My path to The Real Milk Paint Company began in vocational school being taught by Werner Duerr. (Yes, the same guy who taught Chuck Bender.) After I completed my woodworking training, I worked for a few different antique dealers and furniture restorers repairing antique furniture.
Many of those pieces had a painted finish that I was charged to fix or touch up. Working with available paints proved useless. If I made a paint with a shellac base, the results were too shiny. A couple of attempts using acrylic paints didn’t hit the mark, either. I needed something more in line with what was originally used on the furniture, so I began investigating other paints. That led to an in depth look at milk paints sometime in late 1993 or early 1994.
I was very close to my grandfather and I remembered him talking about lime-wash he used to paint barns, so at a family event, I asked if he could tell me how he made his paint. After mixing paint according to his recipe, I discovered that his lime-wash, over time, was chalky and that a powdered lime would rub off of the surface and onto your hands. I had more research to do.
I used his mixture as a springboard, and I picked up a copy of “Henley’s Formulas for the Home and Workshop” (Hiscox). In that book, I found a rudimentary formula, which included casein. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what casein did, but I knew it related to the binding of the paint. (Fig. 1)
At my local grocery store, I picked up powdered milk and experimented even more. I called manufacturers to ask questions and order materials. Slowly I developed a milk paint that had the properties I was looking for. It had to be easy to mix, easy to use and have a dull or dead-flat sheen when dry. After nearly a year of part-time work and 30 to 40 tweaks to the formulas – I’d adjust the casein-to-lime ratio and make other adjustments – I developed my version of milk paint. The recipe we use today is exactly the same.
A Business Was Born
After using my real milk paint for a while, I began to think that other furniture restorers might appreciate the product, too. To test my theory, I set up a small booth – it was actually a table placed in front of some of the furniture pieces I had restored – at a three-day craft show in Kutztown, Penn. (Fig. 2)
We put the paint base and color into paper bags; the color was not yet mixed with the base. (Today the color is thoroughly mixed, and we put the product in a plastic bag that’s loaded into a reusable container.) Each bag had a small window so potential customers could see the color. Plus, we had each bag labeled with a small dot of the color found inside. We started with a green label that said “Real Milk Paint” and 11 colors, including yellow ochre, blue, red, ultramarine blue and raw umber. (Fig. 3)
The weekend was a success. We sold more than $1,000 of product at the show, and met many customers who had finally found a paint to fill their needs. In fact, one of our first customers, Americana Workshops in Maine, became our first retailer and they are still with us today. It was then that I knew we had a business to work, and didn’t take long to realize that in order to build a new business and maintain the work I was already doing, I was destined to work many, many hours during the week.
Originally I thought our focus would be the antique furniture industry and home remodeling where you needed to match existing paints and colors. But today we’ve moved more toward the “Green” movement and we’re focused on environmentally safe products, which milk paint always has been.
The Safest Paint on the Planet
Genuine, authentic milk paint is possibly the most organic paint on the planet. Before we had the big box stores, before the independent hardware store, even before the sundries stores you see in old movies, man was ever the alchemist experimenting and observing the world around him. I can only imagine how it was discovered that milk is a very effective glue and binder.
Artists such as Leonardo Divinci used “cheese glue” to assemble his oil painting boards and frames. To early European artists, milk casein showed much tenacity, and was the strongest of glues. Remember the cow logo on Elmer’s glue? Elmer’s used to be made with milk! What is it about these ingredients that make them so effective, yet so safe? (Fig. 4)
Ingredient #1 is lime. Lime, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a caustic, highly infusible solid that consists of calcium oxide that is obtained through calcination – heating until all that’s left is an ashy residue – of calcium carbonate (chalk from shells or limestone). There is no man made substitutes for lime.
When natural lime (no artificial ingredients added) is heated and all water is driven off it becomes quick lime. Quick lime is unstable until water is added to form an intermediate product called Hydrate Lime, which is the friendly stuff used for making cement mortars and to enrich your garden soil.
The great thing about lime is the cycle. Chalk to quick lime to hydrated lime can be done over and over. Lime is never really used up it just changes form.
Ingredient #2 is milk, or the curd part of the milk known as casein. Casein is found in skim milk and can be formed into chunks by adding in white vinegar. What floats to the top is acid casein. This is what the Real Milk Paint Company uses to make milk paint, or what is technically called calcium caseinate. Calcium caseinate is formed when the lime (calcium) opens up the protein casein to make it an adhesive. (Fig. 5)
Milk casein is such an interesting product because it is an emulsion, so it accepts other ingredients being added to it. In the early days, besides pigment, paint makers also added tallow (animal fat). Fats go rancid, so their inclusion is not recommended today.
The pigments or colorants that gives our paint its color are all iron oxides. These iron oxides are the natural colors you see in the earth’s crust – the yellows, oranges and reds found in the soil.
When you combine the calcium (lime), casein (milk) and pigment (iron oxide) – all of which are 100% naturally occurring – you get milk paint, so you can see how milk paint could be the safest paint on planet earth. It’s safe for you and safe for the planet.
At The Real Milk Paint Company, however, we do take advantage of modern technology. We spray dry the milk powder (rapidly dry the liquid using a hot gas); the lime we use is a high-calcium technical grade lime, which is the same material used in aspirin; and our pigment are ground very fine or micronized. Combining all of these together we make Real Milk Paint in 54 colors. (Fig. 6)
If you’re wondering what colors are most often requested, the answer changes each year as media and magazines begin to show the newest color trends. Today, some of the hot colors are Soft White, and Beach Glass and Aqua, which are really bright blues. Pearl and Parchment, our off white colors, are next in line. Those are the trends right now.
Packaging & Mixing
Even if the product has not changed throughout the years, packaging has. Today we ship our paints in a reusable, recyclable container that is loaded with the paint (all colors already mixed in) sealed in a plastic bag. And each container has a plastic marble included. (Fig. 7)
To mix our paints, put equal amounts of milk paint mixture and water into the container, make sure the marble is inside then shake the paint for about five minutes. That’s all. When you pop the lid, your real milk paint is ready to use. And if you’re wondering, the marble helps stir the material, breaking down any of the small clumps that may occur as the paint and water mix.
(To hear the author’s own words about how the marble idea came about, click the audio player above.)
You can, and for years I have, mixed the paints using a stir stick. It may take a bit longer because as you stir you need to press out any bubbles of paint powder with the stick.
More Than Customer Support
One of the great things we get from our customers is feedback. Their input has helped us decide some of the additional products we should carry. And it’s not simply from a direct request, such as finding a good quality brush to work with. A lot of times we bring in new products to solve a problem for our customers. Case in point: Tung oil.
Our customers were looking for a way to make the milk paints more waterproof. I had experience with Tung oil, using it as a straight-up finish on woodworking projects for years. I experimented with the oil over our paints and realized that Tung oil soaked into the paints – it does darken the color slightly – without changing the sheen at all, and the durability of the paints was strengthen. Problem solved. Tung oil helps to make the paint more waterproof. (Fig. 8)
Plus, the Tung oil fits well into the “green” category. It’s a natural product that has many uses around the home. It’s a great finish for wood floors because it’s durable, the wood is sealed and you don’t have to suffer with a super-high sheen. Also, did you know that Tung oil is a great topcoat for concrete? We now bring in large quantities of Tung oil. (Fig. 9)
Best Application Process
If you’re new to milk paint and you’re interested in the best way to use the paints. The first questions to ask is, “Are you working on a new wood surface, or are you applying milk paint over an older finish of some kind?” Your answer influences the application process. (Fig. 10)
On new wood, apply the paint directly to the surface, but if you’re working on an older finish, there are a few steps needed to ensure the best adhesion. And there’s a few choices for topcoats should you need one.
(To hear the author’s own words on how to paint over an existing finish, click the audio player above.)
I’ve used Real Milk Paint for years, and have found many uses around the house and shop. It’s the perfect paint for antique restoration or reproduction work if you want to match period details, it’s great for trim work and moldings and is the perfect “green” paint for any use inside (and outside) the home.
Dwayne shows his method for aging and distressing a painted finish on a mantle he made from reclaimed lumber.