In Finishing

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While Flax Oil, Shellac, and Tung oil are all good transparent finishes for students, what if you want to cover up the appearance of the natural wood instead? Let’s remember the key considerations to make when choosing a finish for kids or students:

  • Safe and easy application
  • Addressing finishing spills and cleanups
  • Fast cure time

Regarding ease of application, storage, clean-up, and appearance, traditional powder-mixed milk paint is perhaps the finest opaque finish for most woodworking projects. I have been using it on all kinds of surfaces: furniture, artifacts, and turned objects, and it never disappoints. Milk paint is also a very forgiving finish that, if topped with shellac or flaxseed oil, will gift the project with a unique look that no other finish can give. But what is milk paint actually and is it really made out of milk?

My student’s spoon after being accented with yellow milk paint.

Milk paint is a traditional, environmentally friendly paint used for centuries. While it contains the word “milk,” modern milk paint typically doesn’t contain milk. Instead, it’s made from natural ingredients such as casein (a protein found in milk), lime, pigments, and natural fillers. The casein acts as a binder, creating a durable finish. Milk paint is known for its distinctive appearance and ability to create a soft, aged look on furniture and other surfaces. It’s prized for its non-toxic nature and minimal environmental impact, making it a popular choice among eco-conscious DIYers and artisans.

The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. recently began selling the paint in ziplock-sealed plastic bags (right). The old bags that I still have were made of paper.

One disadvantage of milk paint is that it requires a top coat for long-term protection. Shellac, oil, and polyurethane are good choices for this purpose. After my students sand their spoons and apply milk paint as an accent for their handles, we oil the entire spoon with flaxseed oil, which covers and darkens the milk paint area. Flaxseed oil has been the preferred top finish over milk paint for centuries and works well even in the 21st century. Milk paint excels on porous materials like wood but is not recommended for smooth surfaces like metals and plastics.

The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. used to sell a legend showing the true colors of the paints they offer. I am not sure if this practical color card is still available today.

My students chose the color for their utensil handles.

So, what are the main advantages of milk paint?

Incredibly Long Shelf Life

The milk paint I use comes from The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co., Inc., a Utah-based paint maker that has produced it for ages and has kept the same formula and color palette for as long as I can remember. The chalky paint comes in powder form packed in bags that are activated once the powder is mixed with water. In my experience, as long as you don’t leave the bag open, it will remain usable for years, if not decades. I still have bags of milk paint I got twenty years ago, and the powdery substance is ready to turn into paint once mixed with water.

I like to keep most of the milk paint in dedicated jars instead of the factory bags.

Viscosity Control

Milk paint gives us control over its opaqueness. If you add more water, the paint will allow you to see the grain—practically acting as a stain. If you mix the powder with less water, you create a thicker finish that hides the grain and looks totally opaque.


The paint’s heterogeneous character builds into its cake textural “surprises” such as natural blemishes, dots, subtle coloration, and more. That means the results will be attractive to the eye even under sloppy applications. Think about a milk paint surface like a hand-made ceramic mug with all its beautiful native glazing characteristics vs. factory-made china mugs.

Dry Time and Dry Surface

Milk paint dries very fast. A thick layer can take 15 minutes to dry, compared to hours or a day with oil paint. Milk paint also dries to a hard, chalky surface that is so nice to sand in between coats, unlike acrylic paint, which might feel plasticky and gum up your sandpaper.

After we finish sanding the spoon, we mask the accent area with blue masking tape and then paint the top of the handle.

Mixed Paint Preservation and Paint Clean-up

I always mix the anticipated amount of paint for the job to avoid waste. After mixing the paint, we have hours to work with it before it gets spoiled (remember, the main ingredient is natural protein). If you want to use the mixed paint again the next day or two, make sure to store the paint in a closed jar and in the refrigerator, much like you would with food items. Cleanup of brushes and any spills can be easily cleaned with soapy water.

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Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

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