Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes with Linseed Oil and Yardley of London Shea Butter Soap

Linseed oil is readily available in many oil painters’ studios.  Yardley London Shea Butter Soap can be purchased from  a dollar store or pound shop on the cheap.  These two ingredients make for the basis of an excellent cleaning system for cleaning oil painting brushes.

Cleaning Technique:

  1. Pour linseed oil into a bowl or jar, basically enough to cover, soak and wash the brushes in.
  2. Soak the brushes in the oil for several minutes.  If the paint is encrusted, this may take more time and a bit of pressing on the bristles may be necessary to work the oil into the brushes.  For stubborn brushes, leave to soak overnight.
  3. Pull the brushes from the oil and wrap them in a cloth to continue soaking for a few hours.
  4. Wipe off the excess oil with a cloth or paper towel.
  5. In a copper bowl(copper is used because with a bit of heat from hot running water soap will quickly soften) soften a small chunk of Yardley London’s Shea Butter soap.  This soap has just the right mix of ingredients necessary to clean and recondition a brush.  Read the label and you will be amazed at what is in it.
  6. The softened soap can be squeezed in hand like putty.  Take each brush and run the bristles into the soap in your hand and pack it in until saturated.
  7. Lay brushes on damp rag and cover for an hour or so to let the soap work.
  8. Rinse the brushes under running water, then place in container with warm water no more than ferrule high for a final rinse soak.  Remove after a few minutes, re-rinse under running water and hang to dry after patting out excess water.  Dry brushes with bristles down. I simply tape them on my studio desk with painters tape.

Discussion on cleaning mechanism.

Linseed Oil is used as a thinner(medium) for oil paint in the studio.  It will soften the oil, but increase the drying time of the paint.  I use an old fashioned stainless steel lunch tray with a few dividers as a paint mixing pan(palette).  Since there is usually a bit of linseed oil left over in one of the wells after a painting session, I use this excess to clean the remaining oil paint out of the pan at the end of the painting session.  The linseed oil quickly cleans the tray.  By rubbing your brush in the remaining oil and then wiping out the excess with a paper towel after painting, your brushes will stay clean and soft on an ongoing basis.

Some artists prefer to pay top dollar for super duper refined linseed oil with a fancy label on it.  I use good old fashioned Boiled Linseed Oil from my local hardware store for around $8.00 per gallon.

Caveat: Safety Precautions:

  1. The question that may arise for some: Is linseed oil toxic to the skin?  If one has this concern, click here, read the following studies, and then one may determine that for oneself. My personal conclusion was that since cleaning brushes does not involve the consumption of Linseed Oil, the effects, if any, according my reading of these studies would be minimal if any in a short exposure period.   Again, this is one person’s opinion, not scientific certified fact.  For me, contact with Boiled Linseed Oil has not caused any skin disorders or rashes.  One may be inclined to wear gloves if one has this concern.
  2. Never store rags soaked in linseed oil in closed boxes or bags.  They build up heat and can spontaneously combust.
  3. Learn how your city prefers you to dispose of hazardous materials.  Many cities sponsor a couple of free collection days each year for such.  Store any old rags etc. in enclosed heavy duty metal storage containers with water added.  Never flush chemicals and oils down your drain as you are likely to get it right back in your own drinking water later. 

Yardley’s Shea Butter Soap is one of the best hand washing soaps around.  I use it to wash my hands after coming in contact with not only paints but varnishes, and other toxic painting chemicals.  Below is an ingredient list.  The chemicals and extracts listed in bold are the ones that clean and soften your brushes.

Chemical Fact: Water is world’s best and most widely found and used solvent!  Water is the “inert ingredient” listed in thousands of household cleaning products.

  • Sodium Tallowate – ( A true Soap)
  • Water – (Natures cleanser)
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate or Cocoz Nucifera(coconut) Oil – (Basically a Moisturizer used in soaps)
  • Glycerin – (This ingredient will make your brushes soft… here to read why it is used in skin care products)
  • Fragrance(Parfum) – (the smell good in a soap)
  • Tallow acid – (Helps soap remain hard)
  • Coconut acid – (another firming ingredient and makes soap lather well)
  • Petrolatum – (used as a moisturizing agent in soap)
  • Sodium choride – (helps keep soap solidified)
  • Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter Extract – (one of nature’s best moisturizers for the skin….will help soften your brush bristles)
  • Buttermilk Powder – (helps soap make a creamy lather)
  • Titanium Dioxide – (a whitener)
  • Tetrasodium Etidronate – (helps stabilize colors introduced into soap)
  • Pentaosodium Pentetate – (helps stabilize color and consistency in soap)

The photos shown above are from a brush cleaning I started yesterday.  Notice in particular the difference between the color of the bowl of fresh linseed oil and the bowl that my brushes were washed in.  The linseed oil is doing the heavy lifting in this cleaning method.  The soap is final touch and conditioner.

On a final note, I suspect if one uses a different type of oil for an oil painting medium, say sunflower oil, it is likely to work just as well.  For that matter, olive oil makes a decent brush cleaner.


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