Patricia Lyons

You wouldn’t whip up batch of pancakes without reaching for a container of milk, but you might not think to hit the fridge for that ingredient when it comes to your next paint project. Perhaps it’s time to think again, due to the rising popularity of milk paint. Read this guide to learn about milk paint and the types of projects its ideal for.

Don’t wait till the cows come home to try this buzzworthy finish! You can even DIY from scratch with homemade milk paint for your next project.

Though it’s been found on artifacts from ancient Egypt and was commonly used on colonial and Shaker furniture, milk paint is currently enjoying a resurgence among green-minded folks because it’s made of all-natural, non-toxic ingredients.

Milk paint also has appeal for its richly saturated color quality and a finish that can lend an antiqued look. Read on for the pros and cons of working with this cool coating, get inspired by fun project ideas, and find a formula for mixing up a DIY supply.

What is Milk Paint?

Some fundamental milk paint facts:

What is it made of?

Milk paint is usually formulated from milk protein (casein) and lime (calcium carbonate), plus pigments for color and a bit of borax (sodium borate) as a preservative. A bonding agent may also be added to enhance adherence. Milk paint is free of malodorous, toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and while it may impart a slightly milky scent when wet, it has no smell once dry.

Where Can You Find Milk Paint?

Unlike liquid latex and oil-based paints that come in cans, milk paint is typically sold as a powder in packets. Users mix the powder with water, which causes the lime to activate the casein.

This makes milk paint somewhat less convenient and more expensive than pre-mixed commercial paint. A small number of companies, such as General Finishes and Sinopia, produce premixed milk paint in re-sealable containers.

How Much Does Milk Paint Cost?

Packets of powder from The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co., for example, start at $6 for a sample size. A $25 packet makes a quart of milk paint, which is enough to cover about 72 square feet. Other milk paint brands include Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint and The Real Milk Paint Co.

Appearance and Application

Consider milk paint if you want a decorative finish with intense depth of color and a low luster. Milk paint also produces a mottled texture, and is often used to achieve a “chippy” distressed look, so it’s no surprise that it caught on with crafters who like to lend a vintage vibe to furniture pieces. That said, milk paint is rugged and long-lasting; the finish you get is the finish that’s likely to remain for years.

While milk paint can be applied to virtually anything, it adheres best to porous surfaces, such as wood; raw wood is ideal, as it takes milk paint well without priming. Bonding agents may be added to help milk paint stick to non-porous surfaces such as glass, metal, and plastic, as well as surfaces that were previously painted with oil or latex paint.

Another reason milk paint is often used for furniture is its short shelf life. Ideally, once mixed, it should be used within 24 hours, though if sealed tightly it may last in the fridge for a few days. Milk paint can be used on walls, but for the most part it’s considered a small-batch product for small projects.

Keep the following tips in mind when working with milk paint.

  • Combine equal amounts of powder and water, and add bonding agent if desired. Hand mixing can yield lumpy results, so use a drill with a mixing attachment or a dedicated blender to quickly attain a smooth consistency, slightly thinner than latex paint.
  • Once mixed, let milk paint sit for 10 to 30 minutes, which allows the pigments to dissolve. Then use promptly.
  • Prep the surface. If painting wood furniture, sand with 150- to 220-grit sandpaper. Sand lightly for a more distressed look and more heavily for a less-textured effect. Wipe clean completely with a damp rag to banish dirt and dust.
  • Apply a first coat with a natural-bristle brush and let dry fully (milk paint dries fast—within an hour). Use smooth, even strokes. Apply a second coat (or more, if desired).
  • For distress success, remove obvious flakes with a spackle knife. Then sand with high-grit sandpaper (320 to 400 grit), using long, smooth strokes in one direction.
  • Apply sealer if desired. While milk paint is durable, you may wish to apply a sealer, be it wax, polyurethane, or oil (which will deepen the color), to stave off damage from spills, scuffs, and stains. A sealer would certainly help maintain a freshly painted look on ding-prone kitchen cabinets, for instance.

Milk Paint vs. Chalk Paint

These two popular products are similar in a number of ways. Both are water and mineral-based (mainly reliant on calcium carbonate) paints that emit no chemical odors and dry fast.

And while milk paint is organic and chalk paint is inorganic, the latter has negligible amounts of VOCs. But chalk paint has a flat matte finish and milk paint imparts a very slight sheen. And unlike the powdered formula of milk paint, chalk paint is typically sold premixed.

Homemade Milk Paint

To custom tailor color and consistency (and save cash), consider making your own milk paint. Some recipes require you to curdle milk for 24 hours (1/2 cup of lime juice, lemon juice, or white vinegar to one quart of skim milk), then strain out the curds and mix the whey with pigment powder (available at art supply stores or online from resources such as the Earth Pigment Company). Don a face mask for protection when using the finely powdered pigment.

A quicker recipe uses powdered milk: Combine ½ cup milk powder, 1 teaspoon of pigment, a dash calcium hydroxide, and two tablespoons of water in a container or dedicated blender and mix very well. Double or triple the recipe as needed, but remember that milk paint has a short shelf life so only mix as much as you intend to use at a time.

Milk Paint Projects

Got milk paint? Great! Now all you need is a little inspiration…