The right paintbrush can make all of the difference in the final quality of your paint job. While you probably think this is obvious, you might be surprised how often brushes aren’t taken into account before painting begins. This can cost you money in the form of extra labor and more paint use, and the result may still fall short of your expectations.

The thing is, the best brush for one job isn’t necessarily the best for all jobs. That probably sounds obvious, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a specific brush is a good all-purpose tool because of positive experiences with the same brush style in the past. If you really want to knock it out of the park, you need to evaluate each job and look at the materials you’ll use and then choose your brush.

The Paint’s the Thing

I’m sure that you know that different types of paint have different uses. Exterior paints need to stand up to harsher environments than interior paints and whether you use an oil-based or water-based paint often falls down to what the underlying material is. What you may not realize is that different brushes react differently to different types of paint. This is why choosing a brush based on your paint type is so important – using the wrong brush with your paint is just going to make your work harder and more expensive.

Let’s say you’re using a latex paint to bring new life to the faded exterior of a house. You’ve had great experiences with natural-fiber brushes in the past, so you grab one and get to work. Unfortunately, all that brush is going to do is soak up the water in the paint. Your paint job will suffer and your trusty brush is going to get a serious case of limp bristles as all of that water softens them up.

Natural bristles are great for oil-based paints and varnishes, since the natural splits in the fibers help the brushes to hold on to more paint – resulting in a smoother finish with fewer dips. Water-based paints such as latex and acrylics need synthetic-fiber brushes, as nylon or polyester bristles won’t suffer the same fate as their all-natural counterparts.

A Primer on Bristle Colors

The color of the bristles on your brushes can actually tell you quite a bit about the brush. If you have natural-bristle brushes, you’ll see two main types: those with white or light-colored bristles and those with black or dark-colored bristles. Synthetic brushes often keep these same conventions, although dyed synthetics offer a wider range of color options. This coloring is important, as it tells you at a glance how stiff or loose the bristles on the brush are.

White brushes are soft and supple, giving you a smoother finish that looks great on flat surfaces.

Black brushes have stiffer bristles, making them ideal for textured surfaces where paint might otherwise miss some of the fine details.

If you aren’t sure whether your brushes are right for the surface you’ll paint, press the tips of the bristles against your hand; do they bend, or do they offer resistance? Soft and stiff bristles have different uses regardless of color.

Does Size Matter?

Once you’ve narrowed things down to a general type of brush, there are a few more things to consider when choosing the best brush for each job. Chief among these considerations are the size and shape of your brushes, since these factors affect how useful different brushes are while you’re painting.

Brushes range in size from 1-inch widths to 4 inches or more. The implications of these different sizes are apparent. Smaller brushes are ideal for trim work, while larger brushes allow you to cover a larger area with each stroke. Using the wrong size brush for different tasks results in additional work, either from using a small brush to paint a large area or dealing with added clean-up because the brush you’re using is too big for your trim.

More than just the size, the shape of your brush also matters. Brushes are available with both straight and angled bristles – even slanted chisel tips for delicate trim work. Sash brushes, which feature a thin profile that allows you to paint larger areas or make thin lines, are available in both flat and angled varieties.

According to This Old House, a 2-1/2-inch angled sash brush is one of the most universal brushes you can own, although you still have to evaluate your needs and choose the appropriate bristle material and stiffness.  Even then, dedicated trim brushes and larger wall brushes also have their place in your brush arsenal.