips for cleaning before we came to our conclusion.

At this stage, I have to say that my favorite method is the Citrus Thinner followed by soap is my favorite.

Possibly it is a psychological reason, in that I love the fresh smell of the citrus in the air.

I have also successfully used olive oil in the past.

Something else I found is that the best way to learn these techniques is to see them in action so I have linked to a Youtube search so that you can see the various videos available on this topic.

Bonus tip

One final tip (the nuclear option) you can use on brushes that just do not respond to anything else.

They are dried up solid lumps of paint and bristles.

It’s risky but if everything else has failed, soak the brush in a little paint stripper for a few minutes then use one of the other options listed.

Bonus Video – How to care for your brushes

Soap and water on their own will not clean oil paint from brushes. You can use soap and water to wash an oil paint brush after it has been cleaned with a solvent. This will ensure your brush bristles have no residual oil or paint and will be cleaner than using a solvent on its own.

Choose a solvent as outlined in this post. There are more options available these days than just turpentine or mineral turps. Once you have wipe the brush down with a cloth and removed any excess paint, then put some clean solvent in a glass jar and commence cleaning the brush by dipping it in the solvent and then wiping against the cloth. Repeat until there is no excess oil paint remaining on the brush. Now you should remove the solvent from the brush bristles. Do this by lathering up some soap (any soap will do but mechanic’s soap works best as it’s designed to remove oil. Rub the brush bristles into the soap until it is nice and thick with a lather. You can use the palm of your hands to do so. Rinse using warm water. Repeat until the soap is no longer colored. Let the brush air dry by placing it bristles up in a jar.

The best way to clean oil based paint brushes is to use non-water based solvents such as Citrus thinner to detach the oil paint and medium from the brush bristles and then we want to follow that up a deep clean using soap, rubbed into the bristles. This is followed by a good rinse with running water as we remove both the soap and any excess solvents.

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About the author
Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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