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From Cows to Cabinetry: Milk Paint and 6 Awesome Uses for It

Milk paint
If you're going for that distressed, worn look, milk paint is an easy, fun and inexpensive way to achieve it. Sweet Pickins/Old Fashioned Milk Paint

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A few years ago, Eva Bowker accepted a kitchen renovation project on short notice. Not sure if she would be able to finish redoing the cabinets on time, she went searching for a paint that would dry extremely fast. That's when she came across milk paint, an eco-friendly powder that's made from 100 percent natural ingredients and then mixed with water to create liquid paint. The best part? Milk paint dries in less than 30 minutes, compared with the 24 hours needed for oil-based paints. The result? It saved Bowker's project.

"One of the best things about milk paint is the fact that it doesn't require priming or sanding before application," says Bowker, a home-improvement coordinator for Fantastic Handyman Australia, in an email interview. "This makes the whole process a lot easier and saves you a ton of time. However, the main reason why milk paint is better than other types of paints is that it is nontoxic and almost fume-free, and it's made of simple ingredients."

What Exactly Is Milk Paint?

Milk paint has been used for thousands of years, having been discovered in cave drawings dating back as far as 6,000 years ago. "The paint was used because it could be easily made from household ingredients that people already had on hand, and tinted with all natural earth pigments and natural substances that were readily available," says Sausha Khoundet, owner and operator of Sweet Pickins Milk Paint & Old Fashioned Milk Paint.

Today's version of milk paint has evolved into a powder form made from milk protein known as casein (which acts as a binder); lime (to make the paint hard and durable); and natural earth or mineral pigments (to give it color). The reason for the powder form? "Because the paint will begin to spoil once it's mixed with water," says Khoundet, whose company is known for inventing the original powdered milk paint now on the market in the U.S. in 1973. "It had to be made into a powder, so the customer can mix their own paint (just add water)."

It's commercially available from numerous well-known paint companies. Martha Stewart herself even has a recipe for making your own milk paint at home using lemon, 1 quart (.9 liter) of skim milk, a sieve, cheesecloth, and dry color pigment or artist's acrylic paint.

Milk paint
Milk paint can be used to give an old piece of furniture a unique and interesting vibe.
Sweet Pickins/Old Fashioned Milk Paint

Is It Easy to Use?

"Super easy!" says Khoundet. She explains that you just mix the powder with water at a 1:1 ratio using a spoon — or even better, a whisk — to ensure that the paint comes out smooth and creamy with no lumps. Once the paint is thoroughly mixed, you then apply it just as you would any other paint. Once it's dry, you then lightly sand it to a smooth, buttery-soft finish, and then apply your sealer of choice.

"Milk paint is very forgiving," she adds. "You don't see brush marks, and touch ups can easily be blended in, and since it comes in a powder form, it can be mixed as thick or as thin as you like it, depending on your project — thick to create texture, or thin to use it as a wash or stain."

How Does Milk Paint Differ From Chalk Paint?

When it comes to comparing milk paint with and chalk paint, the prep work for both are about the same. Toward that end, both paints have their place, and one is not better than the other, it's all about personal preference and the overall look you're trying to achieve. Here are some differences to note:

  • Chalk-type paints are newer on the market and come pre-mixed. Only true milk paint comes in a powder form (if it's premixed and says it's milk paint, it would be an acrylic-based paint).
  • Milk paint is made with all-natural ingredients consisting of limestone and casein, while most chalk-type paints are not all-natural.
  • Milk paint is known for its depth, dimension and somewhat "mottled" appearance, unlike other paints that are flat and one-dimensional (such as chalk-type paints, latex, oil and lacquer). Milk paint has a ton of character, even when it's not distressed.
  • Because milk paint comes in a powder form (that you mix with water), it can be made as thick or as thin as you like. You can use it thin for a stain, or thicker to create texture and age. Chalk-type paints generally are thicker and are already mixed.
  • Milk paint can naturally chip/flake off and crackle when painting over some existing finishes; chalk-type paints don't do this and have to be distressed or forced to crackle. Both paints can be distressed, glazed and waxed.

How Milk Paint Can Be Used

While the majority of folks seem to use milk paint as a decorative finish for furniture, wood-working projects and walls, this versatile product also can be used on artwork — and even buildings, for that matter. In fact, Vatican City used traditional milk-based paint to touch up the exterior walls of Belvedere Palace, a late 15th-century palazzo just north of St. Peter's Square that houses treasured works of art. The process: Milk garnered from local cows was mixed with slaked lime and natural pigments to create the original cream color used in the 1500s, and then hand-patted onto the walls.

"Milk paint has a look to it that's unlike any other paint," says Khoundet. "It has a flat finish (although it can be burnished to produce a sheen), and has a mottled, Old World look to the paint as there are many variations in the color. We find that many woodworkers like the paint because they are trying to mimic the painting techniques found on historic Colonial furniture, and because the paint adheres to wood very well, but is easy to layer and distress.

"There is also a huge movement right now of furniture painters," she adds. "Painters love the authentically aged, worn and 'chippy' look you can get with milk paint when painting over certain surfaces."

6 DIY Milk Paint Projects

With so many possible uses for milk paint, we thought we'd start you off with some fun ideas:

  1. Birdhouses. Start with a simple wooden birdhouse and create a farmhouse-style birdhouse using red milk paint and stencils.
  2. Decorative Mason jars. Have a few Mason jars sitting around your house currently being used as vases or drinking glasses? Transform those plain jars into a colorful piece of decor.
  3. Stunning accent walls. Milk paint comes in a variety of colors, so go for a light shade behind the open shelves in your kitchen or use a dark gray in your home office.
  4. Headboards. Create your own do-it-yourself headboard, and then finish it with milk paint. (Avoid using pallets though, as the wood can harbor bugs, mold and harsh chemicals.)
  5. Boxes and crates. Try reviving old wooden fruit boxes or crates with milk paint, and then use them to help keep your mudroom organized.
  6. Wood cutouts or frames. Milk paint works great for painting wood cutouts — such as hearts or stars —o r for finishing wood picture frames.

So, the bottom line is that there is no need to spend hundreds of dollars on furniture to create the farmhouse look, according to Becky Beach, a designer who operates a blog called Mom Beach. "Simply purchase an old piece of wooden furniture at the flea market and repaint it with milk paint," she says. "This will create a matte finish and a worn-out look that's perfect for super trendy farmhouse décor. You could then display your new trendy furniture in your home or sell it to make extra money."

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