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The tools you use to apply paint and stain can have a big impact on the outcome of the job. Understanding the chemistry of what you’re applying can make choosing the right tool easier.

It’s also a good idea to understand the features of the tool.

Paint Brush vs Stain Brush vs Foam Brush

Parts of a Brush

Paint and stain brushes include

  • a handle, generally wood or plastic
  • a ferrule, or the metal piece that connects the handle to the bristles
  • the bristles, either polyester or natural, generally taken from a hog

Before you start staining or painting, it’s a good idea to understand how paint and stain act on brushes.

trio of dry paint brushes

Using the Right Paint Brush

Latex Paint

Latex paint is made up of pigment for color, binders to help it stick and sheen to provide a level of reflective finish. The solvent in latex paint, or the product that keeps these compounds mixed up, is water.

Always try to use nylon or polyester brushes when working with latex paints. Natural bristle brushes can absorb the water in latex paint and become stiff and unusable even after cleaning.

Paint will happily flow wherever gravity takes it. If you have to paint over your head, the paint will run back into the ferrule.

blue paint running down a brush and arm

Be ready to submerge your paintbrush in warm, soapy water to get as much paint out of the ferrule as possible.

Never wash a paintbrush in hot water; you can damage the glue that holds the brushes in the ferrule.

Oil-Based Paint

For most DIYers, latex paints will suffice. However, if you’re painting a floor or a set of stairs, you may need to use oil-based paint.

You can use a quality natural bristle brush in oil-based paint as long as you clean it carefully with paint thinner.

new paint brush laying on wood boards

Working with oil-based paints can be quite fiddly; the solvents necessary to clean up after the project are flammable and can be messy.

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If you have a nylon-bristle brush that you love to work with, don’t put it in oil-based paint unless you’re sure you will have the time to properly clean things up.


Primers are paint products found in latex or oil-based formulations that can cover strong colors or stains.

I tend to save brushes that are showing signs of wear to use on projects that require primer.

Because primers are so tacky, they can be hard to clean from your brushes.

Avoid using foam brushes or disposable “chip” brushes with primer. The resins in primer will pull these low-cost tools apart, leaving brush hairs and chunks of foam on the surface.

paint primer on an older brush

Stain Brush

Stain includes pigment and oil, while paint is made up of pigment and binders. Huge staining brushes with a big, boxy ferrule would never work for paint but can be quite useful when applying stain.

One of the big challenges when applying stain is that the product needs to stand to soak in, but it also needs to be worked into the surface.

applying stain with a brush

If you are staining a large, flat surface, such as a deck or floor, consider using a velour nap roller to apply the stain after spraying it on.

Stains can be found both in water-based and oil-based product lines. If you choose to roll on your stain, you may prefer to discard the rollers when the project is done.

Cleaning up your spindles and poles will be simple enough as long as you use the right product.

Do be aware that a large staining brush can get incredibly heavy as the project progresses. The pressure of such a brush on your wrists and forearms should not be discounted.

woman using a large stain brush on deck boards

Because stain has fewer binders than paint, you can also expect a lot of spatter. If you have to stain up a wall, a roller with a long pole can keep the whole project a lot tidier.

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Cheap brushes can be used to apply stain. However, because “chip” brushes have a very narrow layer of bristles and a fairly flat ferrule, these brushes don’t hold a lot of stain.

If you’re applying the stain with a collection of these brushes, be aware that you’ll be returning to the bucket repeatedly.

To keep costs down and save time, your best bet on a flat surface may be to:

  • spray on the stain
  • work it into the boards with a roller or a chip brush
  • wipe up excess stain after a set soaking time
spray staining a wood fence

If you’re staining a wall, the simplest process may be to:

  • put down plastic
  • wear a face shield and clothes you don’t care about
  • put the stain in a 5-gallon bucket and use a mesh roller screen
  • apply the stain with a low nap roller

Staining with a roller will require that you get into a bit of a rhythm. Start high and work your way down. Gravity and runny product will help you out.

Make sure that you stop to stir your stain on a regular basis; don’t let the pigment settle.

Foam Brush

Foam brushes are cheap and tempting. If you only have a tiny amount of product to apply, these little disposable tools can work well. However, once they’re wet, they’re fragile.

If you’re applying primer, foam brushes can break down into chunks of foam quickly. Even a basic paint project can get chunky and leave a surface that you will have to patch again.

basic foam paint brush

If the wood that you’re staining is even slightly rough, your foam brush can shred on knots or rough patches and leave residue on your staining project.

Do keep your eye out for microfiber foam tools. While they’re often too small for staining projects, microfiber foam rollers are an ideal tool for priming a small patch or applying semi-gloss paint to trim.

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