I'm so excited to share this post today — I feel like I'm calling to order a secret meeting about something mysterious yet super cool. There's definitely an aura of mystery surrounding milk paint. You may know the answer to the first question most ask: yes, the paint is made from milk. You may have seen Martha talk about old-fashioned milk paint on her show or read about it in the New York Times (check, check), but wondered how hard it would be to paint with milk paint and does it work as well as modern paint. (Turns out, it works even better.)
I spent my Monday at the Eli Rios studio — Eli is an expert on traditional paints and a well-known furniture conservator. My friend Chris (with Eli, below) works at Eli's antique furniture restoration studio, so I've been lucky enough to meet the man who restores furniture for everyone from Martha Stewart to Ralph Lauren. Eli kindly let me come down to his studio so I could ask him a sheet full of questions about milk paint, play with the paint, and see how the paint works. (Eli's been working with milk paint since 1987 — he knows his stuff.) All I can say is wow.
Think that just because milk paint isn't at your local Home Depot that it's harder to paint with, takes longer to dry, or is more expensive? Wrong. And I have a big scoop for those of you in the New York area. You can meet Eli too, and take a class to learn all about milk paint (even paint a piece of your furniture!) at his Astoria studio. (More details below!) Here's a primer on milk paint. Oh and for those of you new here, this post is a part of an April series I created called Green Swap. It took a bit more time to produce but I hope you enjoy.
What is milk paint?
It's truly the original paint. American Colonists made their own paint, using a formula of milk paint that dated back to Ancient Egypt. The old milk paint formula was re-created in the 1970s and sold to people restoring Colonial furniture. Since then, milk paint has peaked interest since it's both non-toxic and durable. Latex paint as we know it has only been around since the 1950s — think on that.
Is milk paint an eco-friendly paint?
Milk paint is as green as can be. You could eat milk paint (not recommended but it wouldn't kill you.) Milk paint pre-dates the use of petrochemicals, toxic bases, and solvents found in modern paint. It's biodegradable, safe to flush down your drain, non-toxic, and contains zero-VOCs. It's a fantastic option for painting a nursery + children's toys, too. The only ingredients in milk paint: milk protein, lime, clay, and earth pigments — then you add water. (The lime becomes totally inert when mixed with the slightly acid milk.) Milk paint doesn't smell like paint at all. There's a slightly milky scent when you apply milk paint, and it dries odorless. That's something I noticed when I walked in Eli's studio — it doesn't smell like a workshop where painting, gilding, and applying shellac goes on all day. That's because Eli and his team use milk paint and other non-toxic materials. Since milk paint is packaged in dry powder form, there are no paint cans or heavy gallons to truck around the country. Milk paint has the smallest carbon footprint of any paint on the market.
What can you paint with milk paint?
Your walls, your kitchen cabinets, your wood furniture — anything with a porous, water-based finish, including modern latex paint. You do need to know what you're painting though. Do not apply milk paint to anything with an oil-based paint, primer, or sealant (like polyurethane or lacquer.) You'd need to sand or strip that oil-based finish first and prime before applying milk paint. You can't paint metal with milk paint either.
Are milk paints only available in earthy colors?
Yes, that's true. Milk paint is made using earth pigments, so you can't get a purple or electric green. But you can mix any of the 16 historical colors to create different hues and colors. The colors in milk paint will not fade — milk paint is the longest-lasting known paint. And the colors are simply gorgeous. I'm partial to the Buttermilk color — I would love a kitchen someday with Buttermilk-painted cabinets.
What do you need to paint with milk paint?
+ milk paint powder
+ plastic container for mixing paint
+ dollar brushes for stirring and messing around (Eli says they're the best to use)
+ room temperature bottled or filtered water
+ paint brush or roller/paint tray
Then it's as easy as making chocolate milk. You don't even need to prime raw wood surfaces. Seriously, no primer! Don't use tap water to mix milk paint, since chlorine is in regular tap water. If you're painting a large surface (like a room), you'll need a larger container for mixing and a hand-mixer helps to perfectly mix your paint. Since milk paint is completely natural, it's safe to use your kitchen mixer with the paint — just wash like normal afterwards!
How do you measure + make milk paint?
You don't need to take out a scale or measuring cup — just eye amounts through your plastic container. That's the beauty of it — it does not need to be exact. Typically you'll be measuring out equal parts powder to water. It's that simple.
Does milk paint only have a matte finish?
Not true. Milk paint will produce an antique-looking matte finish. But you can create a semi-gloss finish if you use Clear Coat with the paint. You can also easily create a distressed, crackled look — without the chemicals — by running a hair dryer over a surface just painted with milk paint. (And it turns out looking authentic, unlike the synthetic crackle finish solutions you can buy at the hardware store.) And if you're worried about fingerprints and stains on your walls, you can seal milk paint with a Clear Coat sealer.
How quick does it dry?
I watched the milk paint dry within minutes! When milk paint is dry, you can see and feel that it's dry. Depending on the weather and space where you're painting, drying time can range from 10 minutes to under an hour. It's fast! Eli and Chris painted a board with three different colors in under an hour.
How much does milk paint cost?
Milk paint is actually cheaper than the better lines of low-VOC modern paint. A pint is $12 and a gallon is $36. You can buy milk paint online through Green Spirit Products. As usual, the U.S. is slow to adopt something great + green. European countries, like Holland, widely use milk paint. Eli sees a lot of furniture from Europe that's painted with their version of milk paint. Wherever there are cows, there's milk paint available.
What's the cleanup involved with milk paint?
Since it's a powder paint, cleanup is easy. Mix up only as much paint as you need for your project. Milk paint powder will last indefinitely if you keep it sealed and dry in an airtight container. If you have any extra mixed paint, you can seal it in a container and store for a few weeks in the refrigerator. Clean out your brushes with water — super simple.
Eli Rios is now offering two classes about painting. If you're in the New York area, I highly recommend signing up — and fast as they're sure to fill up. Here are the details:
5/23 introductory class on milk paint: In this class, Eli teaches you the basics of working with milk paint. Runs from 9am - 1pm (with lunch break). Just $25, what a deal!
6/13 + 6/14 paint workshop: This two-day weekend workshop teaches you about milk paint and other traditional paints. You can bring your own piece of furniture to paint, and you'll walk away with a solid foundation on the best methods for painting. This is the class to take if you want to be a painting rockstar and create some of the amazing DIY projects that have been floating around the blogosphere. (I'll also be at this workshop, so come say hi!)
Contact Eli's studio to sign up for either class. Hope to get to meet some of you in person! And if you're not in New York, don't fret. I'll be documenting the workshop and will report back — and I'll share what I wind up painting at Eli's class.
what's green swap? find out more here