Foam Brush vs. Paint Brush: When to Use Each
I am compulsive buyer of paint brushes. Foam brushes, bristle brushes, you name it, if I see a good deal, I buy it. I use both all the time, since they each of circumstances where they shine.
Foam brushes are usually considered disposable, and therefore a great option when working with oil-based paints, stains, and finishes. Bristle paint brushes are more expensive, but leave a smoother finish, and handle tight corners better than foam brushes.
But there’s a lot more that goes into choosing a paint brush, so lets dive in!
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Foam Paint Brushes
Foam paint brushes are so cheap as to be considered disposable, and are therefore what I grab when working with any oil-based product, which are difficult to clean up.
They’re also great if you’re only testing out a sample, or touching up a paint job, since you don’t have to clean them afterward.
Some people swear that foam brushes leave fewer brushstrokes than bristle brushes. I disagree. While foam brushes certainly leave a different type of brushstroke than bristle brushes, there is still a visible stroke.
There are reasons to use either brush, but making your decision based on brushstrokes doesn’t really make sense to me.
There are some other downsides to foam brushes, though. Foam brushes introduce air bubbles into your product, making them a less ideal choice for thick finish or paint, especially if it’s a large project.
They also tend to rip or break after significant use. The plastic or wood that the brush is attached to pokes through the foam, breaking up the foam and sometimes leaving foam shreds in your project.
I know what you’re thinking – I need to buy higher quality brushes. But I’ve found this to be the case on any foam brushes I’ve bought, whether it’s the $2 brushes from Harbor Freight, or the more expensive brushes from Home Depot.
Regardless, I typically only opt for foam brushes for low-duty tasks as a result, like applying stain, or finishing smaller projects.
Foam brushes are also less effective in tight corners, since it’s difficult to get the foam to apply the paint in those areas.
When to Use Foam Paint Brushes
Despite all those negatives, I keep a sizable collection of foam brushes in inventory at all time.
I use them most often when staining, since my woods stains are primarily oil-based, and I really don’t want to clean up oil-based products.
All the negatives of foam brushes really don’t apply when staining. The stain gets wiped off, so air bubbles aren’t an issue. Stain is really thin, so it’s not much work for the brush to spread, and therefore the brush stays intact for a longer period of time.
And since stain is thin, it’s not as hard to spread in tight corners as paint or other thick products are.
So foam brushes are really great if you’re applying stain.
I also use them a ton when I’m testing stains and finishes. Since I only need to use a little bit of product, it seems annoying to have to clean a whole paintbrush afterward. By using a foam brush for testing, I can really cut down on the cleanup.
Where to Buy Foam Brushes
One of the big pros of foam brushes is that they’re so cheap as to be disposable. So you want to make sure you’re actually buying cheap brushes, not something that costs a small fortune for you to throw away after use.
If you live in the Midwest, your best bet is to watch Menards for rebate sales on their foam brushes. Usually, a pack of 24 brushes costs around $7, which is not a bargain.
But every few months or so, Menards sells them for $.99 after rebate, which is great! I always stock up and buy 3-4 packs when they go on sale.
Unfortunately, Menards is only available in the Midwest, and their shipping costs are ridiculous, so they’re not really a viable option if you live elsewhere.
Harbor Freight, however, is all over the US. And they sell a 24-pack of brushes for around $5. That’s not anywhere near as good of a deal as Menards, but it’s better than most.
Bristle Paint Brushes
Bristled paint brushes (also known as “paint brushes”) are more expensive than foam brushes, but are much better at painting tight areas, and evenly spreading thick product onto a piece.
They also hold up better over time. Foam brushes break down quickly, and usually don’t even last through one large piece. But bristle paint brushes last through hundreds of projects given you clean them properly after use.
While bristle paint brushes are known for leaving brushstrokes, they do a better job of evenly spreading the paint on the piece, and are therefore my pick whenever I’m working with a thick product on a large project.
When to Use Bristled Paint Brushes
I use bristled paint brushes whenever I’m working with latex paint, or shellac. Oil-based polyurethanes are usually decided based on the project – small projects I’ll use a foam brush, big projects I’ll break out the paint brush and mineral spirits for.
I also use a bristled paint brush if I’m applying water-based primer, although I’ll stick with the foam brush for oil-based primer due to cleanup concerns.
Water-based polyurethanes recommend using a foam brush on the can, and while someday I’m going to be a rulebreaker and experiment with a bristled paint brush, I haven’t actually tried it yet, so I can’t tell you how it goes.
Since water-based poly is so thick, I expect it’ll lead to more brushstrokes, but since water-based polyurethane is so easy to clean, I really want to see how the bristle paint brush does.
Where to Buy Bristle Paint Brushes
As I’m sure the whole world has told you: Purdy and Wooster are the “prime” paintbrushes, and they’re what you should buy if you want a brushstroke-free project.
I talk about that a bit more in this post on painting furniture without brushstrokes, but tl;dr, there are other paint brushes that are good too!
My favorite option is the Painter’s Collection paintbrushes from Menards. They retail for $6 a brush normally, but every few months Menards makes them free after rebate.
They’re nice, mid-range brushes, and when you consider that they’re basically free if you time it right, they’re amazing!
I still own a set of Purdy brushes for super fancy projects, but for the most part I just use the Painter’s Collection brushes.
If you’re not in the Midwest, my next recommendation is to stop by your local Habitat For Humanity Restore, and see what brushes they have in stock. They almost always have paint supplies at a thrift-store price, so they’re worth checking out!
Above I listed my general thought process for choosing a brush. But I thought it also might be helpful if I listed some common products, the brush I usually grab, and why. Enjoy!
Citristrip/Paint Stripper – Foam brushes. I often destroy a few glopping the stripper on large products, but that stuff is impossible to clean, and I’m not about to waste a good paintbrush on it.
Mod Podge – Foam brush. This is mostly an impulse habit though – I can’t actually think of a reason why a bristle brush wouldn’t work.
Primer – Foam brush for oil-based, bristle brush for water-based. Bristle brushes do a better job of application, but it’s not worth the cleanup if you’re working with oil-based primer.
Latex Paint – Bristle Brush. It provides a more even application.
Wood Conditioner – Foam brush. Wood conditioner is super thin and takes 20 seconds to apply. I’m not cleaning a bristle brush with mineral spirits for that.
Shellac – Bristle brush. I actually have a dedicated “shellac” brush. Since shellac dissolves shellac, you don’t actually have to clean the brush after use. Just let it soak in the shellac for about 5 minutes before your next project, and the brush will be nice and soft again.
Water-Based Polyurethane – Foam Brush. The can says so.
Oil-Based Polyurethane – Depends on the size of the project. Foam brush for small projects, bristle brush for big projects. I never use the really expensive bristle brushes for this though, my free after rebate brushes are good enough, since I’ll sand and smooth the top coat anyway.