Milk paint finish

The ultimate do-it-yourself finish: milk paint

By Shane Eagen

Photo by Simon Cheung

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There is nothing in this world that quite makes my day like learning a trade secret or technique that allows me to make my own gizmo, tool, or whatever, saving me the expense of "store bought."

Maybe I'm cheap (I don't really think so or I'd have a lot more in the asset column), but there is something that just delights my soul when I can cut out the middleman.

Now, I'm the first to admit that some of my experiments have turned out have turned out to be less than successful; soap-making does not bring back fond memories (I can still smell the stink of rendering beef fat and that was 26 years ago). On the other hand, I've had some experiences that I can add to my mental scrap book of happy thoughts.

One of my major interests in woodworking has always been the history of the craft. We have so many conveniences that we tend to take some things for granted that were just not available to the craftsmen of old. In this country, it wasn't that long ago that the art of making something from the resources on hand was part of everyone's resume.

Take paint, for instance. Have you ever wondered why the traditional colour of barns in this country is red? There was a time when every farmer knew a recipe for milk paint, and I'll let you guess where the red pigment came from. (Hint: not tomatoes.)

What happened? Why did milk paint fall out of favour? Why is it suddenly becoming popular now? Can we make our own?

The Fall

Common sense indicates that milk paint had some exploitable weaknesses: it probably had a fairly short shelf life drying out into an unusable mess in a very short length of time. The colour red must have become monotonous after a while. And I think it might have been nice to get some paint when you needed it without having to butcher the hog first. And I would think, if a different pigment was used, it would be difficult to get the exact colour match if you ran out of paint before the project was finished.

All these problems were eventually addressed when commercial paint companies entered the scene; they were able to incorporate economy of scale and more sophisticated methods and technologies to efficiently produce a more convenient product.


The Rise

However, milk paint is a very strong and tough paint that lasts and lasts. It also has its own distinctive soft glow. It was used on a great deal of country furniture, and so has nostalgic value. Modern milk paint can be acquired in powder form, ready to mix with water when its needed. The powder form obviously has a much longer shelf life than the original. For these reasons it has become popular again.

There are many companies presently making and selling milk paint. For those with Internet access, simply type "milk paint" into a search engine and marvel at the list. For those who don't, one Canadian source is the Homestead House Paint Company of Toronto (877-866-5098). If you decide to buy the milk paint here's a tip: acquire a used food processor for mixing the paint, do not use the one in the kitchen.

Paint (and stain) is made up of a binder and a pigment. The binder in milk paint comes from mixing the casein protein, found in milk, with one of the following ingredients: ammonia, borax or builder's lime. The casein protein mixed with builder's lime is stronger than the borax mix (molecularly), but requires the use of alkali fast pigments. The borax mix is not as strong but can make use of a far wider range of pigments. Also, the borax mix is the best formula to use if you want to incorporate some oil into the paint. The ammonia has no advantages over the other two so use what is available.

Depending on the formula used milk paint can be extremely tough. So tough that it can be very hard to remove even with paint remover. Generally, milk paint is more durable than latex paint. It will dry in a couple of hours but may take days, even weeks, to cure, again depending on the formula used.


Recipe #1

The first recipe uses no lime, borax or ammonia. Mix together powdered skim milk and water to the consistency of paint. Mix in some food dye (there should be a colour chart on the back of the dye package). Strain the mixture through some layers of cheese cloth. Apply with a brush. Just for fun I tried some instant coffee as a dye. It works, but mix the coffee with a little bit of water before adding to the milk. The best thing about this recipe is you can safely use the kitchen food processor to mix it.

Recipe #2

This second recipe uses skim milk, lime, plaster of paris and the coloured chalk from your chalk line. Mix 1.5 cups of skim milk with 1 oz. of lime. Mix well, then add 8 oz. of plaster of paris. Add the coloured chalk while mixing in the plaster of paris. Let the mixture stop foaming before using it. This paint will require re-stirring every five minutes to prevent everything from settling.

Recipe #3

This last recipe is for milk paint for exterior use, and makes five gallons of paint. Mix two quarts of builder's lime with four gallons of skim milk. Stir thoroughly. Then stir in one gallon of linseed oil. Then stir in the dye. Strain through a piece of cheese cloth and be sure to use within two days of mixing. You can substitute three quarts of sifted, white, hardwood ashes for the lime.


It's a good idea to use water-soluble dyes. It also helps if you mix a little water with the dyes before adding them to the mix. Use powdered skim milk in all the recipes to keep the cost down.

If you mix the milk with lime, make sure you use builder's lime, also known as slaked lime or hydrated lime.

For cleanup, use soap and water.

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