Foam Brush vs Bristle Brush: Which Is Better for Your Job?

foam vs bristle brush difference

One secret to getting the right paint job is using the best brush for the work.

With the market loaded with tons of options, I understand it’s pretty hard to choose the one that suits all your purposes.

In general, there are two popular types of brushes.

These can be categorized as the traditional bristle brush and other which is a more recent foam brush.

Choosing the right one for the job means understanding what each brush is, their differences, and which one is better overall…


What is a Foam Brush?


As the name implies, the foam brush is made from a foam-like sponge material that is solid.

The soft porous foam can absorb the paint much like a sponge pad and can apply it across a surface (no matter how small or large it is).

The handles of a foam brush are mostly made of wood, although you can find plastic handles as well.

These types of foam made brushes can be extremely easy to use, even for a beginner.

And the good thing is you can use them for applying nearly all types of paints, stains, and varnishes on furniture, cabinetry, and trim.

Pros:

  • Good for smaller projects
  • They are cheap and disposable
  • Can work fast without leaving brush strokes
  • Great for testing sample paints and primers before your paint job

Cons:

  • Can leave air bubbles and other marks
  • Foam can break or shred even after small use
  • Less effective and difficult when applying paint on tight corners
  • Not a good choice for thick paints and finishes, especially for larger projects

What is a Bristle Brush?


Bristle brushes have been around for many centuries.

Originally, they used the hair of animals, mostly hogs, to provide the bristles.

Today, they are mostly made from synthetic fibers, although natural fibers are still used.

The synthetic fibers are mostly polyester or nylon which provides an even application of the paint being used.

Plus, they typically come with wooden handles, although plastic handles are quite common as well.

Pros:

  • Good for small and large projects
  • Good to use even with thicker paints
  • Much better when working at tight areas and edges
  • Durable, can last for long and complete various projects if cleaned well

Cons:

  • Can leave brush strokes
  • Can be expensive based on quality

Foam Paint Brush Vs. Bristle: The Difference


Although I keep both (foam as well as bristle brushes) in my painting tools bag, a bristle brush with soft hairs is what I use most.

Foam brushes I only use when I have a small staining project on hand that requires less time to complete without much finishing.

The differences are rather profound, between foam and bristle brushes, despite their similar size and use.

The most common differences include the following…

1- Brush Strokes:

The most obvious difference is that a bristle brush will show bristle marks when painting over smooth surfaces, especially when using latex paint over drywall.

On most surfaces, you will see the brush strokes which may be a desired effect.

But if you want a smoother appearance, then a foam brush is preferred.

2- Cost:

A bristle brush tends to be considerably more expensive compared to the foam brush.

This is because the bristles tend to be more difficult to obtain or produce.

What I like about the cheaper foam brushes is you can even throw them away after a single use.

Which saves you from all the hassle of cleaning, softening and storing the brushes right.

3- Durability:

This is where bristle brushes shine as they can be cleaned repeatedly for years before they need replacement.

Although bristle brushes will become less effective over time, especially if used in hot weather for extended periods.

Foam brushes may also be washed repeatedly, but they tend to break down over a much shorter period compared to bristle brushes.

You will have to replace a foam brush more often compared to a bristle brush, but you are paying less for the product.

4- Even Application:

While it may sound counterintuitive, a bristle brush will not only hold more paint but distribute it more evenly compared to a foam brush.

You will need to use a high-quality bristle brush, but the evenness of the coat will be better compared to the foam version.

With foam brushes, they will not hold as much paint and you may have to apply more coats to get the same effect as a bristle brush.

5- Type of Paint:

Another consideration is that which brush you chose will depend on the type of paint that is being used.

While a foam brush can be used with all types of paints and stains, you will need to narrow the selection when it comes to bristle brushes.

Latex or Water-Based Paint:

A synthetic bristle brush tend to be the best when the fibers are made from polyester or nylon.

Staining or Oil-Based Paint:

Here, a natural fiber bristle brush is preferred, although a polyester brush is not a bad choice either. 

Varnish and Other Protective Finishes:

If applying finishes like polyurethane, polyacrylic, varathane, urethanes, or any other varnish a good quality synthetic bristle brush is often recommended.

However, do not use the expensive bristle brushes as they can be hard and can leave bristle marks on the wood finishes like Minwax polyacrylics.

You can also get the job done using a disposable foam brush but since the foam head may contain air it can leave bubbles in your finish when applying.

Bristle brushFoam brush
PrimerMod Podge
Latex PaintPaint Stripper
Shellac polishWood Conditioner
Oil-Based PolyurethaneWater-Based Polyurethane

So, Which Paint Brush is Better for Your Project?


Better is a subjective term when it comes to either bristle or foam brushes.

It will depend on what type of material you are covering, the type of paint being used, the size of the project, and whether you want to see the brush strokes or not.

If you are working on a larger project and are OK with some visible brush strokes, then the bristle brush you need to use is obvious.

If not, then you might want to select a foam brush.

Although a foam brush generally takes more work and will wear out much faster compared to a bristle brush.

For small projects over smooth surfaces, a foam brush is arguably the best choice.

Especially if you do not mind paying for extra brushes, although they are far less expensive compared to a good bristle brush.

For larger projects, such as painting a wall, a roller is the best because it covers a far wider area compared to either brush.

However, when you paint the trim and areas around windows and doors, a foam or bristle brush may be used. 

The Bottom Line

A good paintbrush is an important part of a tool kit, without which no painter can even think to survive.

With options like foam and bristle brushes, you can easily make your paint project look unique and beautiful.

However, choosing the right one as per your painting style is a key to success when you are working on your painting project.

IMO, it’s best to keep both of them in your tool kit as both of them will serve different purposes and can help get different types of finishing.

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