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How to Choose the Right Paint Brush or Roller for the Job

Grainger Editorial Staff

Before you start work on a project involving paint and paint tools, you should know your options. Choosing a tool for your painting job depends first on the type of paint you are using, and second, on the surface you plan on covering. Here's a guide to the different types of brushes, rollers and paint pads and when it's best to use each.

When to Use Natural or Synthetic Paint Brushes

Paint brushes feature either natural bristles made of animal hair or synthetic materials. Some jobs call for synthetic brushes while others get done more efficiently with brushes made of natural materials. Here's a quick rundown of the types of bristle or brush material that work best for various jobs:

  • Natural-bristle brushes are best for jobs that require oil-based paints, such as painting interior or exterior trim, high-moisture rooms like kitchens or bathrooms, or doors and cabinetry. Covering a smooth surface with oil-based primers and finishes is best with white China, a natural-bristle blend, according to the manufacturer Wooster Brush, or one blended with ox hair for a finer finish. Painting a textured surface is best with the stiffer black China bristle, also a natural blend. Rough surfaces are not suitable for the softer and more delicate natural bristles. While brushes with natural bristles are more expensive, it's worth the extra cost if you're planning on painting interior surfaces or fine details.
  • Synthetic brushes are made of nylon, polyester, nylon/polyester blends and Chinex®, a modified Dupont nylon. Use synthetic bristle brushes for jobs that require latex and acrylic paints. These brushes are also best for use with thin products, like stain or polyurethane finishes.
  • Foam brushes are great for painting window casings and moldings because they provide a smooth, stroke-free finish. Foam brushes are designed to hold all types of paints, stains and finishes. However these brushes are hard to clean, so they are typically intended for single use.

How to Choose the Right Size and Shape of Paint Brush

The size and shape of your tool will also affect the outcome of your project. Brushes come in widths ranging from 1 to 5 inches, and should be chosen depending on the width of the surface you are painting. Popular Mechanics recommends choosing a brush slightly narrower than your surface to avoid dripping paint.

The shape of the brush's bristles is also important: square-cut bristled brushes are great for applying paint onto flat surfaces, but when it comes to painting into corners or along narrow edges, a sash brush is a better choice, because its bristles are cut at an angle and provide better control Sash brushes come in handy when "cutting in," or painting clean, straight lines along the perimeter of a wall, ceiling, molding, or any other surface.

When to Use a Paint Roller

Rollers are ideal for large-scale projects and come in a variety of widths for the size of the surface you are painting. Rollers are beneficial because they can cover a large area quickly and evenly, even if the surface has not been primed. Rollers are especially useful when painting floors, ceilings and walls. Rollers can also be used repeatedly with the purchase of replacement roller covers.

How to Choose Paint Roller Covers

Paint roller covers can be made of synthetic or natural fibers. And like brushes, the type of paint roller cover you choose will depend on the paint you are using and the surface you are covering. Choosing covers made of synthetic materials, foam, microfiber, or natural fibers like wool will make a difference when working in different environments.

Consider the length of the hair on a roller, sometimes called the nap or pile, when making your choice. The nap on a roller cover comes in widths of 1/4-3/4 of an inch, and, according to Glidden, covers with a tighter nap produce smoother finishes. Wooster notes that, as a general rule of thumb, the rougher the surface to be covered, the longer the nap you want on the roller sleeve. Smooth surfaces like drywall may require a nap of as little as three-sixteenths of an inch, while rough or extra-rough surfaces, such as brick, stucco, or corrugated metal, could require a nap as thick one-and-a-half inches.

  • Synthetic roller covers lack nap and are good for applying latex paints to walls and ceilings.
  • Foam roller covers also lack nap and are best used for a smooth finish on furniture or cabinets with primer, enamel or gloss paints.
  • Microfiber roller covers release a small amount of paint due to the smaller fibers. These covers are best for fine finishes on smaller, smooth surfaces, like pieces of furniture, as opposed to painting walls or other areas with a large surface.
  • Natural wool roller covers, also referred to as lambskin or sheepskin, are more expensive than synthetic or foam covers, as they hold a greater amount of paint and are easier to clean. Use a wool cover when applying flat, eggshell or satin paint to walls and ceilings.

When to Use Paint Pads

For painting smooth surfaces like ceilings, paint pads, or edgers, work great. Paint pads are rectangular and have short, densely packed bristles for smooth coverage. Pads are easier to use on ceilings and are cleaner because they don't cause a spray like rollers do. Like brushes and rollers, paint pads and handles come in different sizes for different jobs. Use this tool for painting straight lines and at an angle, like when covering walls, ceilings, and wall trim.

There are a variety of sizes of pads available, depending on the type of job you're doing. There are handles of varying lengths available for different applications—for example, when 'cutting in' on high window frames or the corners of ceilings, it's advised to use a longer handle in order to avoid strain. Packaging for paint pads usually includes a paint tray, which allows for the right amount of paint to be applied to the applicator and reduces dripping.

No matter the project, you should make your tool choice based on the type of paint you're using, the amount of coverage needed, and how quickly the job needs to be completed. Now that you know more about the types of brushes, rollers, and pads that work best for different applications, you can choose the right one for the job.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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