- Kolinsky sable brushes can cost over $300 each.
- The brushes were originally commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1866, and can take over a week to make.
- It takes years to train to make these brushes, and the brushmakers have an average of 27 years of experience.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Making a Series 7 kolinsky sable watercolor brush isn’t easy. The largest-size brush can take almost a week and a half to make.
You can pick up a cheap, synthetic brush for under $2, but a Series 7 could cost you over $300.
So why would anyone pay for a brush that costs over 100 times the price?
Originally created on the request of Queen Victoria, the Series 7 brush was first made in 1866 and was designed to be the finest possible brush for watercolor painting.
Since then, the skill and craftsmanship that goes into making each one of these brushes has remained exactly the same. To achieve this, the company needed skilled brush makers. And so, in 1946, set up a new factory in Lowestoft, England, a fishing town with a history of rope making.
This factory now makes over 25 million brushes a year. The intricate work and dexterity required means that these brushes are almost exclusively made by women. It takes three years to train, and there are only nine brush makers in the world that can make these top-of-the-range Series 7 brushes.
Sandra Harris: I joined here when I was 16. I worked 18 years, and I had 12 years off, and I’ve been back 11, so that’s 28 years I’ve been working for the company. When you first start, you would probably only make a few. You’ve got to get, like anything, you’ve got a skill and you build on that, and you get to learn the skill, and then you get to do the speed.
The components play a big part in the cost. Each brush head is made from kolinsky sable, a Siberian weasel that’s hair is said to cost three times the price of gold by weight.
These weasels are hunted sustainably every spring under CITES guidelines across Siberia and Manchuria. Only guard hairs from the tail will do. Kolinsky hairs are chosen because every single strand has a surface of directional, interlocking scales, increasing the surface area and giving the hairs their strength.
And while many other natural and synthetic hairs are used for brushes, nothing has quite matched the quality of sable.
Once the hairs are cleaned and graded, it’s time to start making the brush. The wool has to be removed with a comb, and the hairs are packaged up and carefully boiled and ironed.
The brushes have to be made with hair at its natural length. And the skilled brush makers can effortlessly separate between 28- and 32-millimeter-length hairs just with their hands.
This skill takes years of training and practice. The nine brush makers each have 27 years of experience, on average. Hairs that are blunt or twisted have to be discarded. And most importantly, as each natural hair comes to a point, every hair must be the correct way up.
The removed upside-down hairs can be flipped and reused. Every single hair is checked over by hand. The smallest-brush-size hairs are just 7 millimeters long, shorter than an average eyelash.
Shane Buckingham: We can’t afford to let standards drop in any way, shape, or form. What I would say from that is what this factory has is hand skills. It has individual skills. It has skills that, when I have new people come in here, they don’t sometimes believe that this kind of work still happens. We show them what people do, they will turn round and say, “I’ll never be able to do that.” But they will be able to do that if they understand that quality comes first.
When the hairs are all sorted, they’re ready to go into the cannon. The bundle is tied together and gently twisted through. Individual hairs are added or taken away until it’s an exact fit.
Buckingham: They need to have that fine point to work with, that, basically, it has that color-carrying capacity. That the brush won’t split or do anything that it shouldn’t do, basically. Through the hair that we use, through the skills of our makers and how they make them, we’ve done everything we possibly can to make sure that we have produced the best product we possibly can.
Then, it’s time to attach the handles. The factory uses birch wood handles imported from Italy. The brush is glued into place, and then the brush heads are crimped onto the handles.
This crimping process bends the metal to shape and keeps the handle tightly attached to the brush. Once the paintbrush is assembled, it needs to be branded and tested. The size and logo of each brush is stamped in gold on the handle.
Wet-point testing assures that everything works exactly as expected and there aren’t any loose or crooked hairs. Each brush is then gummed, a process that gives the brush head its final shape and allows it to bounce back. The shape of the natural hairs gives the brush a wide belly and a fine point.
Mark Brindle: So, the key to our brush making is the people. And that is the skill. We retain knowledge from generation to generation. So, we have makers now that are working under an apprenticeship of a 49-year-served brush maker, who himself had an apprenticeship under another 49-year-serving brush maker, who was brought into the business under his father, who made brushes directly for Queen Victoria. And it’s very key that we retain that knowledge throughout the business, generation to generation, and we are now bringing in the next generation to make sure that we uphold the very high-quality standards that we base ourselves on.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in December 2019.