Time machine: Using milk paint to deliver heritage results.

By Steve Maxwell

Need to paint interiors so they look old in a classic sort of way? You’ve simply got to try milk paint. While modern latex paints are impressive in so many ways, looking authentically old and classic isn’t one of their virtues. Milk paint’s claim to fame is the ability to create the kind of hue and saturation that’ll throw your clients back a hundred years at a single glance. That’s because the traditional milk paint of today is pretty much the same as the stuff available in 1850. You’ll also love working with milk paint because it’s so well behaved. Safe, odour-free and fast drying, used in the way I’ll show you here, milk paint can also deliver a particular kind of beauty that only gets better with the bumps and dings inflicted by everyday life. While milk paint certainly isn’t for every interior paint job, knowing when to recommend it to your clients and how to apply it is one way to expand the service you deliver as a painter.

As you’d guess from the name, milk paint is based on milk proteins – one of the few raw materials people had for making paint and adding colour to everyday life during pioneer times. These milk proteins were mixed with natural pigments, lime and clay to create paint. Sounds primitive and unlikely, but milk paint is surprisingly durable even by modern standards. The traditional versions available for sale today come as a powder that you mix with water, then brush on.

Milk paint is best applied to clean, bare wood or drywall so it can soak in and get a grip on surface fibers, though I have applied it successfully to wood surfaces that have been lightly oiled in the past. Use the right kind of primer and traditional milk paint can even be applied over previously painted or varnished surfaces, too. Just scuff up the surface with 120-grit sandpaper first to give the surface some tooth. While you won’t usually find real milk paint in stores, the internet solves that problem. Google the phrase “traditional milk paint Canada” to find mail order milk paint suppliers that ship to all provinces.

milk paint

Secrets for Mixing

The first thing to understand about milk paint is probably one of the most important. Thorough mixing is key. Besides the obvious fact that any powdered paint needs to be mixed completely before application, there’s more to mixing milk paint properly than meets the eye. Don’t even try to do this by hand because unmixed blobs of powdered paint are sure to haunt you when it comes time for application. A large spade bit chucked into a cordless drill works great for mixing small quantities of milk paint in a juice can. A mixing paddle of the sort used to churn up drywall compound works well for mixing larger quantities in a 20 litre pail. But before you get mixing, you have a decision to make.

Two Ways to Work

Milk paint can be used in the same way you’d use any other kind of paint to create a smooth layer of colour on wood or drywall. But there’s another approach, too. Milk paint is also the key ingredient in an exceptionally cool process for creating a distressed and worn look on wood. Pristine results or distressed are your two options, but the outcome determines the approach you take right from the start.

If you’re aiming for a distressed milk paint look, start by staining bare wood to simulate the golden patina imparted by age. This is what will show through the dents, dings and wear marks you’ll make as part of the distressing process that comes later. Any medium brown stain will do for this work. Just let the stain dry for at least one day, then power-mix a batch of milk paint with water and get ready to apply it.

I find mixing works best if you stir the water and powder the best you can with your drill, let the mixture sit for 10 minutes before mixing again just to be sure. You should also mix the paint after every 10 minutes of painting, just to be sure the solids aren’t settling out and diluting the colour. If you won’t be distressing the surface, there’s no need for stain. Just move right on to the painting part next.

milk paint

Maxwell built this cabinet from new materials, but the carving and distressed milk paint finish makes it look a hundred years old.

How to Apply Milk Paint

Brush on the paint and let it dry. That’s simple enough, and if you’re planning to distress the surface later, this one coat will probably do the job. Apply two coats on non-distressed surfaces for good coverage, but not before you take care of something. As with any finish, milk paint makes wood noticeably rougher after the first coat dries, as surface fibers swell, stand upright and harden that way. Let the milk paint dry for a full day, then grab a piece of 220-grit sandpaper and lightly rub the surface to knock down raised grain before applying a second coat. For distressed results, you’ll need to use both sandpaper and abrasive pads or steel wool, but not just for smoothening. You’ll also need to engage in a little artistry.

Stress-Free Distressing

Sand slightly more vigorously using 220-grit paper on areas that you’d expect to be worn by age, working right through the milk paint, though not through the stain you applied initially. Go easy at first. Take just a little paint off here and there, then stand back and look at the whole area. Add more wear marks until the project sports the degree of antiquity that suits the taste of your client.

I find a 3M rubbing pad works best for a final rub down after the sanding. The rubbing pad eases the transition between zones where paint was completely removed by sand paper and areas where paint remains. You can certainly attempt distressing any kind of paint, but modern formulations resist the abrasion too well for best results. Milk paint sands willingly, and that’s one reason I like it so much for this work.

When you’re satisfied with the level of distressing, vacuum off all milk paint dust, then seal the wood surface. I’ve used both water-based and oil-based urethanes for this job in the past, but there are better options. One of my favorites is wipe-on poly with a satin or flat sheen. It goes down fast, there’s never any danger of runs, and it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t make milk paint look modern or sealed under plastic.

Apply one coat of wipe-on poly (a brush is a big help getting the product into nooks and crannies), then lightly wipe off excess with a rag. Wipe-on poly dries in a day, so you’re ready to complete a final light rub down with a fine or super-fine 3M pad after that. Besides looking great initially, a distressed milk paint finish only becomes better with authentic dents and wear. How many other finishes actually improve as they get knocked around?

When you get right down to it, interior painting is mostly about creating pleasant feelings for people living in a space. That’s why people are so particular about the colours they choose. The ability to convey a particular note of emotion is the main reason I like milk paint so much. And it somehow manages to do its job with any one of many different colours. Whenever you need to conjure that heritage feeling in a room – regardless of the colour palette you’re working with – milk paint can do the job better than anything else I’ve seen so far.

Milk paint on a big scale
I first experienced authentic milk paint in 1988, working as a cabinetmaker in a six-man shop where we built and finished traditional kitchen cabinets, wainscoting, trim and millwork. Our whole finishing department (including us cabinetmakers) would kick into milk painting mode a couple of times a month, pre-finishing classic interior woodwork for installation alongside site-finished surfaces we applied in the field, too. What struck me most at the time was not just the look of antiquity created by milk paint, but also what you could do to make this finish look old and wise by distressing it. I’ve been hooked ever since. But like many heritage products, success with milk paint requires finesse. It’s really quite unique.

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