The Princeton Artist Brush Company might be one of the most ubiquitous local companies you’ve never heard of. Owner Howard Kaufman, working out of a Ewing warehouse, quietly manages one of the largest paintbrush manufacturers and distributors in the country. It sells all kinds of artists’ brushes, from sable to synthetic, under brand names like “Heritage,” “Velvitouch,” and “Select Artiste,” which are sold by big hobby shop chains like Michaels and A.C. Moore.
Kaufman sells nothing directly to consumers, instead wholesaling to the big box stores as well as tradition mom-and-pop art supply shops worldwide, to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South America, Kuwait, Israel, and China. Kaufman also supplies brushes for use in the aerospace industry, as well as brushes and silicon tools for cake decoration, pottery making and cosmetics application.
Kaufman has now sold the company to Pacon Corp., a Wisconsin-based company that owns Strathmore Artist Papers. A press release announcing the deal called Princeton Artist Brush Company the No. 1 supplier of fine art brushes in North America and said the company and its representatives, marketing and technical experts, and warehouse will all remain in Ewing.
Princeton Artist Brush Company rose to its industry stature from humble origins. A quarter century ago, the firm was just an office in Kaufman’s Lawrence home.
Kaufman was working as a sales manager when he formed the Princeton Artist Brush Company on a day’s notice in 1992, leaving his former employer after a dispute and taking clients and workers with him.
The way the business worked for the first 19 years was that a man with a simple Ford van would bring the brushes from airport and seaport to the Kaufman family home, where they’d be stored. Kaufman would fill the orders from inventory, and every night at 6 p.m. a UPS truck would back up to his garage door where he would load the day’s orders. “We became in the top 10 percent of UPS just in the state of New Jersey in terms of shipments, shipping to art supply stores all over North America, and now all over the world,” Kaufman says.
The business was driven by an almost manic work ethic that Kaufman had inherited from his parents, who raised him in Manhattan.
Kaufman’s parents were both German Holocaust survivors. After fleeing to the United States, both worked at the same New York factory, where the father was a presser and the mother a button sewer. After Kaufman and his sister were born, his mother left the factory and became a salesperson at the Franklin Simon Department Store.
Kaufman graduated from Queens College with an accounting degree in 1968, and then volunteered for the Air Force. He served a five-year term flying C-130 cargo planes over Laos and South Vietnam during the war.
“Hard work is something ingrained,” Kaufman told the Princeton Echo in a 2016 interview. “I am a workaholic. I work seven days a week. My last vacation was 12 years ago.”
For a long time he handled the warehouse himself. In 2001, he brought in a part-time employee to help him out. But not wanting to have an employee alone in his house, he says that whenever he had to travel, “the business from a shipping standpoint virtually stopped.”
Over the years, boxes of paintbrushes took over Kaufman’s home, much to the chagrin of his wife, Debbie, a fourth-grade teacher at Triangle Elementary School in Hillsborough. She had grown tired of visitors asking if she was moving in or out. There were boxes in the living room, the dining room, garage, and basement. Furniture had been pushed into corners, rugs rolled up to accommodate the mountains of boxes.
When a good friend asked how long he was going to “continue this nonsense” of carrying boxes up and down the stairs to the basement, he finally decided to move to the Ewing warehouse where the company is located today, leaving only a home office behind. By the time he sold the company, he had four part-time employees, including his former UPS deliverer, who retired after 25 years and went to work for Kaufman. His grown daughters, Ashley and Lauren, also held key roles in the company.
In the warehouse, the aisles of shelves each full of boxed brushes stacked in neat rows. There are some 2 million brushes in all — some that cost 50 cents apiece, others that retail for $500 a set. Nearby are conveyor belts and other equipment needed to pick and pack customer orders. Every workday at 6 p.m., UPS carts stacks of boxes out the door. “Forty percent of this was in my house, and the house smelled like boxes,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman has considered and rejected notions of expanding his business into other areas. “I want to be the best in a niche and be all things to everybody in that niche,” he said.
Having built his paintbrush empire, Kaufman has decided that it is time to turn it over to new owners.
“This was a good time for me to do what’s best for both my family and the business,” he said in a press release. “And I get to do what I love by continuing to oversee Princeton Artist Brush and taking care of our customers. Strathmore has an excellent reputation in the industry. They are a perfect fit for Princeton. We are synergistic when it comes to principles and values such as innovation, listening to and inspiring he artist community.”
Princeton Artist Brush Company, 1012 Whitehead Road Extension, Ewing 08638. 609-403-8342. Howard Kaufman, owner. www.princetonbrush.com.