Create A Milk Paint Masterpiece

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This article is from Issue 61 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Get a rich-looking finish right out of the bag.

If milk paint were invented today, it would be touted as a “no-VOC miracle finish,” but the real miracle is that it’s been used since the age of pharaohs. Despite a simple list of ingredients–casein, lime, clay, and pigment–milk paint still ranks as one of the most user-friendly and forgiving finishes sitting on the shelf. Sold in powdered form, the water-based paint applies easily, dries quickly, and wears like iron. Unlike latexes or alkyds, milk paint will not chip or peel.

Besides these working qualities, what makes milk paint stand out is its distinctive good looks. Because wood absorbs the thin-bodied finish more like a stain than paint, details aren't lost. And as it ages, this thin skin becomes polished and then wears away gradually to reveal wood or additional colors hiding beneath.

If you’re looking to add rich color to your next project, do yourself a favor and buy a bag. Here’s what you need to know to give milk paint a go.

To learn how to use milk paint to add a century’s worth of character, refer to “Go Antiquing with Milk Paint and Shellac,” Feb/Mar 2008.

Applying milk paint doesn’t require fancy store-bought gear. To reuse your brush, simply clean it with soap and water before the paint dries.

Prep the piece and the paint 

Because milk paint is so thin, surface prep must be meticulous. Fill dents, knots, and nail holes with latex putty, and finish-sand the wood through 180 grit. To limit grain-raising, dampen the wood, allow time to dry, and then knock off any whiskers. You can level raised grain after the first coat of paint, but this may require an extra coat of paint.

To prepare the paint, just add water to the powder (Photo A). The manufacturer recommends a one-to-one mix, but the ratio varies slightly depending on the color. I start with a three-part water to two-part paint mix, allowing it to slake for about ten minutes, and then add water a spoonful at a time until I get a fairly thin consistency. Finally, I strain the paint to filter out undissolved particles (Photo B). (Note: Refrigeration can help keep paint from turning, but mixed milk paint goes bad in a day or two, so prepare only as much as you need.)

Combine the water and powder, blend them, and then wait. Add water sparingly until you reach the desired consistency.

Pour the paint through cheesecloth to catch solid chunks before they find their way onto your project.

Lay on a thin first coat quickly with a combination of strokes and dabs. Avoid leaving drips or puddles. 

Brush it on

The first coat of milk paint will be drawn into the wood, so expect it to behave more like a stain. Using a combination of dabbing and brushing strokes, focus on laying down a thin even coat (Photo C). 

Don’t worry if the finish doesn’t look even, because it won’t. Before making judgment, wait at least four hours, and then apply a second coat. Give the piece a day to dry, and then rub it down with a maroon abrasive pad and 0000 steel wool. Depending on the color, you might need a third coat.

Many Faces of Milk Paint

Top it off

Milk paint can be left bare, but flat paint doesn’t look terribly impressive and is vulnerable to water and oil stains. To provide protection and to make the colors pop, you need to apply a topcoat. Historically, painted pieces were finished with shellac or boiled linseed oil. There’s no reason to fix what works. As shown above, both finishes add richness and luster and provide decent protection against normal wear. As a newer option, water-based finishes offer fast drying times and maintain the look of bare paint, but I find that some formulations make certain colors look washed out. Test the combination before committing to your project.

I’ve finished painted projects with shellac and straight oil, but I often use my own wiping varnish blend, composed of equal parts boiled linseed oil, spar varnish, and mineral spirits. For a super-smooth finish, rub down the paint with a maroon abrasive pad and then switch over to 0000 steel wool. Continue rubbing until the surface develops a metallic sheen. Next, apply the oil blend with a rag, wait about ten minutes, and then wipe off the excess. Apply as many coats as you wish for additional protection and luster. Allow the oil to dry for a day or two before applying wax and using the piece.  

Take It Outside

A few years back, a neighbor decided to paint one of the buildings in town with milk paint. He didn’t bother with primer, additives, or even a protective topcoat. He went straight from the bag, to the bucket, to the board. I didn’t think the paint would hold up (in fact, I advised him against it). Today, I’m happy to report that my fears were unfounded.

After years of exposure, the clapboards have faded a bit, but there’s not a single patch of chipped or peeled paint. Milk paint may not shield the wood as well as an exterior latex or other skin-forming topcoat, but it’s as tenacious as any stain on the market.

Following his successful experiment, I decided to use milk paint to add accent colors to my yard, including my garden gates, potting benches, and the shed door (see photo, right). Application couldn’t be easier: I mixed a thin batch and brushed it on to the raw wood. I’m quite pleased with the results. This shed door received a single coat of paint, but even after a decade’s worth of exposure, it still looks good.

Aside from its longevity, I like the way that the milk paint on my new door and the other painted projects helped them blend in with their surroundings. The muted colors are a fast and easy way to add years of character to new wood.


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