July 15, 2024

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Milk Paint – A Traditional Finish For a Contemporary Look

Milk Paint – A Traditional Finish For a Contemporary Look

If you’ve been in a furniture store or cabinet showroom in the last decade or so, you’ve undoubtedly seen milk paint – or at least finishes that are made to look like milk paint. What is it? Milk paint is a traditional, casein based paint that’s been around for centuries and has, in recent years, enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in popularity. Milk paint both the historical source for, and often the material used to produce, the popular antiqued and “distressed” finish effects found on countless examples contemporary cabinets and furniture.

Originally, milk paint became popular, in part, because it is both durable and easily made from materials that are available to almost anyone. Traditional recipes for milk paint used by furniture makers usually include amounts of casein, lime, clays and earth pigments, but a home recipe may include nothing more than curdled milk, hydrated lime, and coloring derived from readily available sources like iron oxide (rust) or wild berries.

Milk paint finishes are very low in sheen when first applied and are characterized by deeply saturated color. Unlike other types of paint that form a “skin” on the surface of wood, milk paint has a low viscosity and soaks into raw wood. The finish also becomes increasingly durable with age. The upshot is that milk paint reacts differently to wear than modern oil-based and latex paints. Milk paint finishes applied to raw wood don’t usually chip or crack, they wear. The wear patterns of everyday life produce the areas of greater and lesser sheen and subtle variations in color that, for many people, rate highly on the list of qualities that make a piece of furniture “feel” like an heirloom.

A drawback of milk paint prepared in the traditional manner is that it goes bad extremely quickly – you really need to mix up just as much as you are planning to use at one time. While purists won’t mind the extra hassle of having to mix up a fresh batch every time they need one, many of us would prefer the convenience of simply opening a can. Fortunately, there’s an easier route. Authentic milk paint is available pre-mixed in a variety of colors (including the most traditional) from specialty finish manufacturers. You can just keep can or two on the shelf and pop one open when you’re ready to use it.

You can use milk paint by itself for the true traditional look – of course, you have to wait several years for natural wear and tear to produce the full effect. Or, you can use milk paint in conjunction with a translucent colored glaze – also available through paint and specialty finish suppliers. Glazes and other finishing techniques, such as using several layers of different colored paint and then rubbing through the top layers, will in effect speed up the aging process, and help you turn out beautiful antiqued effects in the space of an afternoon.