Friday, March 2, 2007

Milk Paint Primer

To talk about milk paint, the first thing to address is the question "How can you paint that beautiful wood?!" The basic idea that gives the windsor it's flexibility and durability is that the woods are chosen for strength over beauty. By splitting the wood instead of sawing it, we ensure strength and a minimal amount of wave in the grain. Also, by choosing different woods for different parts, the painting brings it all together and draws attention to the silhouette, not the grain. It becomes a line drawing in 3-D. The beauty of milk paint is that when its done well, it holds tight enough to the wood that it can accentuate its "woodness" that invites the touch and guides the eye. I have been making unpainted chairs lately with cherry, butternut and oak. These chairs require a different design, because of the visual punch of the woodgrain, but that's for another time.

But back to milk paint. I describe milk paint to my clients as a thin layer of pigmented plaster. It really is just milk, lime and pigment. If you've ever tried to put a tack in a plaster wall, you know how tough plaster is! It effectively becomes limestone again. It is an incredibly easy paint to work with if you want the rough look of a primitive or aged piece. The problems come when you start asking more of the finish. One of my most revered adages is that you can't rush a finish, and it applies here. The companies that sell milk paint are expecting you to want the rough look, so the instructions that they include are geared towards that. I find the paint way too thick to use this way. A quick note about the different companies. I will mention the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and the Real Milk Paint Company. I use the product from both companies depending on the desired color or result. If I want a layering of colors that I can burnish to a medium sheen, I use the Old Fashioned Milk Paint. Honestly, their product is not as easy to use or as tough a finish and their colors are not as subtle (my opinion) but there is one major advantage that has me using their product. Their paint isn't as tough, which means that it will burnish to a higher sheen and layer better. The Real Milk Paint Company produces the milk paint that we've all heard of, tough as nails and matte as construction paper. I love their colors, the peacock is truly gorgeous. But you can only burnish it to a low sheen and because it covers so well, layering and getting the mottled look is not easy. I used the Real Milk Paint Company when I want a single color and a softer sheen (also the Real Milk Paint Product will last for weeks once mixed). My mixing process is similar for both, though I've had many more issues with the Old Fashioned Paint.
I tend to mix the paint so that it is thin enough to filter through a cone shaped paper filter that you can get at the hardware store. I mix one part paint to 3 parts water and stir or shake it. One important note, different colors may take less water, such as yellows and blues. If you are starting out with milk paint, stick to the greens, reds and blacks. After mixing, let the paint sit for 1/2 hour or so (this is where the patience begins) and then mix again. Now let it sit another hour or so. You'll notice that the top has a foamy crust and the bottom a sludge. I don't want this, I want the creamy fine paint in the middle. So don't stir it up, just tilt the cup and watch as the fine paint slides out from under the crusty foam and pour it into the filter. Let the paint filter through as it will, maybe tap the filter but don't try to force the paint through. Yes, you are going to throw out a lot of paint, believe me, you don't want it. Now you should have a cup of premium paint that only needs thinning to desired consistency. I'll go into applying it next.


Anonymous said...

Good timing. I was over at a friend's studio last week and we talked about the milk paint you use. He had heard of it, but was interested to learn more. So I just emailed him to check out this posting on your blog.

Anonymous said...

I've switched to the paint from Real Milk Paint as I find their colours better suit what I'm trying to achieve. Their windsor green is outstanding. One thing I usually do is to stain before painting using an NGR stain. After I rub out the milk paint, I sometimes want it darker, so I'll stain right over the milk paint again with an NGR. Then I'll apply either a clear or coloured oil. Anyway, don't be afraid to experiment.


Krijoga said...

Milk paint has always been interesting since it was discovered in my studies of finishes, but the recipes have always been a bother to do and I never took the time to look into the fact that it is manufactured. Most of my work has been with shellac though I mostly have done restoration work and making tables. French polish has always been my favorite finish. Best if you want a mirror finish. I also find that shellac is more forgiving then most finishes. Thanks for the info,


Unknown said...

Hi - absolutely LOVE your chairs! I have a query regarding the quality of a milk paint finish prior to applying your oiling recipe.

I have just tried milk paint for the first time on a reclaimed antique 'primitive' style shelf. I did some research and felt your finishing method seemed to suit my objectives. Although I plan to experiment more with this medium and have recently purchased both Real Milk Paint and Old Fashioned milk paint, I used Real Milk Paint for this particular project. I did a coat a day for four days. I found that the day immediately following each coat of paint, the paint is a bit chalky - not very tough - and came off relatively easily with a light hand using the scotch bright to tackle raised grain and the subsequent required dust clean up with a damp cloth (I noted that even areas not tidied with a scotch bright were surrendering colour). The grain stopped coming up after first coat but i kept doing small spot tests on the back after realizing the ease with which paint colour initially dusted or wiped off). Regardless of this discovery, I continued with each subsequent coat until now (total of four coats). Is this tender aspect of the paint 'normal' in the early days after painting and can I proceed with the oil now that I am happy with the look of the shelf(I plan to use your linseed, spar varnish, mineral spirits recipe after a final light burnish with scotch bright)? Or is it possible that I need to wait a few days longer before I oil in order to allow paint to toughen? Or perhaps should i interpret this as a sign of failed paint (for whatever reason - mixed too thin, old batch of paint ....) and try to sand it off and give the Old Fashioned milk paint a try before oiling?
I am not aiming for a finish as fine as yours as this is my first attempts with milk paint, however, I'd rather back track now rather than later if something sounds awry with current quality of the paint finish.


Peter Galbert said...

the paint can seem tender in the first few days, but that is different than paint that is having trouble adhering to the surface. I find that the oil seems to penetrate and bind the paint, but only if it's well adhered. Try buffing it with the scotchbrite and see if is delaminates. If so, the oil won't help much. Milk paint dries so fast that the surface tension can make adhesion tough on dirty or compromised surfaces. When using the scotchbrite, expect some color to come up, but not all the paint! I hope this helps.

Kate said...


Your work is beautiful and I really find your blog full of great information.

I love the finish you have shown in the chair detail used for this blog entry. Would you be able to share how you achieved that effect? What layering technique did you use? Is the transparency you acheived through that teal paint more a function of the consistency of the paint or lots of scrubbing?


Peter Galbert said...

the effect is a result of both the thinness of the teal color, letting all the undercoats dry extra long (to get harder) and of course, lots of rubbing!!! There is no substitute for samples, and with milk paint it's especially important to let the stuff dry overnight in between coats. Good luck!