Brush-up on Brushes

One thing that is somewhat ubiquitous in the microscopy of yesteryear is the camel hair brush. Unlike some items one might find mentioned in the books of Gage, Carpenter, or Allen the camel hair brush seems pretty self explanatory. It lacks the cryptic sound of something like Gold-Size or mystique of a term such as Japan-Black, simply because everyone knows of camels and brushes.

It’s logical to think that a camel hair brush is simply a brush with bristles of camel hair, but that would not be correct. A camel hair brush is nothing more or less than an inexpensive brush with nondescript natural hair bristles. Of course some number of camel hair brushes might actually be made from camel hair, but it’s far more likely to be ox or even horse hair.

Keeping a few camel hair brushes on hand is a good idea. They are a versatile tool when it comes to manipulating small and delicate specimens. A camel hair brush can be had in innumerable sizes and they can be trimmed to any shape one needs with a small pair of shears. Additionally, wide brushes can quickly dust off a microscope or work area, even a delicate lens, far easier (and safer) than a rag or cloth.

When purchasing brushes for use with the microscope it’s important to remember that there is no reason to spend a bundle on fine sable brushes. One must also remember that plastic (often called synthetic) handles or bristles should be avoided at all costs. Many of the solvents and liquids used in microscopy are able to dissolve plastics in just a moment. A set of “watercolor” brushes can often be found at a craft or hobby shop for just a few dollars and is likely to include everything from a very fine tipped brush of just a few bristles to a half inch broad or more “wash” brush.

Artists will often speak about the virtues of fine ferrules and disregard the cheapest brushes out of hand. The only fault of the cheapest natural hair brushes is their tendency to shed hairs. When painting a shed bristle can be disastrous, in microscopy it is only a minor annoyance.

Next time you’re reaching for a fine needle to position a specimen, or pulling out a Kim-Wipe to clean of an ocular, consider giving a camel hair brush a try.

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