Water in the News


Don’t wash your brushes in the sink and other painting cleanup tips – Washington Post


A previous version of this article suggested using Wisk laundry detergent to clean paint brush bristles. Wisk has been discontinued. The article also misspelled Wisk as Whisk. The article has been corrected.

Q: What is the best way to clean up after painting?

A: The reward of painting walls, trim or furniture is instant: Everything looks new and fresh. But then comes the cleanup. What do you do with brushes, rollers and paint trays coated with paint? Cleaning the tools properly allows you to use them again. But you don’t want to send paint down the drain or onto your landscaping.

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Most paint today is water-based. It’s a liquid when you apply it, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that the part that stays behind once the water evaporates is mostly plastic — usually acrylic but also sometimes vinyl or another polymer. If paint is washed down the drain, the plastics can clog a septic system, add to sludge in a community sewer system or wind up in rivers and eventually the ocean as microplastics.

You should avoid washing paint down a drain — especially a storm drain. In most communities, storm drains empty directly into the nearest stream, river or bay, without any treatment.

But how do you wash tools and not send the wash water down a drain? Here are some suggestions.

Choose equipment wisely

  • If you are just touching up paint, consider using an inexpensive chip brush. You can treat it as disposable, or wash it. Because the bristles are sparse and short, these brushes don’t hold much paint, making them easy to wash.
  • You might also consider roller covers to be disposable — but that doesn’t mean you need a fresh one for each coat or each day of a multiday project. If you wrap tools tightly in a plastic bag or plastic wrap between sessions and don’t wait more than a day or two to use them again, you can clean up only at the end.
  • To minimize cleanup of a paint tray, buy a disposable liner or cover the empty tray with a plastic bag that’s big enough to completely enclose it.
  • Using a clip-on spout for a paint can (such as the Allway paint can spout, $1.99 at Ace Hardware) helps keep the rim clean, which in turn means that when you finally put the lid back on, the paint seals well and stays usable for touch-ups or other projects.

While painting

  • Before you begin, dampen your brush or roller with water, then work out the excess by flicking the brush or spinning the roller, or by brushing or rolling back and forth on cardboard. Dampening the tools first makes them easier to wash later. High quality brushes hold more paint partly because they have space for paint under the ferrule, the metal part that connects the bristles to the handle. It seems that pre-dampening the bristles with water helps keep paint in that well from drying prematurely.
  • If you get interrupted, wrap your brush or roller in plastic if it will be unused for more than a few minutes. If you’re wearing disposable gloves, one easy solution is to grab the bristles with one hand and then pull off the glove with the other hand, encasing the brush in the process. You’ll want a fresh disposable glove when you resume painting.

When it’s time to clean up

  • Scrape as much paint off the roller or brush as you can. The curved part of a painter’s 5-in-1 tool works great as a squeegee for a roller, and the blade on this tool is effective on a brush. Then work the roller or brush back and forth on newspaper or cardboard until you’ve removed as much paint as possible. (Dispose of that paper or cardboard in the trash.)
  • Clemson University recommends using three five-gallon buckets, each filled about two-thirds with water. If you’re washing multiple tools, start with the brushes, which probably hold less paint to wash out than the rollers.
  • Wash the tools in the first bucket and scrub them to work out embedded paint.
  • If you have a paint comb, use it to help remove paint between bristles on a brush. Comb from the ferrule toward the tips of the bristles.
  • Flick the brush or spin the roller over the bucket, so the sides capture the splatter, to get out as much of the wash water as you can.
  • Pour a little undiluted detergent onto the bristles, then wash the tools in again in the second bucket. (I’ve found that laundry detergent works great for this. I tried using an eco laundry detergent, but while it’s fine for laundry, it didn’t work as well for this purpose. Wear gloves, though, because laundry detergent is quite alkaline and will dry your skin.)
  • Wash the tools again in the third bucket. Once a brush is clean, smooth the bristles into the brush’s original shape.
  • Hang the brush to dry, or place it across something like a yogurt container where the handle and ferrule support it but air can circulate. Most ferrules can rust, so do not leave a wet brush sitting on a surface where the stain could be an issue.
  • Store dry brushes in their original cardboard wrappers. If you don’t have those, make replacements from old file folders or cardboard about the thickness of a cereal box.
  • After you wash all your tools, set the buckets aside where they won’t be jostled. Add secure lids if there is any chance that young children might be around them. Toddlers can easily tip into five-gallon buckets and not be able to right themselves.
  • Solids in the wash water should settle to the bottom after about a day. Then you can pour the clear water down a sink drain (not a storm drain). Scrape the sludge at the bottom into cat litter in a cardboard box or other disposable container, and put that in the trash.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to [email protected]. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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