Types of Hairs & Bristle

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Hairs, bristles, BRISTLES, and nylon filaments work as devices for holding and applying ink or paint because of capillary attraction-the natural attraction of a liquid for a solid and its tendency to flow toward it. When hairs, bristles, and nylon filaments are grouped together to form a brush and dipped into a liquid, the liquid will tend to be drawn up between the hairs and be held in place. When the tip of the brush is touched to an absorbent surface, the liquid will be transferred to it with the help of gravity. Thick paints rely more on pressure than on gravity to be transferred to an absorbent surface.

There are two main characteristics that distinguish one hair from another, as well as hair from bristle and nylon filaments. The first and most important characteristic is the hair’s degree of absorbency. Hairs have scales, and the more scales, the greater the surface area to attract and hold liquids. This increased absorbency provides greater control in the application of inks or paints because they are held within the body of the brush, allowing for even flow off the tip of the brush. Brushes made of less absorbent hairs, or nonabsorbent synthetic filaments, accumulate liquids at the tip. Inks or paints tend to run quickly and often uncontrollably off the tips of such brushes during application.

Spring or stiffness is the second most important characteristic. The presence or lack of it in a particular hair will define how it can be used and with what type of liquid. The large variety of hairs, bristles, and nylon filaments, as well as the way they can be blended and shaped into brushes, provides a vast opportunity for differing styles of expression. Only a knowledgeable painter can, however, take full advantage of this potential.

The availability of choice, natural hairs for brushes is shrinking while the price is rising. One of the major causes for this situation is the increasing number of animals placed on endangered-species lists by importing and exporting countries. The current explosion of new regulations about what is legal for one country to export and what is legal for another country to receive has led to absurd occurrences. There is one story of an importer of hairs from around the world who was attempting to declare to customs the importation of some nylon “hair.” The customs agent insisted on knowing the name of the animal from which nylon “hair” was obtained so he could check it against his list of endangered animals. No amount of explanation that these were synthetic hairs would deter this agent from his appointed duty. Ultimately, it took a phone call to a local congressman to get the shipment released.

The following descriptions are of hairs, bristles, and nylon filaments that are considered in most countries to be both desirable and legal for brush making.

SABLE

The name “sable” was made up by trappers to refer to the marten, and especially one particular marten, Martes zibellina. The name “red sable” was used to denote both the weasel and the Asian mink (also known as the kolinsky), which have a yellow-reddish tint to their brown hair. All these animals are so closely related that they are part of the same family, Mustelidae. The red sable is of primary interest to the artist because the finest sable brushes are made from its fur. White sable and golden sable are merely trade names for synthetic filaments used as substitutes for animal hair.

Sable is chosen for its spring (the ability to return quickly to its original shape) and its point (the ability to return to a fine pointed shape). The shape of an individual hair resembles an elongated pear. There is greater width in the middle of the hair than at the tip, which is pointed. This hair shape is what gives sable its strength to spring back and to come to a very fine point. The strength of the spring and the length and fineness of the tip of the hair together determine the quality and the price of the brush. Consequently, hairs collected from wild animals that live in colder climates are preferred because their fur grows thicker and longer. The best-quality brushes are made with hairs that are collected from the middle, or belly, of the tail. The hairs are longer at the end of the tail, but also are thinner, have less body, and are usually damaged, blunted, or kinked from the animal’s activity. These hairs are used in lower-quality sable brushes and sometimes as filler in medium-quality brushes.

Kolinsky

Kolinsky is a particular strain of mink that lived at one time in the Kola Peninsula in the western part of Russia and was the source for the finest red sable brushes. Today, there are no kolinskys left in the area. This animal is virtually extinct and is, therefore, a protected species in Russia. The name “kolinsky,” however, is currently used to denote the hair acquired from the Asian mink, Mustela siberica, that lives in Siberia, northern China, and Korea. Hairs from the tail of this animal were highly prized and set the world standard for length (up to 2 ½ inches), spring, and point. The finest varieties, the longest and the thickest hairs, come from the coldest climates and, because Siberia is farthest north, the best kolinsky comes from the Soviet Union.

The longest and strongest hair is taken from the male winter coat of the kolinsky. The Soviets have severely restricted trade of the animal, and at this time the German brush manufacturer daVinci (who produces brushes under the names Realité and Cosmos), is the only one who claims still to be trading with them and using this hair. It is the only manufacturer that I have found that will volunteer information about its finest brushes, such as whether it is using male winter coat hair and how much is being used. Other manufacturers, such as Grumbacher, claim still to be using old stock that they accumulated before the restrictions. Manufacturers that have exhausted their stock are now using the Chinese and Korean kolinsky.

The color of Siberian kolinsky hair is brown with a distinctive yellowish-red tint. The Chinese variety tends to be slightly darker with less red. Tiny dark spots running the length of the hair are not unusual. The term “red sable” comes from the reddish tint this hair naturally possesses. Because this hair often sells for several thousands of dollars per pound, it is not uncommon to find hair that has been cosmetically treated to look like the Siberian variety. Crudely treated hairs can often be recognized by an unnatural bright orange tint.

Red Sable

Red Sable is a large category, which includes hair from “seconds” of kolinsky and hair from the weasel. The kolinsky hairs are called seconds because they are thinner overall, particularly in the longer hairs. Hair from the marten, particularly Mantes zibellina, is included in this category by some manufacturers more because of the quality than the color. The finest red sable is always separated from the rest and called either “kolinsky sable,” “kolinsky mink,” or just “kolinsky.”

Red sable hair has slightly less spring than kolinsky and is a little stiffer, and the tips are a little blunter. These characteristics can be attributed more to the warmer climates in which the animals are found than to the differences among species. Most red sable hair, darker in appearance than kolinsky, can vary widely in quality and appearance. In some cases, the better red sable is almost indistinguishable from the kolinsky. In general, red sable makes fine-quality brushes when the hairs are selected for quality and are arranged properly during brush making. When hairs from the end of the tail, which are often thin and kinked, are used, and quality control is poor, the performance can be far less than that of synthetic “sables.”

Weasel

Weasel is a Mustela, as is the kolinsky. The hair is similar, but of inferior quality, shorter and with less thickness, or belly. This hair is commonly used as a filler in sable brushes. Weasel hair is preferred in certain styles of Oriental brushes.

Sable or Brown Sable

Sable or Brown Sable brushes that are not designated either red sable or kolinsky, are made of hairs obtained from varieties of the marten, or are left over from the production of the other sable brushes. The quality of brushes made from these hairs varies greatly, from a brush that is virtually useless to an adequate student-grade brush.

Ermine

Ermine was used a century ago in Europe and America when better sables were less common. The hairs are very short by comparison and could only be used for making small brushes. Ermine has essentially been replaced by red sable.

Synthetic Sables

Synthetic Sables are known by many names. The two most common are White Sable, created by the Simmons Brush Company, and golden sable. White or colored, all synthetic sables are some variation of nylon filaments developed and manufactured in Japan. Most of the brushes, with or without handles, are assembled in Japan, regardless of the label. There are some differences in synthetic brushes because of variations in the assembly of the filaments, which are specified by those commissioning their manufacture. These differences are small, however, when compared to the difference between synthetic and natural sables.

The shape of the nylon filament is pointed at the tip, and the body is straight and uniform. The filaments used to duplicate hairs range in diameter from 0.08mm to 0.15mm; those for bristles are 0.20mm or more. Nylon has remarkable spring, so much so that many professionals feel it is a drawback. Some manufacturers have attempted to deal with this by varying the width of the filaments or blending the synthetic with natural hair.

Another common complaint is the nonabsorbency of the synthetic hair. This is a particular problem with watercolor because the color gathers excessively at the tip and runs quickly off the brush onto the more absorbent surface, making control difficult. Recently, some manufacturers began trying to increase the absorbency of nylon either by etching the surface of the filament to simulate the scales of natural hairs or by coating the hairs to reduce the surface tension. Both do help a bit, but there is the question of whether the improvement is worth the extra expense.

There are significant advantages to synthetic brushes. These include the cost of the larger-size brushes, which can be one-tenth the price of red sable. A good synthetic filament is better than a bad red sable.

OX (SABELINE)

Sabeline is light ox hair dyed to a reddish tint so that the brush’s appearance will resemble that of red sable. Only the astronomical price of sable and the lack of absorbency in synthetic hairs keep ox hair in use. Ox hair, which comes from the ears of oxen, has springiness similar to that of sable, but it does not have the fine tip. The tip of the hair is actually quite blunt when compared to sable and will not form a fine point when used to make a round brush, or a fine edge when used to make a flat brush. Both Grumbacher and Winsor & Newton claim that the lighter shades of ox hair are superior to the darker shades.. Max Sauer Company claims that the color has less to do with quality than do the method of preparation and the origin of the animal. I believe, light or dark, you should test the brush first to see if it is right for you.

Since the darker varieties of ox hair are longer, they are more commonly used in large flat brushes. The lighter-colored hairs are shorter and are usually used in watercolor flat and round brushes.

CAMEL

There is no such hair as camel hair used in the making of brushes. “Camel hair” is a trade term for various inexpensive, poor-quality hairs such as pony, bear, sheep, lesser grades of squirrel, or whatever else is available at the time. These brushes are unprofessional and have no redeeming qualities, except that they are inexpensive and resemble artists’ brushes.

SQUIRREL

Squirrel hair, with one exception, is a thin hair with a pointed tip and a more or less uniform body. It is soft and absorbent, and it has a natural affinity for itself, which means that when a brush made of squirrel hair is fully wet, it can come to an exceptionally fine point. Squirrel hair, however, has little or no spring.

Squirrel is basically misunderstood. When sable rose dramatically in price, many artists turned to squirrel as a less expensive alternative and became disillusioned when it did not perform like sable primarily because of the lack of spring. A good-quality squirrel brush was never meant to be used as a cheap sable replacement. Its particular qualities make it ideal for watercolor wash technique, lettering, and for the application of paints when an exceptionally smooth finish is required.

There are four kinds of squirrel that are primarily used in the making of artists’ brushes.

Kazan Squirrel

Kazan Squirrel is named for its home province in the Soviet Union. Hair derived from the tail of this animal is highly prized for its superb tip and elasticity, and is considered the best of the squirrel hairs. This hair is used in making the finest watercolor brushes. It can range in color from black to black with red tips and flecks of gray along the shaft.

Blue Squirrel

Blue Squirrel hair is similar to kazan, except that it is longer and of slightly lower quality. The hairs are blue-black with a gray root.

Taleutky

Taleutky hair is stronger and longer than the other squirrel hairs and is primarily used to make lettering quills.

Canadian or Golden Squirrel

Canadian or Golden Squirrel hair is shorter and thicker than the other Soviet varieties; it is the only squirrel hair that possesses a “belly.” This belly resembles sable hair not only in appearance but also in handling. Although it is too short for round brushes and possesses little spring, it does make a fine-quality watercolor flat and is a reasonable alternative to the high cost of sable. The hair appears variegated with gold and black coloring.

BRISTLE

Hog, boar, and pig hairs are called bristles because of their stiff and coarse appearance. They are actually so stiff that they were used as the balance spring in the first pocket watch. Bristle has a relatively uniform body with natural curve and a “flagged,” or split end. The curve is either removed or reduced during the boiling and preparation of the bristles. Interlocked brushes are made from hairs that have been boiled for only two hours so that some curve remains. An interlocked brush takes advantage of the curve; the bristles are assembled so that the curved bristles oppose one another. As with a broom, this helps keep the tip from splaying to give better control.

One of the desirable characteristics of hog bristle is flagging-the multiple tips provided by split ends. The greater the flagging, the better the control. Wild hogs have more split ends than the domesticated animal. Currently, the best hog bristle comes from China, where there are more wild hogs. Bristle from the Chungking province of China is said to be the best.

BADGER

Badger hair, which has a variegated black and white appearance, is not commonly used to make artists’ brushes. The one important exception is in blending brushes, for which it is excellent.. Sable is too expensive for this purpose, and because of the fineness of the hair it has to be frequently cleaned of paint buildup. Badger, however, is longer and thicker than sable and less costly.

MONGOOSE

There are more than forty species of mongoose throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, all of which are considered in most countries to be endangered. India at this time seems to have far more mongoose than it cares to, and is, therefore, one of the few legal sources for this hair.

Mongoose hair is closer to sable in appearance and performance than it is to bristle. The tip of the hair comes to a tapering point like sable, but the belly is much thicker and therefore stiffer. The hairs, on average, are a bit longer than most sable. Mongoose is also similar in appearance to badger; both have a variegated colored body. Badger is often used as a cheap filler for mongoose brushes. One way to tell the difference is that mongoose hair has a dark tip and badger hair has a white tip.

Brushes made of mongoose are made primarily for oil painting, and are excellent for times when bristle is too crude and sable is not stiff enough to push thicker paint mixtures over the painting surface. Mongoose is priced between sable and bristle, and is often sold as a cheaper alternative to sable. It makes a fine brush for certain jobs, regardless of the price.

MISCELLANEOUS HAIRS

Fitch, pony, and monkey, as well as the lesser grades of badger and mongoose hair, are animal hairs used in the making of Western brushes to produce less expensive alternatives to such hairs as sable and squirrel. These hairs are most often used as fillers. A percentage of sable, for example, will be replaced with fitch hair to produce a more moderately priced brush. I tend to avoid brushes that have filler because their performance is unpredictable.

Monkey Hair

Monkey Hair, a relatively short hair that often appears light brown in the middle and almost blond at the tip, is usually found in combination with other hairs. These brushes are produced as a less expensive sablelike oil painting brush. I find the savings and the performance not great enough to overcome my own inhibitions about using brushes made of primate hair.

Fitch Hair

Fitch Hair, which is from the polecat (a close relative of the weasel), is similar to but coarser than weasel. The hair ranges from dark brown to almost black. Brushes made from Fitch hair can be a cost-effective alternative to sable oil painting brushes. I have found that these brushes are not manufactured with the same quality control, possibly due to the low cost, and should be examined carefully for defects and for tips that have been cut to make them even. Fitch hair brushes are sometimes called Russian sable, black sable, or Russian black sable as a marketing gimmick to promote sales.

Pony Hair

Pony Hair is coarse, often kinked, and very inexpensive. This hair is used to manufacture school brushes and can sometimes be found as a filler in squirrel hair brushes. Pony hair does not perform well and should be avoided.

HAIRS PRIMARILY USED IN ORIENTAL BRUSHES

Samba, horse, deer, weasel, cat, sheep, and goat are the animals whose hair is most often used in the manufacture of Chinese and Japanese brushes. The coarsest and stiffest hair is that of the samba, the horse, and the back of the deer. The hair of the weasel and the inner arch of the deer is less coarse and stiff. The hair of the cat, sheep, and goat is softer, finer, and has less spring. Brushes made of bamboo resemble samba hair in coarseness and behavior.

There are Oriental brushes that are labeled or called wolf hair. All such brushes that have been shown to me were actually sable or combinations of sable and weasel. One of the oldest importers of Oriental artists’ materials explained that the confusion lies in some old and poor translation from Chinese to Japanese. Today, when a Japanese importer orders wolf from a Chinese exporter he knows that sable or weasel will be delivered. This situation is further complicated by the recent involvement of Western importers and the English language. Rather than add to this confusion, suffice it to say that Chinese brushes called sable are usually made of high-quality sable and Chinese brushes called wolf are usually sable and weasel mixed, and are of a slightly lesser quality.

Samba, or Sambar,

Samba, or Sambar, which is also called the mountain horse in the Orient, is a large Asian deer that is the source of a stiff and coarse hair used in the making of Oriental calligraphy brushes. The hair appears slightly kinked and has a variegated dark brown and tan appearance.

Horsehair

Horsehair is one of the commonest hairs used in Japanese brush making; it is particularly popular for calligraphy brushes. Horse hairs do not have a great affinity for themselves even when wet; they will not necessarily maintain a brushlike shape without assistance. Consequently, horsehair brushes are often left partially starched near the ferrule, or are wrapped with a layer of sheep hair, which can keep the horsehair in shape. In general, horsehair is strong, slightly coarse, resilient, and long. The better hairs are a cream-colored brown; the darker the shade the poorer the quality. White horsehair is strong like other horsehair, but more flexible and used fully loosened. Microscopically, horsehair appears as a series of tapering scales stacked on top of one another. Where one scale ends and the next begins there are little pockets that trap the ink and hold it until used. It is these pockets that make horsehair more absorbent than most other hairs. (The exception is sheep hair, which has many more pockets.)

The quality of a horsehair brush is, to a great extent, determined by the part of the animal from which the hairs come. Hair from the mane or back is coarse and of poor quality. Tail hair varies greatly in quality. It is often sorted into various grades and is used primarily for making large brushes. The finest horsehair is obtained from the belly and the ears. The shorter, better-quality hairs are used mostly in watercolor brushes, the longer and coarser hairs in calligraphy brushes.

Deer Hair From the Back

Deer hair from the back is similar to that of the samba, but is not as coarse and has more spring than stiffness. The hair is usually variegated white and tan. This hair is used as an additive to increase the resilience of softer combinations of hairs.

Weasel

Weasel is common to both Japan and China, while sable is found only in China. Greater availability of weasel than sable has played an important role in its popularity, but since a brush made of weasel hair has less spring than sable it is even more desirable. Too much spring is considered a drawback. The Chinese, who do not generally distinguish between calligraphy and painting brushes, use weasel for both. In Japan, weasel is used mainly for detail-painting brushes.

Deer Hair From the Inner Arch

Deer hair from the inner arch is similar to so-called wolf hair, but is a little coarser. The combination of deer with other, softer hairs adds resilience to a brush. Deer hair is used for painting brushes in Japan.

Cat Hair

Cat Hair is popular for making detail brushes. It is therefore not uncommon in the Orient to find the village cat missing large clumps of hair, yet not suffering from any particular ailment. Cat hair is soft with some spring and has a natural affinity for itself, causing it to hold a good shape.

Sheep or Goat Hair

Sheep or Goat Hair is the hair most used in Oriental brush making. It is made into large calligraphy brushes and flat wash brushes, and is combined with other hairs. The hairs are boiled to straighten them, and resemble squirrel hair in behavior. They have no spring, but do have a fine point and a uniform body that, under a microscope, appears to consist of tapering, individual scales that are attached end to end. As on horsehair, there are small pockets where these scalelike shapes meet that allow ink to be trapped and held until used. Both sheep and goat hairs have these pockets, which contribute to their absorbency, but sheep hair has many more. The Japanese word jofuku is used to describe calligraphy brushes made of sheep hair. It means, “dip once, lot of ink.” The best-quality sheep or goat hair has a very fine tapering tip. When made into a brush, this tip will have a distinctly yellow tint, but brushes of this quality are rarely found in the West and are extremely expensive.

Miscellaneous Animal Hair

Miscellaneous Animal Hair, including badger, rabbit, and tiger, is used in Oriental brush making.

Badger hair

Badger hair has a variegated black and white appearance. The hair is longer and thicker than sable, especially the belly of the hair. Badger is used in combination with other hairs to lend resiliency and to act as a filler in Japanese painting brushes.

Rabbit hair

Rabbit hair, from nondomesticated rabbits, is similar to badger hair but is shorter. It is used in combination with other hairs to make Japanese painting brushes and in China, for both calligraphy and painting brushes.

Tiger hair

Tiger hair resembles a longer wolf hair. It is white, yellow, and black. It is said that the best hairs are obtained by plucking from a startled wild animal. Brushes of this type are extremely rare and may now exist only in legend.

Brushes made from goats’ eyelashes, squirrel and rat whiskers, and even human baby hair (taken from the first haircut) are not uncommon in the Orient. These brushes are more novelties than practical artists’ brushes and are not available in the West.