Kolinsky Sable Paint Brushes – A Comparative Review

Many painters struggle with their brushes, and have as many questions as there are types and brands of brushes. What brand is the best? What kind of hair should it have? How do I take care of them? How long will they last? Are the high quality brushes worth the price? I’ll attempt to answer all of these questions in this review.

In order to give the most objective opinion on which brushes I find to be the best, I placed an order for several different brands, and in several price ranges. I opted to include the ‘Big 3′ that all the professional miniature painters suggest; Windsor & Newton, Raphael, and Da Vinci. I have also included in this compaative review one less expensive brand, which is the same hair (Kolinsky Sable) as the ‘Big 3′; Rosemary & Co.

My brush for measure is the Windsor & Newton Series 7. I have used these brushes for over 5 years, and they are the standard against which all brushes I have used since are compared. I will concede that I used little else in my time painting professionally. But I found that I had no need to use anything else, as they were available locally, albeit expensive.

You’ll have to excuse the large pictures in this post, but it is imperative that the review focus on the tip the brushes hold, and thus, the photos must be large in order to see the detail.

I also wanted to provide an educated opinion on the different brushes. So, I have used all of the brands extensively; a minimum of two miniatures were painted with each brand over several weeks. All of these brushes have seen constant use over the past several months, and it will be easiest to see which are more durable as long as proper care is taken to preserve the hairs, and remove any paint from the ferrule. Read This article for a guide on caring for your brush.

Above is a comparison in sizes and lengths of all of the brushes I will cover in this article. All the brands are made of the most recommended natural hairs; Kolinsky Sable.  Beginning at the top, the brushes and sizes are:

  • Raphael 8404 – Number 2 Round
  • Windsor & Newton Series 7 – Number 2
  • DaVinci – Number 2 Round
  • Rosemary & Co. – Number 2 Round
  • Raphael 8404 – Number 1 Round
  • Windsor & Newton Series 7 – Number 1
  • Rosemary & Co. – Number 1 Round

All of the back ends of the brushes are lined up, and as you can see, the Rosemary & Co. brush handles are much shorter than the Raphael, and Windsor & Newton (W&N), with the DaVinci handle being only slightly shorter. If having a longer handle is more comfortable for you, then perhaps this might rule out the Rosemary & Co. brushes.

The prices of the brushes are roughly equal, except for the Rosemary & Co., which are by far the least expensive than any of the other brands.

I bought most of these brushes from Dick Blick’s online, and had them delivered to my door. The W&N’s are available to me locally, but they are significantly more expensive than Blick’s, and all are available on Blick’s web store. None of the brushes were damaged in transport, and all were in perfect condition when they arrived. The shipping cost was negligible, costing me under $6.

Every brush was less than $17, and my W&N’s locally cost me more than $25 per brush. If you want a good deal, I highly recommend Blick’s Art Supplies.

I mention the amount of ‘snap’ that a brush will have. This is my definition of how firm the hairs are, and how quickly they resume their shape after laying down a brush stroke. A high amount of snap means that the hairs are slightly stiffer, resume the shape of the brush quickly, and have better control of the amount of paint you’re putting on a small area of the model. A low amount of snap will result in a softer brush hair, and the shape doesn’t return as quickly. Depending on if you prefer a softer hair, or stiffer hair, simply pick a brush I define by it’s amount of snap.

Windsor & Newton Series 7

From left to right, there is a Number 1, a Number 2, and a new Number 2. The two brushes on the left have been used daily for the past 2 years. As you can see, compared to the newer brush, they have held up exceptionally well.

Let’s put the amount of use the older brushes have seen into perspective. I paint for a minimum of 1 hour a day, and more often, 2 or 3 hours per day. These brushes have been used for no less than 7 hours per week, and over the past two years, have seen a minimum of 728 hours. I don’t use either of these brushes any longer, as their points don’t hold very well anymore.

I have heard rumors that the newer W&N’s have lost some of their quality and durability. Since I have not used my new W&N yet, I cannot confirm these rumors. One thing I did notice is that the diameter of the ferrule is slightly smaller, and the hairs are slightly longer than my older brushes. This is an obvious sign that the manufacturing has changed, but whether the quality has been reduced, I can’t really say.

Windsor & Newton brushes are durable, hold a very sharp point, and have a high amount of snap. They are the second most expensive of all of the brands I have used for this article.

If you want a high quality brush that has become pretty much the industry standard, and aren’t afraid of spending a bit of money on your brushes, then Windsor & Newton Series 7′s might be for you.

Raphael 8404

The Raphael brushes are very close in ferrule size to the W&N’s, have a slightly shorter handle, and have slightly longer hairs.

These brushes have seen the most use out of all the brushes in this review, aside from the W&N Series 7′s. The Raphael are slightly less expensive than the W&N’s. They have a high amount of snap, hold an extremely sharp point, and being slightly wider than the W&N’s allows them to hold a slightly larger amount of paint. This is helpful in my climate, as it’s very dry in Calgary, and this helps my brush stay moist without dipping back into the palette.

The size correlation between a Raphael 8404, and a Windsor & Newton Series 7 is almost exact. The difference is negligible. If you’re used to a number 2 W&N, then a number 2 Raphael 8404 will fit you almost perfectly.

If you want a brush that has a slightly higher amount of snap than a W&N, holds an amazing point, and costs a little less, then the Raphael 8404′s are the brush for you.

DaVinci

For this review, I was only able to get a single size of DaVinci brush, and that was a number 2. The rest were out of stock when I placed my order. On the left is the DaVinci, with the gold ferrule, and on the right is a number 2 Raphael 8404.

As is quite obvious in the photo, the DaVinci brushes are less than half the size of brushes of the same size. The hairs are also much shorter, as is the handle, although not by much compared to a W&N Series 7.

The DaVinci has a low amount of snap, and holds a sharp point. But the point is not quite as sharp as the W&N’s. The hairs are very soft, and the number 2 DaVinci brush was much smaller than I would have suspected; it was closer in size to a W&N and Raphael number 1. They were almost as expensive as the W&N’s, and considering that they are about half the size of an equivalent W&N, this puts them at the highest price point of all the brushes in this review.

If you want a smaller, softer hair brush that holds a good point, and aren’t put off by the high price tag, then a DaVince brush might be your perfect choice.

Rosemary & Co.

The Rosemary & Co. brushes are by far the lowest priced of all the brands I sampled. They are $10 cheaper than the W&N’s, making them a huge bargain.

The Rosemary brushes are slightly smaller than the W&N’s, but not by much. The sizes are similar enough than you won’t feel much of a difference. The hairs are slightly longer, and the handles are significantly shorter as well.

The Rosemary & Co. brushes have the lowest amount of snap, and hold a fairly sharp point. The point on these brushes is the dullest of my sample brushes, and the hairs were the softest of all the brushes in this review. I also found that the Rosemary brushes were the least durable, and they wore out fairly quickly.

But, despite these slight drawbacks, I would highly recommend them for painters on a budget, or novices wanting to upgrade to a kolinsky sable brush whom are afraid of destroying a $20 brush.

If you want a good, soft hair, a low snap, and a great bargain, then Rosemary & Co. brushes are definitely for you.

My former favorite brush, the Windsor & Newton Series 7 has been relegated to second place as a result of my review. The Raphael 8404 has become my new favorite. The 8404 has a higher snap, holds a better point, and the hairs are more durable than the W&N’s. The slightly smaller price tag sealed the deal. The Raphael’s have seen the most use since I bought them, and I will be using them from now on, until I find something better…if that’s even possible.

Ghool

My board game collection swells year-upon-year, and now that I've been discovering so many great games on Kickstarter, I'm fairly certain my board game collection will reach epic proportions. I watch Kickstarter fanatically, and seek out interesting and inspiring projects. My latest article series focus' is on many of the awesome projects I happen to stumble across, or that I have backed. I have been painting and modeling miniatures for over 25 years. I paint mainly just for pleasure. Once I started posting my models online, I began to get asked a host of questions regarding my methods. So, I started writing a few tutorials to help those looking to improve. I love helping people out, and writing about something I feel passionately about is very rewarding.

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13 Comments

  1. Dalthoraz said:

    How would you rate the baddadgaming double ended brush compared to these.

    • GhoolGhool said:

      The Bad Dad brushes are on par with the Rosemary & Co.; they hold a good point, but not as sharp as I myself prefer. They are undoubtedly a good value.
      I found the point to be a little coarse, but they had a high snap; a little less than a W&N.

  2. Dalthoraz said:

    I agreed with you thoughts on them I got me after your review of them. It was a great brush miles better then my old ones. But the point on mine wasn’t sharp. I got a few W&Ns the other day and the point is great. But I use that bad dad brush a lot still for larger areas it is pretty good and you can’t bet the value 2 brushes for $15+shipping.

  3. icleadpeople said:

    Just pulled the trigger on an 8404 #2
    Getting back into heavily painting and found this very useful.

  4. Paradex said:

    I have a W&N brush and will change once it has been hammered enough. A little bit of of-topic, but do you use airbrush as an alternative to actual brushes?

    • GhoolGhool said:

      I have an airbrush, but lack a compressor since my first one broke over 10 years ago.
      Personally, for the amount of time it takes to change colours, clean, and maintain it, along with needing a spray booth, mask, and more, I don’t see how it saves time. Unless you’re painting large models, I don’t really see the point.

      That said, some painters get fantastic results from airbrushes. But, the main use is to prime or paint a basic zenithal lighting scheme on the model, and then they paint over it anyways. I’ve tried this with normal cans of primer and spray paint, which can work just as well as an airbrush.

      My personal opinion is that airbrushes are the ‘New Hotness’ and the fad might wear off in time. It might not. I think that if you have an airbrush already, know how to use it, and the set-up, then go for it. If not, it’s a lot of money on something that takes a lot of time to learn how to use well. The time it saves you in painting with a brush is also off-set by the amount of time you spend setting up, maintaining and cleaning it.

      So, short answer; no I don’t use an airbrush, and probably never will.

  5. Marshal Wilhelm said:

    Well, I have been a GW gamer for a while and so only use GW brushes. :P

    How do these high end brands compare to what GW, Army Painter and PP put out?

    • GhoolGhool said:

      GW brushes are um…the worst out there….take that as just my opinion if you like. But, they deteriorate really quickly, don’t hold a point at all, and the hairs are extremely coarse. I wouldn’t waste your money on them.

      I haven’t used Army painter brushes, so I can’t comment on those.

      The PP synthetics (Hobby) brushes are great, and I use them for washes, glazing, and metallics all the time. The ‘Studio’ brushes leave something to be desired. The Rosemary & Co. are better quality, hold a better point, and have higher snap. The PP Studio brushes also tend to bloat quite a bit when wet, thus defeating the purpose of having a fine point on the end.

      If you’re looking to up your game, and become a better painter, then a high quality brush will doing nothing but help. Once I started spending some money on high quality brushes the level of my painting skill increased dramatically.

  6. Marshal Wilhelm said:

    Interesting. I am not a brand loyalist – I am a product loyalist, so that is cool if you don’t like GW brushes ;)

    Funny that you said you liked PP synthetics, but not the Studio [natural?] brushes. I guess PP uses a similar level of quality in their natural brushes to GW.
    I have tried some el cheapo synthetic brushes and they were horrid – much worse than el cheapo natural brushes from the same brand. They just didn’t pick up any paint, nor did they realise it. I just use them for cleaning up where I have gone ‘over the lines’ so to speak.

    My GW brushes do not hold a point. To be a little honest and gross with you, after I have washed them, I spit into my palm and close it together a little, then draw the wet brush through it. The saliva helps glue it to a point.

    I’ll see what price I can get any of those brushes you recommend here in Australia.

    As a former tradesman, I completely inderstand that the level of tools used influences the job. Which always makes me laugh at the saying ‘a bad tradesman blames his tools’ – I cannot see a tradesman ever saying that, tbh.

  7. Marshal Wilhelm said:

    What is the smallest sized brush you regularly use?
    For eye lenses on Space Marines, I would use a 000, a 10/0 and a 20/0 for increased accuracy. The 000 is a ‘fine detail brush’ and the other two are not from GW.

    I use a similar technique when edge-highlighting armour. Each successive colour uses a smaller brush.

    If I bought W&N or R&C, with their sharper points, do I need to go below a 3/0 to get that kind of detail?

    This is a link to one of my miniatures. See post #52.
    http://www.bolterandchainsword.com/index.php?showtopic=209020&st=50&start=50
    Ironically one where I have done only an okay job on the eye lenses :P

    I have found a ’5 pack’ on Dickblick’s, but the smallest it goes to is a 0.

    http://www.dickblick.com/products/winsor-and-newton-series-7-kolinsky-sable-pointed-round/

    Are these also used by you for going smaller than a 0?
    http://www.dickblick.com/products/winsor-and-newton-series-7-kolinsky-sable-miniature-brushes/

    Thanks for your help :)

    • GhoolGhool said:

      The two sizes you see in this review, namely a number 2, and a number 1 are the only sizes I use.
      The thing about a good brush with a needle-like point is that you don’t need to go smaller to get great detail.

      In fact, I find it easier to use a larger brush for fine detail, as it holds more paint, and I don’t have to dip into my palette more than once.

      A high quality brush with a good point will negate the need for anything below a 1 or 0. Since I switched to a high quality number 1, I always feel anything smaller dries up before I even get it to the model after dipping into the paint.

      Marshal, I understand your point about a tradesman blaming his tools, but in the case of having a good brush, I’ll have to kindly disagree. A good brush will get you much better results than a cheap one that holds no point. This is especially true when painting to win contests and for showcase quality models.

      The PP Studio brushes are kolinsky sable, and the synthetics are a gold taklon, also known as golden sable. A synthetic made with these hairs will be good, and shouldn’t give you any trouble with holding paint, or releasing it.

      I don’t find using spit on your brushes gross; I lick my blending brush chronically, and use my spit for making soft blends with my paint.

  8. Marshal Wilhelm said:

    I think our wires have crossed :D

    I completely agree and feel that good tools result in good work. Whether you are a greenhorn or a pro, you get much higher quality with quality tools.

    What I was trying to say was; the saying seems like something a tradesman would NEVER say -> once you’ve experienced quality, you’d never say ‘stop blaming your poor tools for your poor job’.
    Maybe it was the tradesman’s boss who was saying it – so he didn’t have to fork out for better equipment? ;)

    I have learnt that quality synthetic bristles actually has some roughness added to them, so they function more like natural fibres. I can believe more expensive synthetics work.

    Nice to here about the brush sizes. I do agree, with a small brush, for example when I am putting a white dot on an eye lens, seems only good for one dot.

    And if two brushes will get the job done, then so much the better.

    It was actually the use of PP’s wet palette that enabled me to paint smooth and small quantities with metallic paint, as they too seem to dry earlier than ‘colours’.

    I will see what Dick Blick offer.

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