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Oriental Brush Care

A Discussion of the Best Ways to Select, Use, Care for and Preserve Oriental Brushes


Hair. Oriental brushes utilize many types of animal hair and a single brush can contain several different kinds of hair. Mixed-hair brushes often have a core made of stiff hairs (e.g., horse-hair, deer) which define the brush length and give the brush resiliency. The core is wrapped with softer hairs (e.g., sheep, goat) which hold large amounts of water or paint and define the brush's expressiveness.

Ferrule. Most Oriental brushes do not have ferrules. The hairs are cemented directly into their wooden handles, which makes them more fragile than Western brushes. Some brushes have a simple wood, bone or plastic ferrule, but this construction still lacks the durability of the crimped metal ferrule found in Western brushes.
Handle. Oriental brushes have wooden or bamboo handles. Hollow bamboo handles are lightweight and very suitable to the fluidity required of sumi painting and calligraphy.

Common Brush Hairs

Deer Hair. Hairs from the back of the deer are slightly coarse and are often combined with other hairs to form the brush core of calligraphy and wash brushes.

Goat and Sheep Hair. These are the most common hairs, used alone or blended, for wash or hake brushes or to wrap around the brush core of calligraphy and wash brushes. The best hairs are yellowish in color and are boiled to straighten. Although soft, with excellent absorbency and pointing ability, they lack spring.

Samba Hair. This stiff, coarse hair comes from a large Asian deer and is used to build the core of calligraphy brushes. Dark brown in color, it often appears kinked.

Raccoon Hair. Resilient, with good point retention, raccoon hair is used mainly in smaller brushes.

Horsehair. Commonly used in the core hair of calligraphy brushes, the best horsehair is creamy brown in color and comes from the horse's belly and ears. Strong, resilient and somewhat coarse, the hairs are very absorbent but do not hold their shape well. Each hair contains numerous pockets that trap water and color-- making them especially suitable for sumi painting.

Wolf Hair. This is a combination of sable and weasel hair and is not wolf hair at all. The confusion comes in the translation from Chinese to Japanese. "Wolf" hair is smooth and resilient and has good water-holding ability for washes. It is used alone or as a brush core with a sheep or goat wrap.

Other hairs used in Oriental brushes include badger, beaver, cat, pig and tiger.

Brush Construction

  1. Selected hairs are separated into small piles. Each pile is combed to remove curled or cut hairs.
  2. Hair piles are bundled, wrapped in newspaper and tied with string. The hair bundle is boiled in water to remove oils and straighten the hair. The boiled hair is untied, sprinkled with ash (rice husk) and rolled firmly on soft leather to increase absorbency. The hair is combed again.
  3. A single brush can contain several different hair lengths. For each length, the hair is gathered into a bundle. The base of the hair bundle is placed in a bamboo mold and tapped gently with a narrow wooden board for alignment. The aligned bundle is moistened and cut to length. This step is repeated for each hair length.
  4. When different hairs are used to form the brush, the hair for the brush core is combed, moistened and carefully intermixed. The core is inserted in a bamboo mold and tapped for alignment. The quality of the tip is tested at this stage by writing with water. The outer hairs are wrapped around the core hair.
  5. The base of the brush hair is tied with hemp thread, singed with a hot iron and tied with another layer of thread. It is inserted into the opening og the bamboo handle and secured with a setting compound.
  6. The brush tip is measured to ensure perfection before being dampened and starched to protect the hairs in transport. Sometimes a plastic or bamboo cylinder is placed over the brush head. After the starch is removed from the brush, this cylinder should be discarded, as trying to replace it may damge the brush hairs.


Removing the Starch

Sumi brushes are used in two states: katame (starched) and sabaki (loosened). Some brushes, such as those of horsehair and other stiff hairs, are often left partially starched to make them more controllable. Usually 1/2 to 2/3 of the brush length is softened, leaving the rest stiff. The starched end keeps the brush pointed and gives it the resiliency to create fluid strokes. Only the loosened end of the brush should be dipped in ink. The stiff portion must remain dry to be effective. To remove starch from the top half of the brush, use method two with great care after first loosening the starch with your fingers. When all of the starch is to be removed, use either method one or two.

  1. Suspend the brush overnight in a jar with cool water. (Do not set the brush in a container with the tip down.) The starch will gradually dissolve. Rinse in cool water until the hairs are soft and all the starch is removed.
  2. Hold the brush under a cool water tap. As the brush softens, continue to hold it under cool water and massage the hair between two fingers, beginning with the tip and moving toward the handle. Repeat the massage process until most of the starch is washed out. Then swish the brush around in a large jar filled with cool water, changing the water as it becomes cloudy from the starch. Continue this process until all starch is removed-- from the tip to the handle.

Brush Usage

In Japanese, sumi means ink and sumi-e means ink painting.

  1. Sumi brushes should be "primed" just before use to remove the air from the brush and to make them more ink-receptive. To do this, dip the brush into a jar of water or watery gray ink and swish it around. Sumi-e brushes can be primed in clear water or in color-tinted water.
  2. Brushes used with ink should not be used with water-based paints if pure color is desired, as traces of ink remain in the brush hairs and will alter the colors. Although ink will stain white hair brushes gray, the residual ink film help preserve brush hairs.
  3. For best results, segregate your brushes by color. Do not use the same brush for light and dark colors.
  4. Do not use an Oriental brush for rejuvenating dry ink or sumi colors on your palette. A stiff natural or synthetic bristle brush is better suited for this task and can withstand the scrubbing.

Brush Cleaning

To clean, gently wash brushes after use by swishing them around in a jar of cool water or under a cool faucet. Do not use warm water or soap, as they dry out the natural oils in the brush hairs and may dissolve the glue that holds the hairs inside the handle. Shake any excess water from the brush. "Dress" the brush by wiping it against a paper towel or between your fingers to bring it to its original shape. Make sure the hairs are straight.

Brush Drying & Storage

Brushes hould be dried in a horizontal position on a fudemaki (slatted bamboo mat) or in a suspended vertical position with tips down. Oriental brushes often have built-in loops at the end of the handle to facilitate drying. A cloth liner should be used inside a fudemaki when transporting brushes, as brush hairs can be caught between the bamboo slats and easily damaged. If possible, let the brushes dry thoroughly before packing them. The wooly quality of many hairs used in Oriental brushes are very appealing to moths and other insects. As a result, brushes which are not used regularly should be stored in moth balls or cedar chips.