Design Inspo

What Is Milk Paint? How To Use Milk Paint in Your Home Design

Wondering what milk paint is and if anyone uses it anymore? Take a look at the enduring tradition of milk paint and how it can work in modern homes.

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Chances are you’ve heard about home furnishings finished in milk paint lately (but if you haven’t, that’s okay too!). If you’re not sure whether this is an obscure practice from colonial times or if it’s a new TikTok trend, let’s look at the milk paint tradition and determine if it would work in your home.

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What Is Milk Paint?

First things first, we’re going to set the record straight: Milk paint is not some fly-by-night paint trend on social media.

It is an all-natural pigmented coating that’s first recorded use was 49,000 years ago in South Africa. It has been found in cave paintings of Australia and Egypt and provided a lacquer for King Tut’s tomb. Apparently, it’s durable.

What Is Milk Paint Made Of?

Ingredients have varied over the years and in different locations around the world, but the main components of milk paint have always been milk, lime, and natural pigment. Those natural pigments could be anything from coal to fresh berries.

Different regions perfected their own versions by adding olive and walnut oils, eggs, or glue. Today, paint companies are adding clay and chalk and have formulated bonding agents that allow the paint to work on more surfaces. 

When Was Milk Paint Invented?

Coating your furniture with milk paint isn’t only an all-natural way of decorating your home; it is also a powerful link to our agrarian past. From those cave paintings in Australia to Renaissance art, milk paint was the medium of choice for centuries. In Colonial America, painters would travel from town to town with a set of pigments to mix on-site for customers. 

Is Milk Paint Eco-Friendly?

Though milk-based paint was replaced by oil and lead-based varieties in the early 1900s, discoveries about the toxic nature of those types of paint revitalized the market for environmentally safe milk paint. Milk paint is more than a heritage decor option; it is also one of the safest ways to coat furniture and walls. 

Milk Paint Coverage: What To Know

Unlike chalk paint, another natural paint favorite, milk paint has a slight sheen to it due to the milk proteins. This sheen may give milk paint an edge when compared with chalk paint. It is absorbed into surfaces and creates a unique barrier. 

Milk Paint Penetrates Surfaces

Milk paint brushes on more like a stain than latex-style paint. It doesn’t rest on the surface but penetrates the wood in a way that hardens over time.

While, yes, the long-lasting color can still chip over time, it’s one of the reasons that so many people love milk paint. It gives unpredictable coverage that is reminiscent of family heirlooms and conversation pieces — very farmhouse chic

When painting non-porous surfaces, you must roughen the surface with sandpaper or apply a modern bonding agent to prime the surface for milk paint. This is true of most paint types. Try for a bonding agent that has low toxicity for the most eco-friendly project possible.

Milk Paint Can Work as a Stain

When thinned a bit with water, milk paint gives the coverage of a stain. The beauty of the wood grain showing through the paint is part of the charm (and debatably our favorite part).

To use your milk paint strictly as a stain for freshening up surfaces, mix one part milk paint with two parts water. If you want more coverage, either use more coats or increase the amount of paint in your paint-to-water ratio. 

Milk Paint Dries Quickly

Milk paint’s unusual drying speed is a highly desired trait. Ahem: we’re looking at you, impatient DIYers (read: us). Rather than waiting hours to apply a second coat (as for latex paint) or overnight (as for oil-based), you can apply a second coat of milk paint within 30 minutes, confident that the color you see is fully dried.

Milk Paint Can Make Cleaning Tricky

Before you begin covering your home in milk paint, consider that it isn’t high gloss. Areas that traditionally call for glossy surfaces to make cleaning easier, like kitchens, may require more care when using milk paint. 

Luckily, you can find glossy top coats made to go over milk paint to create an easy clean surface for walls and furniture. Unfortunately, you won’t find the chip resistance in milk paint that oil-based paints contain. Clean carefully to keep the milk paint in pristine condition. 

How To Paint Walls With Milk Paint

Use a drill attachment to thoroughly mix your milk paint powder with water (and any bonding agent you may opt to use). After it is well blended, let it sit for 10 to 30 minutes so that you won’t have pockets of undissolved paint pigments.

Paint in Stages

It’s much harder to take dried paint off a wall than it is to put it on (parents of young kids will know this struggle well).

To avoid a whoopsie moment, build your color slowly and see how it dries within a half hour before deciding if you’d like another coat. Sometimes, bold is better. In this case, try using less water when mixing the paint for a more saturated coat.

If you’re unsure about what color to splash across your calls, try out your colors ahead of time with Spoak’s design suite — the color palette generator and visualization tool can help you with decision-making before you start your project. Don’t take too long planning, though: Real milk paint has a short shelf-life (about 24 hours after being mixed). 

Apply a Clear Coat

If you’re concerned about the nature of milk-painted walls, you can paint a clear coat over the walls for a little sheen and easy wipe surfaces. Or try sealing them with hemp oil, as you would furniture, for a more durable surface.

However, fun fact: it’s worth noting that the Vatican’s chief architect had the Belvedere Palace re-painted with milk paint recently due to its durability. 

How To Paint Furniture With Milk Paint

Most people ease into using milk paint by painting one great statement piece, like a vintage hutch or coffee table.

Here are a few tips to make your foray into milk paint as smooth as possible.

Test the Paint

When painting over raw wood, your surface needs no preparation. This is one of the big pluses of using milk paint.

You will, however, want to test your milk paint on a small area to gauge the coverage you are getting with your water-to-paint ratio. You can slowly build coverage from a slight stain to full-on paint or opt to use less water for an opaque finish. 

Lean Into the “Age”

At this point, if you are using milk paint, it’s probably because you love the random way it reveals wood grain or older paint layers. Just as vintage pieces often have a gorgeous patina from wear and exposed layers of paint from days gone by, you can achieve the same distressed look by using milk paint over a painted surface.

Faking those layers of aged paint gives a piece more texture. Follow a layer in one color with a bit of sanding, then a layer in another color. Repeat until you have the right amount of “history.” 

Prepare Non-Porous Surfaces

Got a non-porous surface like a metal coffee table that you were hoping to cover with milk paint? Don’t despair: You can still use milk paint. Modern paint companies have transformed old-school milk paint, making it as versatile as other paint. 

You can use an additive that boosts the durability of the milk paint and gives a more controllable treatment to pre-finished pieces. There are also primers created to work with milk paint so that it adheres to any surface at all— some mixed right into the paint for one-step application. 

You Can Seal It, But You Don’t Have To

You can seal your milk paint pieces, but you don’t have to, especially if you prefer the wabi-sabi nature of a more chippy look. On the other hand, if paint chipping drives you crazy, finish your project with a sealer of some sort. 

You can use wax, hemp oil, polyurethane, or another oil. These will provide varying levels of water resistance and probably deepen the color of your piece, so test them out before fully committing. 

Wax and hemp oil are the most natural choice of the three and may not need reapplying for years. Use an old t-shirt to rub them in and buff the surface to a nice shine. 

You Can Sand Between Coats

If you are concerned about durability, apply multiple coats and sand between them. If you sand between coats, move from higher grit to progressively lower grit with each coat. For instance, use 220 grit sandpaper after your first two coats, then finish with 440 after your last coat. Top this with a coating of wax, and you have a piece that will last for years.

Ready To Add Some Character to Your Space?

Most people choose milk paint for the unusual character it gives a piece. You don’t have to be into shabby chic to take advantage of the wabi-sabi nature of milk-painted pieces — it works for many design styles.

Try choosing one accent piece and give it a few coats of milk paint. See how the matte, earthy finish appeals to you, or create a mock-up of the space in your personal design studio to see if it will work with your home decor. 

Be warned: milk paint can be addictive! You will find yourself browsing through flea markets with a running list of all the things you could bring home and paint. 

Photo Credit: (Left) Home Talk


A Milk and Ochre Paint Mixture Used 49,000 Years Ago at Sibudu, South Africa | PLOS ONE

Milking a Goat for All the Paint It's Worth | Modern Farmer

Are Paint Fumes a Health Concern? Here's What the Latest Science Says | TIME

Why the Vatican is Using Milk to Paint Its Buildings | CNN

What Is Limewash Paint: Four Places to Use It in Your Home | Architectural Digest

Japan’s unusual way to view the world | BBC Travel

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Date Posted
May 12, 2023



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