Brush cleaning, one of the least pleasant aspects of painting and other types of finishing, can be made much easier if you follow a simple system. Or it can be avoided altogether if you use disposable brushes.
Inexpensive brushes that can be thrown away after painting are available in several forms. My favorites are foam brushes, which do a fine job with virtually any of the finishes do-it-yourselfers use. Some experts even prefer them to bristle brushes for varnishing, because they offer an extremely smooth coat with no dropped bristles or bristle marks.
Foam brushes are available at most paint stores and home centers in a variety of sizes, some for less than 50 cents each. Frequent painters also can get good savings by buying them in bulk. A kit with 36 foam brush pads in three sizes from 1 to 3 inches wide plus removable plastic handles sells for about $12 at Leichtung Workshops, 4844 Commerce Parkway, Cleveland, Ohio 44128. (Write for a free catalog, or call  321-6840).
Foam brushes can be used with water- or oil-based (solvent) finishes. If you clean them immediately after use -- the real key to effective cleaning of any painting tool -- foam brushes can be used again with water-based finishes. Solvent finishes are more difficult to clean from foam and generally not worth the effort.
Finishers who prefer bristle brushes for some projects but don't want to spend time cleaning can buy cheap standard brushes and dispose of them. Cheap bristle brushes are fine for touch-up and occasional painting, but they aren't a good choice for refinishing a family heirloom. The bristles generally are coarse, and sometimes break or loosen, leaving pieces of bristle here and there in the finish.
A better brush that is designed to be disposed of after use is 3M's NewStroke, sold in snap-off packs of three and five brushes. Brushes range from 1 to 3 inches wide. The brushes have good, soft bristles and are designed not to shed. NewStroke brushes cost about $1.35 to $3.50 each, depending on size.
Finishers who don't mind cleaning can buy high-quality brushes and use them for years. Again, the key is to clean a brush immediately after use, before the paint or finish left in the brush has had a chance to thicken.
A good system is to start by gently wiping excess paint or finish from the brush with a paper towel or rag. Pay special attention to the bristle area nearest the handle, where paint often accumulates and hardens.
If a water-based finish is used, follow wiping by thoroughly rinsing the brush, preferably under a stream of water from a faucet or hose. If a stream isn't available, use a can of water and change the rinse water several times.
After rinsing, put fresh water in a can and add a small amount of liquid household detergent. Slosh the brush in the solution for a minute or two to remove paint you missed in the rinse. Rinse the brush again and let the brush dry. Wrap clean brushes in a paper towel or store in a plastic bag to keep them dust-free.
You can clean solvent finishes from brushes this way: Wipe the brush, then slosh in a can containing the appropriate solvent -- paint thinner (mineral spirits) for most paints, varnishes and stains; shellac thinner for shellac; lacquer thinner for lacquer. Wipe the brush again, and reclean in a can of fresh solvent. Wash again in detergent and water, then rinse in clear water.
Don't dispose of used solvent. Pour it into a single capped can (aluminum foil makes a good cover), put it in a safe place, and let the sediment settle. Pour the clear solvent back into the original container.
Readers' questions and comments should be sent to Gene Austin, c/o The Baltimore Sun, Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.