Are you more eco-conscious than you used to be when it comes to paint? So are we! Many manufacturers are touting products that are made to be low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds), but did you know that there’s an ancient product still in use today that’s been low VOC all along? It’s milk paint!
We love milk paint because it’s all natural and eco-friendly – and because it comes from the earth, there are no chemicals in it. Milk paint is created today using traditional ingredients such as limestone, clay, casein (milk protein), chalk and natural pigments such as iron oxide. Because there are no VOCs, it’s the ideal product to use when painting indoors. And because it dries so fast, you can get a project done in just a few hours!
Milk paint is so versatile, we even incorporated it into our wedding day (we’ll show you an example of something we did for our wedding day at the end of this post)!
As eco conscious DIY’ers, we wanted to learn more about this outstanding product. We were also ready to discover new faux finish and crackle techniques, so a few years ago hubs and I spent a ‘crafternoon’ doing a milk paint workshop at Homestead House Paint Co. in Toronto.
Milk paint comes in a powder form that has to be mixed with water. If you are making small batches, a frother works wonders to mix it up. In larger quantities, a blender is ideal. If you plan on doing larger projects, keep your eyes open for a second hand blender at your local thrift store. Milk paint will start to go bad after about 5 days because of the milk protein, so just mix as much as you need.
A full package is about a quart and will cover about 70 square feet (i.e. two small dressers). You won’t get as much coverage with the lighter colours as you will with the darker ones, so keep that in mind when purchasing your quantities.
For this project, we started with raw wood shelves.
Mixing and Application Tips
If mixing by hand with a wisk or milk frother, use a clear container so you can see if the powder is properly mixed. There should be no lumps or dry patches.
Below is an example of the containers I use for small projects such as this shelf. Hubs saved these clear containers for me from other paints. They work great because of the wide mouth and I can use the paint directly from the container, then close the lid and store milk paint in them for up to two days.
To make milk paint in slightly larger quantities, I found the magic bullet blender shown below at my local thrift store. Although milk paint is non-toxic, I dedicate this blender for mixing milk paint only. Also shown below is a milk frother I picked up at Ikea. It’s what I use when I’m mixing by hand in the containers shown above.
To use the blender, add water into the blender first, then the powder and mix for a few minutes. It’s best to let it sit for another 5 – 10 minutes so the water is fully absorbed into the powder. Mix for another minute and it’s good to go. All mechanical mixing methods will produce foam, so just be sure to remove the foam from the top of the milk paint and discard it (foam will not give you the proper consistency when applied).
A one-to-one ratio of milk paint powder to water will give you a solid opaque finish. The perfect consistency isn’t too runny or too thick. Test it out on a scrap piece of wood; it should look solid. If it’s a little on the thin side, add more pigment and mix again. Transfer the milk paint to another container so you can wash out the blender right away; just add water, blitz it, pour it out and repeat if necessary to clean.
If the milk paint is on the thick side, when you brush it on your paint may crack as it dries, so add a touch more water. With light colours, you’ll need about two coats for solid coverage. If, however, you want to create more of a stain, use three parts water to one part powder.
If you want to achieve a purposely crackled look, you can brush on hemp oil as a base and it will act as a resist (it works best if you apply some heat to it).
Watch this quick video from Homestead House to get an idea of the consistency:
Use a natural bristle brush to brush the milk paint on from end to end so you don’t see stops and starts. Brush it out well; the milk paint will self level so you won’t see brush strokes. Milk paint dries in 30 minutes.
For my first coat of milk paint, I applied a burgundy ‘stain’ for the undercoat (not shown) and let it dry. Apply it with even strokes from end to end for consistency. Periodically mix the paint as you go to prevent settling. Because I made the first coat a bit thinner, it was dry in only 20 minutes. On top of that coat, I milk painted this vibrant blue colour and let it dry.
Hubs used black as his second coat:
Distressing Milk Paint
I then applied a final top coat of a lighter colour milk paint that was a thicker consistency. For this final coat I used a hair dryer to encourage cracking on the flat surface of the top (which you will see later).
After letting the top coat dry, I used a very fine sandpaper (300 grit) to smooth out any raised wood grain. By the way, you can leave all sanding to the end – no need to sand between coats. I used a coarser sandpaper along the edges and corners. At first only the blue showed through.
The more I sanded, I started to see the burgundy in areas where I sanded deeper. I continued sanding until I was happy with the result.
Here’s how the crackle looks on top. You can also see the blue and burgundy along the edges where I sanded through the candle wax:
Once you are satisfied you can apply your desired top coat. If you get water on milk paint you will get water marks so it’s best to protect it. You can use a top coat of hemp oil, tung oil, wax (which are all food safe) or even polyurethane if you wish. The finish will be very matte at this point. To protect it and add some sheen, I applied hemp oil and let it soak in. The oil not only helps to seal and protect the surface, but it saturates the milk paint so it appears vibrant and not chalky. Two coats is ideal.
For an extra durable top coat, use hemp oil and let cure (until dry to the touch), then apply wax on top. You can apply either a clear or tinted wax on a soft cloth and buff it with a clean cloth once dry. Keep in mind that natural finishes are not maintenance free; the top coat will dry out over time and need to be re-applied.
While hemp oil and beeswax are recommended for interior applications, like these decor shelves, tung oil is recommended for exterior projects.
Of all the paints we’ve used (and hubs is a professional painter so we’ve tried a lot!), milk paint is the most exciting because you never know where you’ll end up! But you really can’t go wrong with milk paint. No matter what colour you choose to paint, they are all beautiful!
Here are the two shelves we made that day. Hubs’ shelf (the bottom one) is more subtle in its distressing than mine and he chose different colours for his stain and top coats but they both have so much character.
Milk paint will never chip or peel so it’s ideal for outside use as long as it’s being applied to raw wood and can be absorbed into the wood. It’s great for adirondack/muskoka chairs for instance.
Here’s one of the shelves on display in the mancave, at the entrance to my craft studio:
Milk paint looks great in any setting, but I think it’s especially beautiful when it’s accessorized with vintage finds!
Next time you’re looking to switch things up with a paint project, why not try milk paint? It’s Birdz of a Feather approved because it more than lives up to our Craft Rehab motto: go green: good planets are hard to find!
Homestread House sells a full line of milk paints and finishing products and they’ll ship across North America – so if you can’t do a workshop there, you can still try a project in the comfort of your own home! Their milk paint colours are gorgeous (as you can see below and on their website)!
Workshops are a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon to build your milk paint knowledge and confidence. There’s probably a milk paint workshop in your area, but if you’re in the Toronto area, definitely check out Homestead House’s Milk Paint Finishing Workshop. If you’re interested in learning more about Homestead House, you can check out this post about their Humble Beginnings. They are a family run business and you may be surprised to learn that they created the bespoke line of milk paints for Miss Mustard Seed – known across North America and Europe for both her milk paint line and projects!
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Here’s the example I mentioned earlier of how we incorporated milk paint into our wedding day on the handles of these miniature rolling pins….
…. which we turned into a unique display for our place cards. These were our giveaways and each couple/guest got to take one home at the end of the night. Aren’t they cute? Many of our guests are using these today in their kitchen to display a family picture.
Our next milk paint projects will include a makeover of a singer sewing table and a clock. Here’s a sneak peak at the befores:
This Singer Sewing table has seen better days! It’s severely water damaged, but milk paint will transform it in no time!
This clock has an already sealed surface which is difficult to paint over with any paint. I’ll be showing you how to use a bonding agent with the milk paint to get it to adhere properly.
You can be sure we’ll be upcycling these items into much more than just a clock and table 🙂 We’ll also show you a progression to few a larger projects in future posts too – one of which is our basement stairs. It’s going to be an epic project so stay tuned (or subscribe if you haven’t already)!
Here’s our newest furniture upcycle; we used traditional paint on this one (but still low VOC!). As usual, it’s a roadside rescue waterfall dresser: