Maybe you can’t put a name on it, but undoubtedly you’re familiar with that timeworn, color-washed finish that makes every grain and beautiful imperfection come to life.
One of the oldest forms of paint, milk paint dates back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, where it decorated pyramids and cave dwellings. The simple, all-natural formula, as its name suggests, is made from milk protein and a combination of lime, earth pigments, and clay. When mixed with water, these ingredients make a liquid paint that can be used for a variety of applications.
“Up until about the mid-1800s, paint wasn’t available to buy commercially, so people had to make their own formulas with what they had readily available,” says Sausha Khoundet, founder of Sweet Pickins Milk Paint and now owner of Old Fashioned Milk Paint based in Tooele, Utah. “Early American colonists and Shakers used milk paint to coat their furniture and interiors—and many of these pieces still look as good today, if not better,” Khoundet says. “Milk paint gets better with age.”
While often prized on antique pieces, milk paint is having a resurgence in popularity today, in part because it’s completely natural. “The formula is environmentally friendly and has no VOCs [volatile organic compounds] or harsh chemicals, and people are gravitating toward products that are all natural and safe,” says Amy Howard, CEO of Amy Howard Home, a line of furniture-refinishing products based in Memphis, Tenn.
There’s also a trend toward a casual, lived-in farmhouse style. “Creating a perfect, ‘chippy’ worn finish with milk paint is the easiest way to get there,” Khoundet says, noting that customers buy her company’s original milk paint formula to recreate authentic period looks in historic homes, particularly for cabinets and furniture, as well as decks, sheds, and outdoor pieces.
In addition, more people are picking up a brush because there are so many easy ways to do it yourself. “Milk paint can be used almost anywhere modern paints can be used,” says DIY expert Marian Parsons, founder of Mustard Seed Interiors and Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint in Rochester, Minn. “What it does best is soak into raw wood like a stain, but it also provides the coverage of a paint. Additionally, it can be utilized as a wash to get beautiful, authentic-looking aged effects on furniture, cabinets, walls, and floors.”
Parsons explains that when milk paint is brushed over an existing finish without first sanding the surface, it doesn’t adhere completely and flakes away, giving it that signature vintage look. “This creates the illusion of old, chipping paint that looks like it could’ve been original to the piece,” Parsons says. “We have seen artisans create striking effects with milk paint using layering techniques as well,” she says. “This paint can do things that most modern paints can’t.”
The formula also has the benefit of longevity. “It has an indefinite shelf life when it’s stored in powdered form, which means it won’t corrode over time,” Parsons says.
Howard, whose company currently has 14 shades of milk paint based on pigments sourced from quarries in the South of France (when the quarry runs out, so does that specific shade), prizes the substance for its patina. “Milk paint has depth of color and a great deal of authenticity that evokes the feeling of time,” she says.
And because the paint comes in a powder form, you can control how thick or thin you want it to be by the amount of water you add. Working with it is easy: Simply apply with a brush or sprayer, lightly sand to smooth out the surface after it’s dry for a buttery finish, and then coat with a sealant such as wax, Khoundet says. “It’s completely user friendly.”
While the paint tends to feel thinner than mixed paints purchased in a can, which can take some getting used to, Parsons notes, “the advantage of the thinner consistency is that it’s quick-drying and very forgiving when it comes to brushstrokes and drips.”