Kolinsky Sable Brushes Explained (And Best Alternatives)

Painting in detail requires focus, a steady hand, and high-quality brushes. Most miniaturists, watercolorists, and comic book artists are familiar with Kolinsky Sable brushes.

These highly prized brushes are known for keeping a sharp point, but they are truly expensive. But why?

What are Kolinsky Sable brushes made of? True Kolinsky Sable brushes are made from the tail hair of the Kolinsky sable, a type of Siberian weasel. Hairs from the male sable maintain their shape best and are used exclusively in finer brushes. Most of the brushes maintain a 60/40 split between male and female hair.

In 2014, Kolinsky Sable brushes became highly controversial and were banned by Canada and the United States. Below, we’ll discuss what makes these paintbrushes so valuable, why there was a controversy (and a ban), and what you can buy instead to be a more conscientious consumer.

Why Kolinsky Sable Brushes Are the Best

Professional artists who work in small detail love a good round brush with a sharp point that bounces back. When a brush loses its sharp point or edge, you cannot create the same exact line work or intricacy. This is why they love Kolinsky Sable brushes.

The specific animal from which the hairs are harvested comes from the Siberian region of Kolinsky. The severe conditions require the species’ coats to retain their pile grain for ultimate insulation. So, the hairs have essentially evolved to bounce back to their spot. 

This is a great quality when picking a hair for a detail paintbrush. The hairs, if properly cared for, will not fray or lose their shape for many years. However, this makes the brushes extremely expensive.

The hairs from the male tend to be more resilient, and are thus exclusively used for smaller fine tip brushes. Hairs from the female, however, still have high tensile strength and are not to be ignored. Most larger round, pointed brushes are comprised of 60% male hair and 40% female hair.

What Does “Pure” or “Red” Sable Mean?

As you shop around, you may come across Pure Sable or Red Sable hair brushes that are a little less expensive than the Kolinsky Sable brushes. This is because they are from different martens or weasels. They are slightly less resilient and may have a shorter life span, even if they are well-cared for. However, the quality of these brushes is still more than fine.

The Controversy Surrounding Kolinsky Sable Brushes

Starting in 2013 and building up steam in 2014, the United States and Canada pulled Kolinsky sable brushes from imports, and rumors of a ban trickled in. So, what was happening? Some people assumed that the Kolinsky sable was on the endangered species list. While that was not entirely true, there were reasons for the ban.

Are The Weasles Killed to Make Brushes?

Let’s get this out of the way. There are opposing reports of Siberian weasels being killed, or merely being sedated while tail hairs are “harvested.” More than likely, the weasels are killed due to their lack of popularity with the local people. However, the high price reflects not only the quality but the life given in pursuit of a good paintbrush.

Endangered Species Status of the Kolinsky Sable

First of all, don’t start worrying about the endangered species status of the Kolinsky Sable. It is doing just fine in Siberia. Its current level of concern is LC or Least Concern. In fact, the Chinese regard Kolinsky as vermin mostly because they hunt and kill chickens. 

So, if the species is thriving and definitely not on the Endangered Species list, why did the United States Fish and Wildlife Department step in to stop imports of these brushes?

“Banning” Kolinsky Sable Brushes

Before we can understand why the Kolinsky Sable brush imports were frozen, first, we need to know what CITES is. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It was the citation of CITES that sparked rumors of endangered species status. 

However, it is merely an agreement between nations to provide documentation with imports regarding specimens of wild animals or plant life. The goal is the prevention of a species landing on the endangered list.

So, what happened was the Chinese CITES Management Authority flagged a lack of documentation by the appropriate organizations on a number of Kolinsky Sable hair shipments to brush manufacturers in Europe. 

Without the proper certification, it was unlawful to import those particular shipments of brushes into the United States and Canada. (More details about the ban here.) Here is where the Fish and Wildlife Service in the United States stepped in to handle things stateside. 

Unfortunately for artists all over, it became nearly impossible to track which brushes had been made with the “illegal” hair, and which were certified. So, Canada issued a blanket ban on the brushes. 

The United States removed all the current stock and made some confusing legal statements that made it sound like there was a ban. However, since proper certification has been reinstated and monitored, it is safe to purchase the brushes in the US again. 

Alternatives to Kolinsky Sable Brushes

We’ve mentioned that there are pure sable and red sable brush options, already. However, if you’re looking for a full spectrum review and comparison of paintbrush options, here you go. Keep in mind that this list is not meant to be 100% comprehensive. It’s only a sampling of the best quality alternatives to Kolinsky Sable brushes. 

  • Squirrel Hair usually comes from either Canadian or Russian squirrels because their coats have adapted to harsh, cold conditions, much like the sable’s. It is soft, absorbent, and holds a point well. Most often, squirrel hair is used for watercolor brushes, however.
  • Ox Hair has a strong, coarse texture and is referred to as “sabeline.” It is a good choice for a square-cut brush with a flat edge. They work particularly well with oil paints and furniture stains.
  • Goat Hair is commonly used in calligraphy because of its ability to form a sharp point. However, it’s not particularly springy, so it won’t bounce back. You’ll need to reshape it manually after washing it for longevity.
  • Hog Bristle is also commonly used for natural hair brushes. It’s a very sturdy fiber that holds its shape even after being abused 
  • Camel Hair” brushes aren’t actually made of camel hair. In most cases, they’re just squirrel hair, but they can also be some combination of ox, goat, pony, and/or squirrel. However, the common use of a camel hair brush is pinstriping, due to the ability of higher-quality versions to hold a sharp point.
  • Escoda Versatil Synthetic brushes are pretty expensive, but if you are looking for synthetic fiber, it’s the best. The “hairs” are modeled after Kolinsky sable hairs. They keep a point and bounce back well.

Avoid Pony hair paintbrushes if you take painting seriously. These are cheap because the hair is easy to obtain, but also because it doesn’t hold its shape. It frays easily. 

Keep in mind that Kolinsky Sable brushes are not off the table either. While a great set is going to cost you quite a bit, consider purchasing the smaller, fine tip brushes for your more detailed work. You can improve your overall quality with just a few nice brushes.

Wrapping It Up

To sum things up, Kolinsky Sable brushes are the ideal brush for detail work and are made from the tail hair of a Kolinsky sable or Siberian weasel. This animal is not on the Endangered Species List and is thriving in China.

If you are still worried about using its hair for your art, though, there are a number of other options, too. We talk extensively about the brush options for painting in this article.