Chalk Talk

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Milk paint, chalk paint, furniture paint, mineral paint … it can get confusing. There are a large number of paints on the market these days for refinishing and updating furniture and interior projects, and there seem to be more every day. Let’s take a look at the different (and same) characteristics of each.

This type of paint can be broken down into two main categories: true milk paint, which is generally sold in powder form and is mixed with water; and premixed acrylic paint with additives to give it the same qualities.


Milk paint has been around for centuries when people used natural pigments with lime and milk protein to mix colors for decorating their homes. It was all natural as they used ingredients that were readily available. Today, it is made of earth pigments, lime, clay and casein (a milk derivative) and comes ready to mix in bags.

Milk Paint Pros/Cons

True milk paint is less expensive and has less weight in its powder form, which is important if you are paying shipping for an order. Some painters feel like they can get more subtle color layers with milk paint than they can with acrylic blends, due to the thinner consistency. Milk paint has a matte finish but doesn’t have a “chalky” texture. You can manually mix the amount of product you think you might need, but it does require frequent stirring while you’re working with it to avoid the product settling. One disadvantage is that different batches may not match exactly. There is a limited time frame in which to use any mixed up paint as the natural ingredients will go bad in just a few days. Hence, mixing smaller batches. Milk paint may not work as well when painting over previously finished surfaces as it tends to randomly flake. But if that’s the look you are going for, then it’s a bonus! Milk paint needs to be sealed with wax or a topcoat to protect it from further chipping. Since it is more easily distressed, milk paint is a great option for farmhouse-style pieces and vintage furniture like antique dressers.

One example, Old Fashioned Milk Paint, has a 20-color palette that is reminiscent of colors found on existing antique Colonial or Shaker-style furniture and historic buildings with names like Lexington Green, Salem Red and Tavern Green. One bag of product can be mixed with water to make one pint of paint. This brand does not fade and is kid-safe for painting toys and children’s furniture.


Most other paint used for refinishing furniture will fall into this category, including what is marketed as any chalk-style paint. The main difference between these paint blends is the ingredients, which are typically comprised of two basic elements: resin and calcium carbonate. Annie Sloan is widely credited with developing the original chalk paint in the ’90s, when it was used mainly for a distressed, shabby chic look on revamped furniture.


Variations of chalk paint usually come premixed in metal cans, so they are more convenient. You will pay a higher price, but you’ll also get more consistent color and texture than if you are mixing it yourself. Chalk paints are usually more “grippy,” and their thicker consistency provides more opaque coverage. These formulas don’t self-distress easily like milk paint, but you can sand manually to achieve a distressed or aged finish.

Black Dog Salvage Furniture Paint is a water-based latex/acrylic blend with calcium carbonate and other clay bodies added to acquire its smooth matte finish. It may be one of the thicker chalk-style paints on the market as it was designed specifically for the work Black Dog Salvage does with salvaged finds in order to adhere to any number of surfaces – prepainted or varnished wood, bare wood, metal, plastic, glass and ceramic, to name a few. This makes it a perfect go-to for folks who like to upcycle and use old to make new. This brand is heavily pigmented and requires a stout stirring to mix up sediments that settle in the can, but the coverage is outstanding – often one coat. Their packaging is recyclable plastic, which won’t rust like metal and discolor the paint.

PHOTO: Roanoke Rain, shown below, is a fan favorite by Black Dog Salvage Furniture Paint

General Finishes Milk Paint was created to look like old-world paint, but with improved durability, adhesion and exterior performance. They call it a modern acrylic with chalk paint properties. Thinner than most chalk paints and not so “chalky,” it has a smooth consistency with a low-luster sheen that self-seals, meaning it can be used as a stand-alone finish. However, they do recommend a topcoat for added protection in high-use areas such as cabinets or tabletops. It does not lend itself to wet-distressing, but manual sanding can create similar results. This brand can be used as an exterior finish.

PHOTO: General Finishes Coastal Blue Milk Paint is a deep navy color that dries to a low-luster sheen. 

Make Your Own
Online recipes to “make your own” chalk paint usually call for the addition of unsanded grout or plaster of paris. The quality of these mixes will depend on the quality of the ingredients used, plus will result in a limited working time when the grout/plaster starts setting up.


As it turns out, milk paint and chalk-style paints are really more similar than they are different. Most are marketed as fast-drying, environmentally friendly (water-based, non-toxic, low VOC) and easy to use with minimal prep. To clarify, minimal prep should include cleaning/degreasing the piece and giving it a light scuff sanding if the surface is slick. But generally one can paint over existing finishes and a variety of substrates without sanding down to bare wood and without having to use primer. In the typical case, primer would only be necessary if the project has a shiny or uneven appearance.

PHOTO: Create "Peacock" by mixing 2 parts Keep it Teal with 1 part Blue Ridge

The majority of brands tout the ability to mix custom colors, though Black Dog Salvage Furniture Paint features a true white and a true black for more precise customization. Black Dog and General Finishes both provide formula mixes to achieve a number of shades with their paints.

Milk paint and chalk-like paints can both be thinned in order to spray through an HVLP sprayer or to be used as a wash. Distressing, antiquing, glazed looks and faux finishing can easily be achieved with both types. General Finishes and Black Dog Salvage Furniture Paint both have nice self-leveling capabilities, which makes for a smoother appearance. No special brushes are required, and both varieties offer easy soap and water cleanup. Topcoats or waxes can be applied for increased durability, though waxes generally must be reapplied periodically and do not offer protection against solvents or cleaners.

PHOTO: Swooz Hudson of Black Dog Salvage demonstrates a glazing technique using Black Dog Salvage Furniture Paint "I Need a Bandage" and General Finishes "Pitch Black" Glaze Effects. 

Final Thoughts

So, which is better? The short answer is it depends on your needs. Read labels on the products you are interested in to make sure they will meet your expectations for the intended usage. It all comes down to personal preference as each type and brand of paint has its own merits. I hope this has given you some food for thought when you are standing in the paint aisle considering your next furniture flip or upcycling project.

Your local Woodcraft store is a great source of information on finishing or repairing your treasured pieces. Stop by and let us Help You Make Wood Work. 

We hope you'll be inspired!

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