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Using Milk Paints

Usually, when you paint something, you just change the color of the object.When you paint an object with milk paint however, the paint itself has its own separate presence.

That is because milk paint has it's own character and it frequently dries to how it wants to look and not necessarily how you want it to look. It has its own personality, which is one of the beauties of this paint. Temperature, humidity, the water content of the wood as well as the type of wood will determine how the finish turns out. Even the temperature of the water used to mix it will change its final appearance.

The type of brush used; foam, nylon or bristle will show through. Applied thickly, it will craze and crack on its own as well as with the help of a hair dryer. Cementacious earth colors are use to color the paint and each one has its own crystalline character. Deep blues and reds come out streaky while off whites quickly develop a patina with only minimal work.

As you can probably tell, I have a lot of fun with this primitive paint. It takes awhile to get used to it however. In class, all I do is make sure a piece has been prepared properly so that the paint will adhere and let the student apply the paint with a free hand. This insures an authentic look with no two pieces looking exactly the same. With this paint, as with many decorative techniques, the key is to let the paint do the work and learn to "adjust to circumstances".

A word of caution: Not all milk paints are created equal. Most that are sold as "milk paint" are really cheap latex paint formulations with some grit thrown in for authenticity. Just look at the small print on the can. It will say something like "milk paint-like product" or “authentic milk-paint colors”. Real milk paint comes in a powder form and will spoil a couple of days after it is mixed. Milk paints are made from a milk protein binder called casein that has been mixed with quicklime to break it down and colored with natural earth pigments. People used to make their own with available earth colors and from recipes handed down for generations. It is a very tough, flat finish that stains easily if it is not sealed but will last for a hundred years.

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Different surfaces to apply milk paint on :

Raw or stripped wood - Wood should be sanded with 150 grit sandpaper and knots sealed with shellac cut 50% with denatured alcohol. If stripped, the piece should then be washed with denatured alcohol to remove any stripper residue. Add Extra-bond to the paint for the first coat if the piece has been stripped. Wipe the surface of raw wood with a damp rag to raise the grain before applying the first coat and sand smooth with 220 grit sandpaper when dry.

Already Painted: - Milk Paint is best used over raw wood or plaster but it can be used over old paint or varnish as long as all wax, grease, polish or oils have been removed. Add a 1/3rd quantity of "Extra-bond" (available from dealers who carry "Old Fashioned Milk Paint") to the mixed paint for the first coat only.

Other Surfaces - Laminates and other surfaces can be painted with milk paint if you apply an acrylic bonding primer first. Most paint companies sell their own version of these primers and they are supposed to stick to anything, inc. melamine, tile, glass, etc.

After priming, use Extra-bond for the first coat of milk paint.

  1. Mixing - Add the powder to an equal amount of water and mix well until it has the consistency of light cream. It will thicken as it sits. If you want a smoother finish, especially for finish coats, strain the whole mix with a ladies nylon or strainer bag. Let sit for about 15 minutes stirring twice and add more water if it thickens. Two coats are recommended about 2 hours apart. Please also read the Milk Paint Product Bulletin (inside of all their products).
  2. 1st coat: After the piece has been prepared (primed with the addition of Extra-bond if necessary) use a 2" to 4" foam or synthetic brush and apply the paint quickly and overlap the strokes. Try to finish whole sections at a time. Let dry. Use 220 grit sandpaper and sand down the raised grain or imperfections until smooth to the touch. Milk paint sands very easily so be careful not to expose the raw wood around edges and corners.
  3. 2nd coat: This coat can be your final coat so strain the paint for a smooth finish or leave it alone for a more primitive look. You do not need to add Extra-Bond in the paint of the second coat. Again apply with a foam or synthetic brush. Let dry overnight. Milk paint will acquire its full character only after drying for at least 12 hours.
Antiquing and Distressing
Method 1: Multi-color distress

If you want a two or more color distressed look, paint each coat with a different color. I would suggest a darker color as the first layer and it shouldn't be too bright. If you use a soft white as a top coat, it may take two coats to cover. Let dry overnight.

Rub over the entire piece first with water and a scotch-brite pad to smooth it out. You will go through the top coat in some places but do not be concerned, these are the areas you will go back to and reveal more color.

Rub again paying special attention to the areas that were revealed in the initial rubdown. Use a damp rag to wipe away the slurry so you can see how much color you are revealing. Stop rubbing and stand back to look at the piece from time to time. It is much easier to remove more paint than it is to re-apply it. Less is always better than too much distressing. One of the hardest things to do is to know when to stop and an over-distressed piece looks contrived. So try not to reveal too much color.

Method 2: Gentle Distress

Another way to gently distress milk paints and others is to use a heavy rope and "saw" or draw it across the area you want to reveal. This is very good for the arms and seat of a chair and will also burnish the paint to lend authenticity.

Method 3: Chipped Paint

After an initial coat of paint (dark colors look best) pounce on small amounts of paste wax to certain areas you want to look chipped and worn and let harden. Then apply a complete second coat of paint over the piece (should be lighter in color than the base coat). When dry, use a damp rag or scotchbrite pad and scrub over the areas where you applied the "wax" to reveal the base coat in a "chipped" paint pattern. You can use butchers or any paste wax you used for a final wax treatment over the whole piece.

Method 4: Antiquing

When all decoration is complete, you may want to enhance any small cracks in the paint or just give it an all-around patina of age. We do this with a colored glaze that is applied over 100% of the surface and gently wiped off leaving just enough glaze to "hang" in crevices. My favorite water-based medium is Polyvine's acrylic Antiquing glaze. It gives you longer working time than most water-based glazes and is durable when dry. You can also use Watco Danish oil or any oil stain or antiquing medium. Apply glaze/stain with a brush over as much surface as you can work in 20 minutes. Fold a clean, cotton cloth into a pad and wipe off the flat areas gently leaving the glaze to "hang" in the carving. On flat surfaces, wipe from the center out and leave a slight halo effect with some wiping streaks.

If the glaze is too heavy in the carvings, use a natural bristle brush and "pounce" out the extra glaze, then wipe again if necessary. Let dry and finish with wax or varnish.

This paint will give you years of service and only grow more beautiful with age. Perfect for working on tomorrow's antiques, today.

Old Fashioned Milk Paint for sale hereThe Faux Shop

Published Spring, 2002

Good Luck and please write with any questions/comments.

— Dean Sickler

Pingo Ergo Sum