Go Antiquing with Milk Paint and Shellac

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This article is from Issue 21 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Traditionally, painted finishes were used for softwoods and plainer hardwoods, but as you can see there’s nothing plain about it. As demonstrated in the “Step-back Cupboard” on page 22, a painted finish can be as important to the success of your project as your choice of wood or hardware. Adding color also gives extra freedom and flexibility to create a piece that can complement any room in your home.

The materials used for this project might create an “antique” look,  but they are not old-fashioned. The milk paint and shellac treatment used for Steve Rigrish’s reproduction is similar to materials that would have been used on the original, but this simple finishing technique is equally suitable for modern furniture. Milk paint is not only easy to apply and quick to dry, it’s also a no-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) finish. You can pour excess finish down the kitchen drain. Similarly, shellac is another all-natural safe product that’s widely used in food, drugs, and cosmetics in addition to wood finishes.

Once, woodworkers made their own milk paint by combining lime, milk protein, clay, and pigment. Now, all you have to do is add water (See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide, page 39). Steve also combines shellac flakes and denatured alcohol to make a smooth, fast-drying topcoat.

The best thing about milk paint is that it looks better as it ages. While other paints chip or peel, milk paint wears away to reveal wood, or additional colors, beneath. To help the aging process along, Steve applies a simple but convincing strategy for adding all sorts of scratches, dents, and dings. Using his technique, (see “Distressing Done Right,” page 40), you can add a century’s worth of character in an afternoon.

While you will need these items to complete the cupboard or other similar project, you’ll have plenty left over to continue experimenting with this safe and colorful finish combo. See the Buying Guide key on page 39.

Step 1: Prepping and predistressing the surface

As shown in the project, Steve carefully removes milling marks with a combination of hand planes and card scrapers.  Part of his interest is to create a handcrafted look. (It takes longer, but you can also machine and/or hand-sand all surfaces up to 180 grit.)

To prevent the water in milk paint from raising the grain, wet the surfaces with a damp rag or plant mister. When the wood dries, knock off the raised wood whiskers with 220-grit sandpaper. Be careful not to sand too much, or you may cut into the wood, which will only lead to more whiskers when you apply the paint.

At this point, most woodworkers would fill dents and nail holes with latex filler, before applying the first coat. Here, Steve adds a few dents and bumps to the surface (See “Distressing Done Right”). These spots will reveal the base coat even after the topcoat has been sanded away.

Step 2: Mix and Apply the PAINT 

Mixing milk paint is no more difficult than making pancakes; brushing it on is the same as with any thin-bodied paint. The hardest part is believing that the final finish will look good. Dry milk paint is depressingly flat and blotchy, until you apply the topcoat. Try out these steps on a sample board, and you will soon see what we mean.

Mix together equal amounts of milk paint powder and water, then gradually add water for better brushing consistency.

Mix the milk paint. For the base and topcoats, make the paint from the milk paint powder. To do this, simply pour dry mix (Steve is using marigold yellow) into a water-filled container, as shown in Photo A. The water-to-powder ratio is about 1:1, but as when making pancakes, don’t be afraid to tweak the mix. Add more water—a few drops at a time—until you get a mix that’s smooth enough to spread, but still thick enough to cover the wood. Finally, give the paint about 30 minutes to sit to ensure that the dry ingredients have had enough time to absorb moisture. Give the paint one more stir, scoop away any froth from the top, and you’re ready to paint.

Apply the base coats. Lay on the first coat using dabbing and brushing strokes, as shown in Photo B. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look even; focus on not leaving any drips or puddles on the wood. Stir the paint to make sure the solids stay mixed in the paint. 

The first coat will dry to the touch in minutes, but wait at least four hours between coats. Once dry, the first coat will look blotchy, but don’t worry. The paint will even out by the second same-color coat. It will feel slightly rough, so sand between coats lightly with 220-grit sandpaper.

Dab on the first coat with a disposable brush, focusing on a thin, even coat. Let dry and add a second coat. Sand lightly between coats.

Apply the topcoat following the grain of the wood. Two light coats of Salem red paint should completely cover the marigold yellow base.

Brush on the shellac quickly. Try to catch drips on the return brushstroke before they have time to film over.

Apply the topcoats. Mix up a second color of milk paint, just as you did for the base and primer coats. (Here, Steve uses Salem red.) Your next coats should brush on just like a thin-bodied latex paint or stain. 

Apply the first topcoat as quickly and evenly as possible, as shown in Photo C. Avoid leaving puddles which later can flake off and reveal unwanted circular patches of base color. Give the first coat at least four hours to dry, sand lightly, then brush on a second coat. Let dry and sand again.

Step 3: Sand smooth and start antiquing

After giving the milk paint a full day to dry, lightly hand-sand all surfaces with 320-grit sandpaper or a maroon-colored abrasive pad. (See the story “True Grits” on page 56.) Excess paint will quickly crumble off. Additional sanding will begin to uncover the yellow base coat. 

You now have a choice. For a newer-looking piece, brush off the milk paint dust and go to Step 4. If you wish to make your new piece look old, read “Distressing Done Right.”

The beauty to Steve’s technique is that it allows you to choose how much character you want to start off with.

To distress or not to distress?

Some folks want a piece that looks 100 years old; others want something that looks like it came fresh out of the workshop (albeit, 100 years ago). The choice is yours. The nice thing about distressing is that you can control the history of your piece. If you’re patient, there’s nothing wrong with watching it naturally develop its own patina, just like a real antique. 

It’s impossible to appreciate milk paint until you’ve laid down a few coats. Trying out the finish on a practice board, like the one shown below, can help. If your scrap box is full, consider building a small test project, like the salt box featured in Issue #18, (Aug/Sept 2007). One nice thing about painting a project is that it gives you the freedom to mix different species of wood in the same piece. Under a few coats of paint, no one will know the difference.

Step 4: Sealing the Finish

Although it wears like iron, milk paint is porous and can waterspot and stain. A sealer coat of shellac or varnish solves both problems. Either topcoat can provide smooth surface protection and will bring out the rich look of the paint.

Make a 1-lb shellac cut. The shellac-to-solvent ratio, called a “cut,” refers to the amount of shellac (in pounds) dissolved in denatured alcohol (in gallons). For brushing, Steve suggests a 1-lb or 2-lb cut. 

Some shellac comes brush-ready in a can, but Steve prefers starting with fresh flakes (see the Buying Guide). To make a smaller 1-lb cut batch for this project, simply measure about 1 oz of flakes on a small kitchen scale and 8 oz of alcohol in a measuring cup. Mix the two ingredients in a wide-mouthed jar. (Shaking will help prevent the flakes from caking at the bottom and can speed up the process, but to ensure that the flakes have time to completely dissolve, Steve suggests mixing the ingredients a day or two before you plan to brush.) When you can’t see any more flakes, your shellac is ready to apply.

Use a wiping varnish on the white shelves and cabinet back to seal and protect the paint without adding unwanted color.

Brush on the shellac. Pour some shellac into a separate clean container. Dip half the length of the bristles into the finish and lightly tap the flat side of the brush against the container’s side to shake off excess.

The trick to brushing shellac is to work quickly and evenly. Apply the first coat using full, even strokes following the wood grain (Photo D). To avoid making drips and runs on vertical surfaces, work from the top down and use a drier brush. 

Shellac sets up almost immediately. When shellac is still wet but no longer flowing, you may lightly tip-off the surface, but don’t overdo it. Over-brushing will lift or wrinkle the finish. If a drip doesn’t wipe away with a freshly-dipped brush, wait until it dries completely, then sand or slice it off before applying the next coat.

Give the piece two to four hours to dry before brushing on a second coat. Because each coat partially dissolves the previous one, brush quickly when applying additional coats. Allow the finish a day or two to completely cure before attempting to sand off any dust nibs with 320-grit sandpaper.

Apply the wiping varnish. While testing his finish combination on a sample board, Steve discovered that the orange shellac turned the snow white milk paint pink. The easy solution was to switch to a different finish. In this case, he chose a wipe-on varnish, not only because it didn’t affect the color of the white paint, but also because it offers extra protection for those areas that will receive extra wear. A wipe-on varnish doesn’t build nearly as rapidly as full-strength varnish, but the fast-drying product is handy when finishing in a dusty workshop. 

Apply a dark wax topcoat. Buff off the flat surfaces but leave some wax behind in cracks and crevices.

To apply, Steve wipes on just enough varnish to wet the surface, as shown in Photo E. Then he wipes off the excess before it gets too tacky. For a thicker, more protective film for the shelves, apply two to three coats.

Apply Wax. Over many years, grime gradually collects in pores, cracks, and crevices. Steve’s found that dark brown wax can replicate the aged look, but without the wait. Besides adding color, the wax, applied with 0000# steel wool as shown in Photo F, gives the piece a smooth hand-rubbed finish. After applying the wax, rub off most of the excess, leaving a few extra gobs in the cracks and corners, such as around the door knobs and in the crown molding’s sharp corners. 

The neatest aspect of an antique finish is that it’s never truly finished. Starting from the minute you bring the piece out of your shop, it will start developing its own custom patina. Just wait, watch, and enjoy. 

A brick is Steve’s all-purpose distressing tool. Depending on how it’s held, it can be used for dents, chips, or scraping away paint. The roughest corner works much like a coarse rasp.

A pottery shard can replicate the scratches and dents that would come from generations of kitchen wear and tear. Use the rough rounded face for making dents and the sharp edge for deeper gouges.

Use an awl to make insect holes in exposed end grain, along the base, or any other spots where bugs might see an easy way in. Use different amounts of pressure to create different-sized holes. 

Break hard edges with 220-grit sandpaper. Give extra attention to the corners of tabletops and the upper front edges of shelves. Soften the edges of chips and gouges so that they don’t look fresh. 

Distressing Done Right

Simulating the dents and scratches that accumulate through years of everyday use is an art in itself.  According to Steve, the secret is building a believable story about the life your piece would have led if it had been built 100 or more years ago. Using that story, you can start making authentic-looking wear marks with just a few simple tools. (To see how and where the tools are used, refer to the photos left and below.)

Note that wear doesn’t happen evenly. For example, shelves bear minor scratches from pottery, while the base might suffer larger dents and chips from accidental kicks and knocks. A piece that spent a few years in a basement or barn might sport more worm holes than one that never left the kitchen. One side or shelf may see more damage than the rest. When in doubt, wait and watch. Adding a few extra wear marks later is a lot easier than trying to correct the damage if you go overboard.

Finally, use sandpaper to slightly advance the wear along corners, edges, and those areas where hands would naturally wear through the finish.

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