Acrylic Nails

The Life of a Brush

Don’t underestimate the power of this simple tool. The quality of your nail brush influences the quality of your work.

Next to the file, the nail brush is what does a large portion of the nail technician’s work, it is what she uses to apply artificial nails, which were responsible for more than $4 billion of nail technicians' income nationwide in 1994.

Being that this tool is so important, it is also important that nail technicians thoroughly understand just what nail brushes can do in order to choose the one that I best for them. You can probably know the difference between a flat brush and a round brush, and that you should clean your brush when you are done using it. But what do nail technicians do to their brush to make them work even better, how do they care for them to extend their lifespans, and what should you never, ever do to your brush?


Before nail manufacturers began making brushes specifically for nail services, nail technicians use small paint brushes purchased from art stores, says Bob Upshaw, president of Kupa Inc. (Buena Park Calif.). “The problem with those brushes is that they weren’t geared for the nail industry. Because of the type of glue to hold them together, the bristle would fall out,” he says. Some glues that hold the hairs in the ferrule [the metal connector between the bristle and he handle] are in monomer or acetone, according to Upshaw. “When that glue dissolves, the hairs begin to come out,” says Upshaw.

These were round brushes with pointed tips. They are still popular today because that was the basic shape available when acrylics first became popular. “I prefer round brushes because they are what I am used to using,” says Barbara Griggs, owner of Nail Visions Salon in Pasadena, Md., and an educator for Creative Nail Design Systems (Vista, Calif.). Rounds, as they are called, are what schools used to teach beginners how to use acrylic. Many manufacturers recommend using a round brush as well. Round brushes are good for blending and getting into small corners, Griggs says.

Nail manufacturers stepped in about eight years ago and customized brushes to satisfy nail technicians’ needs, which are quite different from the needs of painters. First came flat brushes, which were designed to be used primarily with gels; they are also recommended for use with products with a lower than normal liquid-to-powder ratio. “Flat brushes also are ideal for harder polymer products,” says Kym Lee, founder and CEO of Galaxy Nail Products (Corona, Calif.). Explains Upshaw, “They are not as popular as the pother brushes available to nail technicians, but flats work very well with gels and for fills.”

Sheryl Macauley, owner of The Nail Resort in Bakersfield, Calif., and winning nail competitor, says, “I know people who love them [flat brushes] fir fills, but they aren’t popular anymore. Flat brushes are short; they are not good for painting or pulling product,” she explains.

The next step in the evolution of the nail brush was the oval. It is the best of two worlds, according to Upshaw. Ovals have the advantage of a flat brush, which is to build shape, and a point like a round to get into corners. “Once a person learns about an oval, she will probably use it more readily. It’s a good all-service brush; it has better possibilities than the round,” says Upshaw.

The last step in brush evolution was the modified oval. This change came directly from the nail industry. Tammy Taylor, founder and CEO of Tammy Taylor Nails (Irvine, Calif.), explains how she modified the oval brush for her system: “My product is designed to use a larger brush which holds more liquid. When I designed my brush, I was using a size 7 or 8 oval. My problem was that I liked to work with one side of my brush all the time – like a flat brush – but the flat brushes don’t hold enough liquid. So I flattened my brush at the ferrule with pliers. This way I had a flat, long-bristled, oval brush.

The modified oval brush is the personal favorite of Debbie Krakalovich, owner of The Nail Shoppe in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “The brush is wide on the bottom and oval on the top. It is good for fills because it has a point but lets you take a lot of powder and has a wider area to do a full set. I found a manufacturer who makes this style with weight at the end of the brush so it is more balanced your hand,” Krakalovich says.


Not only does the shape of the brush vary, but so does the size numbers start at 0 to 00 for the smallest; as the numbers get bigger, the size of the brush at the belly is bigger. Smaller brushes are designed for fills and nail art. In years past, the most commonly used sizes we 4-6, says Andrea Nairne, president of Acu-Systems Inc. (Las Vegas, Nev.). Smaller brushes work well for sculpting short nails. Says Lee, “You use a lot less liquid for the application, so I recommend a 4 oval if the client wasn’t short nails. The smaller brush also lets you control the product better.”

Nairne explains, “Lately, a lot of acrylic manufacturers have formulated systems that use finger grind powders that set up faster, and nail technicians want brushes with larger bellies to hold more liquid.” Her biggest seller’s ae now up in the 8-10 size range. “The fattest brush we sell is a deluxe round that works well for rolling-type applications. When you are dredging, you can pick up a lot of more powder with this brush, but you have to be darn good to use it. You have to be able to maneuver product well. Some of the more advance powders are difficult for newer nail technicians to use.” Nairne says.


The price between brushes are usually determined by the quality of hairs used. Kolinsky sable brushes are top of the line; they are by far the most expensive and best. A Kolinsky has smoother hairs and results in finer pack of the powder. Pure sable hair is next down the line. Mixed hair brushes are the least expensive brushes. These are made of pony hair mixed with sable hair and sometimes synthetic bristle. “A cheap brush won’t give you a prefect smile line or sidewalls, and you won’t have good control for the product. Often the bristles fan out with these,” Macauley says.

The single-most important factor in getting your money’s worth from a brush is proper cleaning and care. Taylor has seen nail technician who didn’t know how to care for their brushes ruin brand-new ones, but with good care, she estimates a brush can last as long as 2 ½ years. The nail technicians we spoke to say their brushes last three to 12 months.

The reason you need to clean your brush is to remove old product, Upshaw says that liquid and powder develop a small amount of “syrup” where the ferrule and hair connect. If this is not removed, the hair will begin to flair; brushes don’t work well when they get like that.

To keep your brushes in the best shape, Taylor recommends having two or three brushes on your table ready to use. “When one gets dirty you should use another brush rather than trying to pick out the products from the dirty brush,” Taylor says.

Good-quality bristles are organic; they once came from a living thing and must be well-cared for, much like one must take a good care of a leather item (see “How the Experts Clean Their Brushes,” page 40). Lee says a good guideline to proper care of your brush is to think of brushes as you do your hair. Upshaw agrees: “I ask people who argue about proper brush care, “Would you wash your own hair with acetone?”

The appearance of your brush matters also. Krakalovich looks for brushes with clear acrylic handles because liquid can remove paint from painted wooden handles. “Acrylic handles clean up well and always look new,” says Krakalovich.

When do you need to replace your brush? Macauley can tell it’s time to replace a brush when the hairs around the outside of the bulb start to flair out. Stray hairs leave grooves in the acrylic when you are sculpting, Griggs says, and you will have to do more filling to remove them.

Is it better to keep a brush as long as you can, or are new brushes better to work with? Many nail technicians prefer to work with a brand new brush. They find that when a brush is new, the bristles are still in place and the points are really point. Krakalovich says, “After you clean your brushes, they are never the same as when they are fresh and new,” Griggs say would use a new brush every time if she could.

On the other hand, Lee says you will get better results after you have used a brush a couple of times. “Manufacturers put starch in brushes to keep their shape. They work better once you’ve got all the starch out,” Lee explains.


Selecting a brush may not be as easy as it seems. Many times nail technicians end up just buying the same brush they learned with in school. But schools don’t always buy best brushes for their students, says Upshaw.

“People need to appreciate the quality of their brushes recommended for the application you are using because manufacturers put a lot of energy into researching what brush is going to work best with their products.”

A nail technician needs to look for a high-quality, smooth-textured brush and not a low price, Taylor says. “A cheap brush will last one week, and quality brush up to 2 ½ years.”

Something else to take into consideration is what you plant to use it for. “Your brush should be chosen by your product and procedure. If you use a slow-setting product that doesn’t need a lot of liquid and you use a lot of small balls, a flatter, shorter is better. If you use a faster-setting product and three to four balls per nail, you will need a larger, more oval-shaped brush,” Taylor explains.

Trying a new brush is a hit-and-miss situation, says Macauley. “Often you can’t try them at shows. Sometimes you spend the money and find out you don’t like it,” she says. “A lot of what you choose depends on your preferences. The whole matter is very subjective; there are few hard-and-fast rules about what will not work with brushes.” Krakalovich suggest that new technicians experiment with diffident brushes to find which ones they like best, but to stick with quality hair bushes.

Says Nairne, “If the brush is synthetic or poor quality, the hairs are coming out, and you can’t clean it easily, or the minute you start patting and you leave a hair, it makes your product look bad,” she says.

Brush construction is another important quality to look at when brush shopping. Nairne says, “Hand crimping makes a big difference in brush quality. Machine-crimping misses bristle, and the brushes tend to fall apart quickly. Most of the prominent brush manufacturers are selling hand-crimped brushes, which indicates a higher-quality brush.” Nairne explains that in order to tell if a brush is hand-crimped of machine-crimped, you need to ask the company you are buying it from. She adds that you can tell by looking at the ferrule. Ferrules without seams are machine-crimped, and those with seams are machine-crimped. Another sign of good quality is the finish not be chipped or leave paint crumbling.

Think of your brush as the key to your artwork. It is one of your most important tools, so take your time when choosing a brush. When you finally find the brush that works best for you, care for it as you do your other tools. Because it doesn’t matter how great your skills are if you can’t apply them with the proper tools.


While all of the experts say that the most important thing you can do for your brush is to take good care of it, nobody can seem to agree on the best cleaning procedure. Here are suggestions from veteran nail technicians on keeping brushes squeaky clean.

Barbara Griggs: “To clean a brush I prefer to wipe the brush on terry cloth rather than on a paper towel. I have found that terry cloth is better for pulling out dust particles. Also, think brush cleaners are too harsh. Occasionally condition my brush with oil, but I clean it well before using it to remove the oil.” Griggs recommends that if a nail technician need to give a brush a good cleaning. She use a good-quality hair shampoo to wash the bristles, soak them in oil over the weekend, and wash them before using them again.

Tammy Taylor: “I let my brush soak in brush cleaner for about 10 minutes. After the brush soaks in the cleaner, I wipe it off on a clean towel to remove any old product and brush cleaner from the bristle. Then I dip the brush in monomer, wipe it off, and store it standing up.”

Kym Lee: “I clean my brush at night in shampoo and water and then soak them in oil.”

Bob Upshaw: “I dip the brush into brush cleaner, hold it upside down to the base of the brush, and wipe it clean. Brush cleaner is much less expensive than monomer, and it works better than monomer because it researches the surface of each hair better and lubricates the surface of the bristle.”


There are a number of things that you should never do to your brush. Take good care and you will extend its life dramatically.

  • Picking, digging or cutting at a dirt brush will ruin it. If product dries in the brush and you pick at it, you will have stray hairs when you pull it out.
  • Do not wipe your brush too vigorously when you have too much liquid in your brush or are wiping excess acrylic off of your brush. This can break hair.
  • Never clean your brush in acetone; it is too harsh on the hairs, may dissolve glue in the ferrule, and can remove paint on the handle.

Never leave a brush out without its cover/sleeve. Dust can get in the bristles, and files can scratch the surface of the bristles.

  • If you work in a part of the country that has drastic climate changes, don’t put your brush in oil. Areas that experience rapid changes between hot and cold and frequent humidity changes make the clients there who wear acrylics more susceptible to lifting. If you don’t get even the smallest bit of oil out before you use it, you can contaminate all of your product.
  • Never lend your brush to anyone else. She might not clean it properly, and she might apply acrylic, and she might apply acrylic in a different way, which can change the shape of the bristles. Debbie Krakalovich explains that each person holds the brush and shapes product differently. Changing the changing the shape of the brush.
  • Don’t rest your brush on your towel. New students tend to lay the brush on the towel they use to brush off excess acrylic and it gets on the handle.
  • Don’t leave your brush soaking in a brush cleaner that is also as a tip blended for longer than the tip blender manufacturer recommends. Tip blenders essentially melt plastic, and you shouldn’t leave a brush soaking in it for very long.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with your brush. If something isn’t just right and you can’t find exactly what you want, modify what you already have to make it work. For example, Sheryl Macauley always breaks off her brush handles so they are closer to the length of a pencil or pen to make them similar to what one would use to paint or write.


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