Hub Hobby Shop

Selecting Sable Brushes

Selecting Sable Brushes

When it says “Sable” on the Label

by Claudia Myers, Spokane Art Supply

Edited by Zora Sweet Pinney

For centuries, the primary options for artists’ brushes were natural hair or bristle. But as natural hair becomes more scarce and expensive, manufacturers continue to develop synthetic substitutes to fill the need. The cost of finer quality synthetic filament may actually be more than its natural counterpart. Today, it is not an issue of one versus the other. It is an issue of availability, results and often the artist’s budget.


The Kolinksky sable is related to the weasel. The best hair comes from wild, young males trapped in the winter months when their coat is at its prime. The severe conditions this animal is exposed to creates tail hair that is long and full: a must for survival. Kolinsky hair can be as long as 2.25 inches. It is highly prized by brush makers for not only length but for its needle-sharp tips, resiliency and “belly,” or the way sable hair is tapered at both ends and widens about one-third of the way from the animal’s body.

The sable is actually sought for its pelt. The tail is sold to brush makers as a by-product. It takes 250 to 300 tails to yield one pound of dressed hair.

Right now, Kolinsky sables are in short supply. Global warming, environmental changes, human encroachment, and over-trapping are all factors. As a result, the fur industry has become more reliant on farm-raised animals, but ht attributes of the hair changes with controlled environments. The qualities most desired for artists’ brushes are lost.

Milt Priggee, editorial cartoonist for our local paper, used one size and brand of sable brush. He’d buy them by the dozen. When his last friend gave up, after years of service, he ordered more. Since he had not purchased brushes for many years, we suggested that he test a new one before committing to a large quantity. Unswayed, he ordered the brushes. …He discovered that brushes can change as manufacturers struggle with scarcity of hair economics.

The label “Sable” on an artists’ brush can mean many things. Sable is a large category, which may include “seconds” of Kolinsky, as well as weasel or marten hair, or may even contain other hair as filler. Sable brushes are”not created equal” and vary greatly. The best advice is to test the brush in water. Most brushes are dipped in gum arabic or sizing to protect the hairs before use. Wash this out in clean water, but do not “break” it out of the brush, (you can actually break the hair). Once the brush is free of size and thoroughly saturated, snap it against your wrist. Watch it come to a point. Or not!

What should an artist expect from a fine sable brush? If the brush is round, it will come to a very sharp point. The belly will provide a reservoir for the paint, allowing long, uninterrupted flows or fluid. If the brush is a flat, it will come to a very sharp edge and also have a belly. This brush serves adual purpose. It can be used to “Lay in” areas of color, or when used on edge, give a pencil-thin line. Both styles allow for variations of thick to thin while providing flow of paint. The resiliency of fine sable causes the brush to “snap back” to its original shape at the end of a stroke. For oil and acrylic, sable is used for surface blending when brush strokes are undesirable or particular details are wanted.

Sabeline and other sable-like names

“Sabeline” is hair designed to resemble red sable. It is often dyed ox hair. Sabeline is most commonly found in watercolor, stroke and lettering brushes. Check the manufacturer’s literature to clarify what they are using as Sabeline. It varies between brands. Because of this variation, the only way to know what a particular Sabeline brush will do is to test it in water. A good brush should carry a lot of fluid, and be springy and soft but will not match the point and resiliency of real Sable.

There are many trademarked brush labels with variations of “Sable” in the name. The actual fibers used can be synthetic or natural hair, or blends. This can be confusing to both the consumer and the AM retailer. At this time, there is no standard by which artists’ brushes are controlled. It is reasonably safe to assume that a brush labeled “Kolinsky,” “Kolinsky Sable,” “Pure Red Sable,” or “Red Sable” will contain real sable hair. The sable name with “ette” on the end or any other descriptive term such as white, black or gold implies sable-like qualities.


Squirrel is another soft hair with very desirable properties for some applications. Squirrel is commonly used in watercolor brushes. It is highly absorbent and holds a tremendous amount of liquid, but it lacks the spring associated with sable and many synthetics. It comes to an excellent point for fine detail, but can also create expressive washes. Generally, squirrel is found in round watercolor brushes or mops. Mops are an oval-shaped brush used for washes. Squirrel may be mixed with other hairs to give it more body.

Talahutky is gray and is the rarest and most expensive squirrel hair. It is thicker and stronger than other species. It is the preferred hair for sign lettering with enamel and spirit-based paints. Kazan is brown, thinner and softer. It is used in watercolor brushes. Saccamina, or blue squirrel, is very long, soft, and blue-black in color. It is used in watercolor wash brushes, either in quills or French-style oval brushes. Other squirrels, including those in my backyard, are not as desirable as the hair is shorter and less resilient.

Camel, ox, pony and goat, or back on the farm

A “camel” brush is not made of camel hair. It is a generic term for soft-haired brushes that are made of pony, ox, goat or other inexpensive hair, or a mixture.

Horse of pony hair is taken from the mane, tail, hock or belly. Natural tips are used in better brushes. The rest of the hair is cut into lengths and used in cheaper brushes. Horsehair doesn’t hold its shape well, nor does it point. It is used as a filler to reduce the price of a brush. Horse or pony hair is most commonly used in inexpensive school grade brushes or cosmetic brushes.

Ox hair is taken from the ears or hock. It has medium stiffness and resiliency, carries much fluid but will not point well s it has a blunt tip. Goat hair has a naturally blunt tip but retains a large volume of fluid. It is used in mottlers, mops, cosmetic brushes and Oriental brushes. Lesser grades are used in school brushes and, like pony, it can be used in blends or filler.

Mongoose and badger

Badger hair is rather stiff. It is taken from the back of the animal and can be as long as four inches. Badger brushes are used primarily for blending rather than moving a load of paint. Commonly, badger-hair brushes are found in a fan shape, or a bushy round shape with a flat top called a “badger blender.” The brush is swept across the surface to blend color and remove strokes. It can also be used to gently clean the surface of completely dry paintings. The best-quality badger hair has a white tip, black band, then white. Imitation badger can be created by dyeing ox hair.

More exotic

Mongoose tails are used for artists’ brushes. The mongoose is native to Africa and Spain, but this small, feisty animal has been exported to other countries for snake and rodent control. Hair from the Madagascar Mongoose is considered superior by this industry, and can cost as much as fine sable. Mongoose hair has a unique structure, giving it a stiffness somewhere between sable and bristle. It is an excellent choice for heavy-bodied paint like acrylic, oil and alkyd. Imitation hair and synthetic mongoose brushes are also available.

Pahmi hair comes from a weasel-like animal closely allied to the badger, but smaller and thinner. Pahmi hair is inexpensive and when dyed, can resemble badger or sable. It is also used as a filler.


Bristle comes from the back or shoulders of pigs, hogs or wild boar. Hairs may reach 13 inches long. As with sable, the longest hairs are the most costly and used in high-quality brushes.

Bristle has a “flag” or split end t the tip, which allows it to hold and manipulate heavy paint. Bristles curve in naturally. When bristle brushes are made so that the natural curve turns inward in the ferrule, it is called “interlocked.”

Masking a natural, interlocked bristle brush is complex, and the finest hair is used. The result is a brush that will retain its shape, manipulate masses of color and allow the artist more control. These brushes are more expensive.

Not all curved bristle are natural. This characteristic can be created with heat. They can take on the appearance of real interlocked brushes, but after you use them, they may lose their curve and stick up in a crew-cut fashion. Mousse will not fix the problem,

Chinese bristle

There are distinct regional differences in Chinese bristle. Animals from the southern areas produce stiffer bristles than those from North China. The finest have long soft flags and are found in Chunghing, Yunan, Hankow and Shanghai in the south. Bristle can also come from India, Korea and some parts of Central Europe. Inexpensive bristle brushes are made of lesser quality hair, referred to as “China” or “White Bristle.” It may be cut and without any flag, or very few flagged hairs. Flags are easily seen if you look carefully at the tips of individual hairs against a black surface. Bristle may be treated to make it softer, causing it to lose its natural curve, by boiling the hair.

For some applications, inexpensive bristle brushes are the most suitable tool.

Bristle brushes are best-suited forr oil or alkyd painting. The natural oiliness of the bristle repels water-based media. Bristle is used with acrylics because of it inherent strength and durability, but bristle can eventually become saturated and “mushy.” This is technical term for a brush without resiliency.

The majority of bristle brushes have long handles and are meant for work at a distance. There are short handled ones available for artists who work close up such as tole painters.

A common shape for a bristle is flat. The hair is long and squared off at the top. It gives long, sweeping strokes with few brush marks. My dad, an oil painter, always said that an artist should buy a Flat as it would soom turn into a Bright (wearing down with the friction against canvas.) A Bright is also squared-off at the top but the hair length is shorter, about equal to the width of the ferrule.


The first nylon used in artists’ brushes was thick, blunt at the tip and very slick. Nylon lacked the “scale” – microscopic crevasses – of natural hair, and the flag of bristle. Acrylic did wash out more easily, but then oil paint literally slid off the brush.

Today, all that has changed. Nylon and Taklon filaments, for instance, have become more sophisticated and are made to simulate their natural counterparts. They vary in thickness and resiliency, the filament comes to a tapered point and some are grooved or roughened to hold paint.

Just as with natural-hair brushes, manufacturers may blend different synthetic filaments to achieve desired characteristics. Natural hair may be part of the composite as well. Manufactured hair and bristles are available in a wide range of colors. You probably stock a number of brands of white synthetic short-handled brushes. It is wrong to believe they are “the same brush.” Their working characteristics can vary greatly.

How do you tell the difference? The first step is to test them your self.

Synthetic brushes can be used with all mediums. Short-handled, soft brushes with snap and spring are preferred for water media, but lack the strength to move heavy-bodied color. Thick, tougher fiber will not hold as much liquid, but can carry and manipulate thick paint. Read the manufacturers’ literature. Brush makers tell you the intent of the tool and key properties. Most of all develop your own sensitivity. You may not be an artist but with the water test you can “feel” the reaction of a brush. Close your eyes, and touch brushes. It is not scientific, but you will be amazed at the different qualities your other senses pick out without visual interference.

Cleaning and care

We all have bad hair days, but for a brush, it can mean permanent termination. Fine brushes are an investment, but will last a very long time if used and cared for properly. If your customer says something like “I always seem to destroy my brushes,” it is up to you to find out why. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to convince this person that a different style or better grade of brush would be a wise purchase.

One of the most common problems is accumulated paint in the “heel” of the brush, where the fiber meets the ferrule. To prevent this, do not immerse the brush in paint up to the ferrule, and always load and use the brush in the natural direction of the hair. Even wet paint is hard to completely remove from this area and if it dries, even more difficult. The paint residue causes a hard lump of glued-together hair. The brush will lose its resiliency and new paint will not flow evenly. All excess paint should be removed with a rag or paper toweling to get out as much paint as possible before putting the brush in solvent. Then, use the appropriate cleaner or solvent for the medium.

A brush should not be left to soak in liquid, especially resting on its head. While the artist intends to get right back to painting, two days later the brush is in an entirely different shape, and ruined. Brushes must be cleaned thoroughly after each session. They should be either laid flat or suspended with the head down to dry so that all excess fluid drains away from the ferrule. After they are completely dried, they can be stored upright, on their ends, or put away in a brush carrier.

Right size, right fit

Hopefully you don’t go to the shoe store and buy shoes because of their size without trying them on first. This can result in pain. There is no standardization for artists’ brush sizes. It is a simple, to-the-point answer. Even within a manufacturer, size can vary between similar styles. A lot of space could be used to explain why, but ultimately the customer must judge the brush by its physical appearance. Will it do the job? Is it the right fit?

Copyright 2001, Claudia Myers