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Simple, Foolproof Varnish-Brush Care

by Maynard Bray

Posted: October 17, 2012
Tags: brushes, varnish, linseed oil, Getting Started in Boats

In the Getting Started in Boats supplement in WB No. 229, we presented basic instructions on varnishing. That article included a discussion of varnish brush care, which inspired contributing editor Maynard Bray to tell us about a simple technique he’s used for years for maintaining badger-hair brushes. In the following words and photos, Maynard shares that technique. —Eds.

Brush stored in raw linseed oil.

Baggie used as a cover.

Over many years, I’ve kept my varnish brushes submerged in raw linseed oil—a method I learned about from my friend Bill Welte. It goes like this:

  • Storage is in the smallest can that the brush will fit into. For a 1 1/2″ brush, a B&M baked bean can is just right. The oil level has to be kept above the bristles always, and this means an occasional topping off. A baggie slipped over the top keeps out the dust. Be sure to use raw, not boiled, oil, as the latter will skin over and contaminate the brush.
  • A turpentine flush has to take place whenever the brush gets used, and again before it’s put back in the oil. Other solvents may work, but for me genuine turpentine has proven itself. Use a fresh batch of it (I pour an Ocean Spray cranberry sauce can about 1/3 full) for each varnishing session, and be sure to scrape out the excess oil on the side of the keeper can before dipping the brush into the turpentine; then “sling” out the turpentine before loading up with varnish. Reverse this flushing process after you’re done varnishing:
    1. Scrape off the brush on the side of the varnish container,
    2. give it a good workout in the turpentine can,
    3. sling out the turpentine, and
    4. put it back in the keeper oil and cover the whole thing with a baggie to keep out the dust.
  • If your varnish brush is the usual short-bristle badger-hair type, it is sufficiently stiff to stand on end in the oil without any other support. It just leans against the side of the baked bean can and almost floats there without bending over the brush’s working end.
  • For fun, I date the baggies; I’m still using the brush (and baggie) from 2002. A decade with the same brush, preserved this way in raw linseed oil, isn’t bad going—and it’s a much faster method than drying out your brush each time you use it. I think I may have changed my keeper oil three or four times during this ten-year period.


Submitted by Bart3 on

Epifanes recommends using diesel fuel to store brushes. They also sell at considerable expense a brush keeper that suspends the brushes so that the brush is not resting on the bristles. My only addition to Maynard’s technique would be to use a can that is tall enough so that a rod could be punched through at a height sufficient to keep the bristles off the bottom of the can. Then thread the rod through the hole in the end of the brush.The used turps can be set aside and in time the paint or varnish will settle to the bottom of the container. The clean stuff can then be poured off and used again for a preliminary brush rinse.

Submitted by Sue2 on

If you use a can with a plastic snap-on lid (like a coffee can, if you can still find a metal one), you can make a “poor man’s” brush keeper by cutting a hole in the lid that is just barely large enough to stuff the handle through. Put lid over brush handle and place on can, and it will suspend the brush by friction. Helps keep the dust out, too!