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What is Milk Paint?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 17, 2024
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Milk paint is an earth-friendly painting technique commonly used on furniture to give it an antique-looking finish. Mixed with pigment powders, a variety of colors can easily be created to achieve the desired effect. Milk paints have a long and distinguished history. In fact, some of the oldest painted surfaces derived from this type of paint, albeit in a somewhat different form.

Coming from various traditional recipes, old milk paint was easily created from materials such as curdled milk or cottage cheese, lime, and pigment for color. These colors were usually restricted to earth tones but could be made from various organic properties. For example, crushed brick was oftentimes used to create red. Darker colors, such as black, were achieved by mixing soot or coal into the paint. Examples of these colors can be seen in early American milk paint furniture.

In addition to furniture, it is not uncommon to find this painting technique applied to wall or floors. While best used on raw or natural wood and plaster, milk paints can also be applied to previously painted surfaces provided that any oils or wax have been removed beforehand. Milk painting is relatively easy to achieve; however, there are a few things to consider before taking on a milk paint project.

When looking for milk paint mixtures, it should be noted that not all of these are identical. Some products labeled as milk paints are simply cheap variations. These imitations consist of latex paint rather than actual milk proteins. The milk protein, casein, is one of the prime ingredients of milk paint today. Casein is combined with quicklime and colored pigments to create an authentic representation of that from yesteryear.

Authentic milk paints will be labeled as such and provide better results. When milk paints are not readily available, they can be made at home from casein, borax, and powder pigments. However, milk paints have a short shelf life once they’re mixed with water, spoiling after just a couple of days. It is usually better to mix small batches at a time.

Milk paint finishes vary but do consist of a textured appearance, oftentimes drying to a tough, matte finish. In addition, the paint dries rather quickly, usually within four to six hours. Various factors contribute to its overall finish as well. Anything from temperature and humidity to water content and surface type ultimately determines the final look. Regardless of its finish, milk painted surfaces stain easily and are prone to water spots unless sealed with a coat of linseed oil or turpentine.

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