Cleaning up paint brushes after pouring all your energy on a piece is the not-so-fun part about painting art and crafts. Unfortunately, someone has to do it because you’ll need those same tools the next time.
When you clean your paint brushes, you extend their useful life but leaving acrylic paint dried on the bristles quickly deteriorates them. You want to avoid it, especially if you are a frequent painter and know how costly quality art supplies are.
Perhaps you’ve never known how to clean dried acrylic paint off of brushes. No judgement here; we understand that all the excitement and emphasis is on the painting technique and getting outstanding results.
So, how do you get dried acrylic paint out of brushes? You can clean dried acrylic paint out of brushes with a solvent like commercial brush cleaners, soap, and alcohols. It’s best never to let them dry with paint still on them to avoid crusty and hard brushes in the first place as well.
If you’ve been tossing your dried paint brushes because you have no clue on how to revive them, this post will change that narrative. We’ll provide step-by-step instructions on how to clean dried acrylic paint brushes using various solutions. Let’s get tidy.
6 Ways to Clean Brushes With Dried Acrylic Paint
There’s more than one way of restoring paint brushes dried up with acrylic paint. The method you opt for depends on what you already have at hand or what you are willing to spend.
That said, some solutions offer more effective cleaning than others. But before we dive deep into that, the best way to clean paint brushes is not to allow the acrylic paint to dry on them in the first place.
Acrylic paint is among the fastest drying paints. Once the water molecules have escaped, and only the polymerized pigment is left, it can feel rock-solid in a matter of minutes. On the flip side, it is water-based, so it doesn’t take much to clean out the bristles while still fresh and fluid.
Here are a few steps to keep acrylic paint from drying on your brushes:
- Always have a water bath or two by your side. You can dip and swirl a brush in as soon as you are done with it to prevent drying.
- Leave it in for a couple of minutes. The still wet acrylic paint on the bristles will just dissolve in the water, leaving little to no trace of paint.
- Afterward, remove the brushes and use a cloth or paper towel to wipe down any paint debris. Remove visible clamps with your fingers.
- Hold the tip between your thumb and index finger and rub the bristles using back and forth finger motions as though you are sprinkling salt.
- Pay particular attention to the base where the bristles enter the ferrule. This spot is notorious for secretly harboring paint, and a slight abrasion is needed to free it.
- Follow with warm soapy water, then rinse and dry. You can invest in a dedicated soap for your brushes like The Masters brush cleaner; a 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner.
- Remember not to make the brushes in the initial water bath stay there for far too long, like forgetting them overnight. You’ll end up damaging them instead.
While this routine is straightforward and easy to follow, there are times you’ll get distracted or too engrossed in a piece to remember this simple water bath trick. Or, when you are time-crunched and working fast. Cleaning your brushes as you go may be impractical.
Other days you’ll feel too lazy or just exhausted to clean up after yourself. The point is, your brushes may encounter dried up acrylic paint at least once in their lifetime.
In this case, removing it with plain water will be a complete nightmare and impossible mission. You don’t have to dispose of the brushes though, as they could still be saved. Employing more powerful cleansers than water is necessary to soften them again. Let’s go over each one of them.
1. Using Acetone
A lot of people are familiar with acetone. It is the base ingredient in nail polish removers and disintegrates the hardened nail polish fairly quickly. Acetone has the same effect on dried acrylic paint on brushes and dissolves it in a similar fashion.
However, acetone is a very harsh substance on synthetic and plastic fibers. You might want to avoid it for plastic or synthetic brushes.
If you still choose to go with it, keep contact to a minimum and do not prolong the time the brush sits in it. It also has an intense smell, which can be nauseating. Proper ventilation should be prioritized.
How to clean dried acrylic paint brushes with acetone:
- Gather your dried paint brushes and a suitable-sized glass jar for them to stand in with the bristles inside.
- Pour a sizeable amount of acetone into the glass jar. Not too much, not too little; it should go above the bristles but not the ferrule.
- Allow the brushes to sit inside for the solvent to penetrate the tough acrylic paint coating on the bristles. Usually 5-30 minutes. You should notice some of the caked pigment gradually sliding off into the water.
- While the solvent is in action, prepare warm soapy water in a separate bath using liquid dishwashing soap.
- Now remove and transfer the brushes to the soap solution and clean out any remaining paint residue by swishing it in the soapy water. It should come off easily now, but you can apply some rubbing friction while still submerged for any stubborn residue.
- If you have a brush conditioner, this would be the perfect time to use it. If not, we strongly recommend getting one.
- Rinse the brushes in clean running water and allow them to dry out laying flat.
This simple procedure should work the first time, especially if the dried acrylic paint is not too old. If you notice some stubbornly stiff areas, repeat the entire process once more.
2. Using Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol is a household name for its antiseptic properties. It is commonly used in homes to clean and disinfect a range of surfaces.
Another property of rubbing alcohol is stain removal on surfaces and it works great for temporary and even permanent marks from ink or oil. In the same way, it breaks down acrylic paint in its dried form.
The process of cleaning dried acrylic paint brushes with rubbing alcohol is similar to the one for acetone. You’ll follow the same steps but using 70-90% rubbing alcohol.
3. Using Brush Cleaning Formula
There are lots of commercial brush cleaners that clean as effectively, maybe even better than acetone and rubbing alcohol.
Some artists argue that they are actually rubbing alcohol or acetone repackaged and labeled, but that is not entirely true for all brands.
The best brush cleaners are actually biodegradable, do not have a strong odor, and are tough on the paint but far gentler on bristles than acetone or rubbing alcohol.
Winsor and Newton brush cleaner and restorer is one of the best liquid brush cleaners in the industry. So if you have dried synthetic brushes, this is a gentler paint stripping solution for them than acetone.
4. Using a Hand Sanitizer
Hand sanitizers are alcohol-based antiseptic products. The type of alcohol used here is ethyl alcohol and produces the same results as rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol when cleaning paint off of brushes. If you have some, it can save your dried acrylic paint brushes quickly. Here’s what to do.
How to clean dried acrylic paint brushes using hand sanitizing gel:
- Wear some gloves because this will be messy.
- Squirt a good amount of hand sanitizing gel on the palm of your hands.
- Rub the stiffened bristles rapidly and vigorously into the gel until the dried acrylic paint starts to disintegrate.
- Remove and discard any loosened clamps and repeat the process, adding more sanitizer if necessary.
- Once all the dried paint is out, wash with warm soapy water and rinse.
Though fast, handy, and efficient, this method is ideal for small paint brushes and just a few pieces as well. It is time-consuming when doing bulk dried acrylic paint brushes, not to mention tedious and physically exhausting.
5. Using Murphy’s Oil Soap
Soap and water alone will not save a dried acrylic paint brush, but not Murphy’s oil soap. This is especially true for acrylic paint that has been dried for days.
The longer a paintbrush stays in its dried state, the slimmer the chances of its revival get. You’ll be lucky to recover anything after 48 hours.
Murphy’s oil soap is the ultimate solution; even expert artists swear by it. This vegetable oil soap is the most effective soap you can use to remove the hard crusty mass of acrylic paint over paintbrushes that have dried for up to four days.
How to clean dried acrylic paint brushes using Murphy’s oil soap:
- Pour a sizeable amount of Murphy’s oil soap in a glass jar. It should be enough to cover the bristles.
- Put the brushes inside and allow them to sit undisturbed for two to three days. We know it’s a long time, but if they are among your most prized sable brushes, it is worth the wait.
- After a couple of days, you’ll notice paint sludge has sunk to the floor of the jar.
- Tap the bristles gently to the bottom of the jar to dislodge any left paint.
- Remove the brushes from the jar and wash with a little bit of water. Rub the bristles gently for the soap to foam, and use a paper towel to wipe them down.
- Rinse the brushes with clean water.
The good thing about this particular vegetable oil soap is that it can also be your regular brush cleaner. It performs better than liquid dishwashing soap.
6. Using a Comb
A fine-toothed comb is an alternative way to get rid of dried acrylic paint on brushes. With this method, you comb out the paint physically, which some people find satisfying.
You first have to moisten the bristles with water or oil. It aids in loosening the acrylic paint and provides excellent slip, preventing unnecessary strain on the bristles and hands. Never attempt to get a comb through a dry brush with hardened acrylic paint. These are the correct steps to follow.
Directions for combing dried acrylic paint brushes:
- Find a strong fine-toothed comb (toothbrush or a fingernail brush can do too) you don’t care much about, or buy one.
- Put a little water or vegetable oil in a glass jar.
- Wet the dried acrylic paint by soaking the bristled end of the brush in for a few minutes.
- Remove the brush and use your thumb and index finger to hold the bristles firmly at the base by pinching near the ferrule. You don’t want to yank the hair out.
- Once the bristles are tightly secured, comb/brush out the paint gently and patiently.
- The bristles will slowly begin to separate into individual strands, and most of the visible paint will come out.
- Wash the brush with warm water and soap, rinse, and dry.
That is basically how to clean dried acrylic paint brushes. Nevertheless, we are not guaranteeing that your brushes will spring back to their original self once again.
Sometimes, the damage is already so severe that the usable quality of the brush can not be salvaged. It becomes useless even after cleaning out the dried acrylic paint.
This is especially true for synthetic bristle brushes. They tend to get ruined easily by dried paint and even the solutions used to clean the old paint out.
Even if you succeed at removing the old dry acrylic paint, synthetic bristles are more likely to turn brittle, flaky, and lose their spring and paint holding capability, becoming unusable.
Natural bristle brushes such as sable or hog hair have better chances of survival after being hardened in dry acrylic paint. They cost a bit more but can handle harsh treatment well.
These are strong and resilient against solvents, chemicals, and other elements, saving you more money in the long term.
Note that brush cleaners, oil soap, acetone, rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol), and hand sanitizer (ethyl alcohol) are all fantastic agents for getting rid of dried acrylic paints.
You might come across other answers suggesting lacquer thinners, ammonia and denatured alcohol as options, but we strongly advise against these because we are all for safety.
Both denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner emit methanol. The latter has toluene too. The toxicity of these two substances on human health cannot be overemphasized.
Though lacquer thinners have recently been improved by replacing toluene with ethyl acetate, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Ammonia, on the other hand, emits a pungent smell that is difficult to stomach. It also destroys brass, discolors aluminum, and damages wood finishing. These are precisely the materials that build many paint brushes.
The best way around dried acrylic paint brushes is to get into the habit of cleaning brushes as you go. This way, they remain pristine for longer.
When dipping brushes into acrylic paint, try and get just the tip or at most two-thirds of the bristle length covered in paint. It makes cleaning a walkover. And if it inadvertently dries, it is easier to reverse than paint brushes with dried acrylic paint deep near the ferrule.
The various ways of cleaning dried acrylic paint from brushes discussed here should not be your everyday routine for cleaning your paint brushes. They are only meant to help in those accidental situations and not purposefully dried paint brushes.