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Making Brushes by Robert Shelton

An expanded version of an article originally appearing in the World Famous CAG Newsletter. Note: this information is intended for personal use only. It cannot be redistributed in any way without prior consent from the creator of the article.

Six BrushesFor less than $ 20, and in a few enjoyable hours, you can craft custom glaze brushes that will be the envy of your fellow ceramicists. If you have a fly tying fisher person in the family or neighborhood, the cost might be even less. This article will tell you what you need and how to go about it.

After you have materials in hand, these are the steps:

Materials and Tools
Animal hair patches of your choice: buck tail($4.50) is the most versatile; elk mane($1.50), moose mane($1.50), or antelope($3.50) work well also. Buck tail comes in a much larger piece, so it’s the least expensive. Prices and sizes vary widely. In selecting a patch, look at the length of the hairs, remembering that 1/4 to 1/2 inch forms the butt and goes inside the handle. Also look at the thickness of the hairs where they meet the hide. The thinner, the better in order to avoid “spinning”, the flaring out of hairs when you tighten the thread. If you won’t use a lot, try to trade with others so all have more variety.

Now that you are surrounded by your equipment and are ready to make brushes, consider two things:

  1. Will you be happy to have odd pieces of animal hair littering this area?
  2. Will you be happy if you spill cement on your table?

A “no” to either question should move you to find a new work space.

Cut Hair from Supply Piece
Select a piece of animal hide. Cut a squarish chunk away from the supply. For small
brushes, it is easiest to cut out a small piece of hide with desired amount of hair still attached. Wait to cut away the hide until you have thread wrapped tightly on bundle. First brush? Start with a piece 1/2 to 3/4 square. Larger brushes can be made of several smaller bundles. More delicate brushes can be made by combing out the fluff, leaving the guard hairs, but it will take more hide to make a brush. Try some of each. Larger brushes may require that you first grab a bunch of similar length hair and cut it from the hide.

Fasten with Thread
If using a bobbin holder, put the thread through the tube on the bobbin holder and the bobbin between the round knobs. Without a bobbin holder, just hold the bobbin in the palm of your hand with your little finger and control the thread between thumb and forefinger and have someone else nearby when you need a third hand. :-} It may also be possible to fashion some wire and rubber bands to keep the spool from unraveling.

Brush WrappingStart wrapping the butt ends of the hair firmly but not super tight. To start the wrap, hold the thread end with the same hand as the hair, then wrap over the thread end to lock it in place. Thirty turns around the bundle is not excessive. How tight? If you wrap too tightly, the hairs will splay out in every which direction. Try to wrap as tightly as you can without causing the hairs to splay out -- unless you want that shape brush. Tie off by making a loop in the supply thread and dropping it over the butt end, pull tight. Here is where the bobbin holder really pays off because you can let it hang in mid air without the thread coming unrolled.

Cut Away the Hide
Cut the hide away from the bundle now. Then make some more wraps with the thread and tie the thread off as above. Trim the butt ends of the hair neatly so that the stub will fit neatly into the hole you will drill in the handle. Avoid cutting your wrapped thread!

Cement the Butt of Hair Bundle
Fly tying cement is quite liquid, so it will flow between the threads and into the butt of hairs to cement them to each other and to the thread. Use a toothpick, nail, or needle tool to dip drops of cement from the bottle to the hair bundle butt. Also cover the thread completely with cement, using two or three applications. You don’t need to use a huge amount, but the threads should be well covered to seal them together for long brush life. Set the bundle aside to thoroughly dry on waxed paper.

Make a Handle
Select a piece of bamboo for the handle. It is most attractive to use a piece with a knot on both ends. Bamboo pieces between four and eight inches are the most useful. Select a section whose length and diameter seem in good proportion with the size of your hair bundle. Remember, the bundle of hair must fit into a hole you drill in the end of the bamboo. Cut your handle section out of the larger bamboo spear using as fine a saw as you can get your hands on. A fine hack saw blade may work, but do work gently to avoid tearing wood fibres. Adjacent bamboo sections may not be useful, depending on how you would like the handle ends to look. I use a saw from the hobby store across from DVCC. Sandpaper the bamboo ends as needed or if you have a grinding wheel, use that lightly. Want to get fancy: stain the cut portions to match the outsides.

Holding the bamboo while you drill is NOT a trivial issue. Drill slowly and you MAY be able to hold it by hand. Try to “hot dog” it and you may whip the bamboo out of your hand, perhaps injuring yourself if you have a tendency to be extraordinarily unlucky. I have a work bench vise equipped with a rubber jaw insert which works nicely, but I still drill slowly so that I don’t split the bamboo. If you have a vice, but no “soft jaws”, find some cork, felt, canvas, or rubber pieces to cushion the grip of the vice on your precious bamboo handle. Again, take it slowly so you don’t mess up your handle. A MotoTool works particularly well due to its excellent speed control, but ordinary drills will work also.

There are various kinds of drill bits available, but since you are drilling into end grain, you don’t need “brad point bits”, in fact they are less effective. Good, old fashioned carbon bits are just fine. If you are planning on a BIG brush, consider drilling out a small hole and working up to the size you need. Use a round rasp or burring bit to make the hole larger.

Glue Hair Bundle into Handle
The hair bundle should slide into the hole without excessive force and far enough for most of the thread to be hidden inside. Check for fit before you apply epoxy. Epoxy the hair bundle into bamboo handle. 5-Minute Epoxy works best, especially for impatient folks like you and me. Follow the safety precautions on the tube and mix a small amount per the instructions. Mix the epoxy with a large nail, popsicle stick or such. Smear some epoxy inside the hole and a bit on the outside of the hair bundle stub (the wrapped part). It does not take a lot. I usually squeeze out half an inch of epoxy and same of hardener. Wipe off and wash your hands after use, epoxy in the mouth or eyes is a definite NO NO and the best way to avoid that is to keep your fingers out of it. After the first epoxy has set, examine the junction between hair bundle and handle to see if there are any voids to fill with some more epoxy via a toothpick -- this is mostly cosmetic, but may make your brush easier to clean.

Wow Mom! My Very Own Brush!
So, now you have a brush. Congratulations. You can make some more to expand on what you have learned. When the epoxy is fully hardened, get out some glaze and give it a try!

If you want to get fancy about appearances, here are some ideas:

Now What?
So far we have not talked about how the individual hairs are lined up end-to-end. We just took them as the animal grew them. But it is also possible to build a different shape brush by aligning the hairs so that the points are together; such a brush may not trail as fine an ending to a stroke as before. But it will yield a brush with more control. There is a fishing fly tying device called a hair stacker ($15 and up) which is helpful in lining up the points. You can make a substitute with brass tubing per my example.

We used hair thickness as we found it, but it is possible to pick out hairs of similar thickness, points aligned or not, to make other styles of brushes. Consider that narrow, long bristled brushes will make snakey lines, short stiff ones will make more precise lines, and full, robust brushes will create broad, heavy lines. Which is best? Depends on what you want! Several of each would be nice. ;-}

After your first dozen animal hair brushes, you may want to explore other materials that can be used for bristles. Try one made with straws from a broom. You might use pieces of rag or artificial hairs from the Fly Tying Shop. If you have a house painting brush whose bristles look interesting but it’s not in the right shape, try them.

What else?
Enjoy your brush crafting and make a few extra for gifting your potty friends!