Avoid Milk Paint Panic – The First Coat Always Looks Like Crap

Milk Paint Primer – No Cause for Panic

 In Shop Blog, Techniques, Wood Finishing, Woodworking Blogs


Imagine, if you will, spending somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 hours working on a project that not only looks halfway decent, but is destined (or at least intended) to transform your messy and cluttered existence into a neatly organized and tidy way of shop life (see above*).

Then, imagine wetting your brush with your carefully chosen and lovingly mixed milk paint (the color about which you dithered for weeks), then drawing the brush across your freshly planed and sanded surfaces only to think, “Wow – that looks hideous” (see below). (It’s possible that “Wow” is not the interjection of which you would have thought.)

If, however, you’ve read Mike Dunbar’s excellent article on milk paint (from our February 2010 issue), you know there’s no cause for panic. As Mike puts it, “When dry, the first coat will look like something that the cat dragged in.” (On that point, we disagree; my cats have never dragged in something that looked quite so dreadful.) After another coat or two, your initial reaction (and the finish) will be transformed.

Why did I elect to use milk paint instead of easy-to-find and easier to use latex? Milk paint, after all, in its simplest-to-use configuration**, comes as a dry powder that must be mixed (sometimes vigorously, depending on the pigments) with water, has to settle for an hour or so, then takes at least two coats to look decent, plus a protective topcoat. And, because it’s water based, you have to either raise the grain and sand before starting or sand after the first coat. You also have to stir the paint often while you’re painting to keep the pigments from settling, and it’s best-used fresh (ideally, the same day it’s mixed, and no more than two days old, says Mike).

I guess I just like it. Milk paint imparts a wholly traditional look, allows the grain to show through, has interesting subtle color variations and a lovely dead-flat, chalky-looking finish. Plus, it dries really quickly, so if your allotted shop time allows (and you’re not skulking around in someone else’s shop whilst trying to finish – thank you Chris Schwarz), you can apply two, and possibly three coats in a day (if you start early and the humidity is low). And cleanup is easy – you can dump any excess paint down the kitchen sink (and if you use a chip brush, as Mike recommends, you can simply toss that in the trash if you’re not inclined to clean a $1.50 brush).

I’ve applied two coats thus far (the picture at the right shows the second coat on the lid, already drying in spots). While my original plan was to apply just two coats of “peacock” topped with a coat of “French gray” (both from The Real Milk Paint Co.), then call it done, I like the peacock so much that I’ve ordered more (always allow enough product for a change in plans – oops), and will apply a third coat of it. That may be it for paint. But I’ve a sample board going, too, so I’ll mix up a small amount of the gray and apply it atop the peacock, then rub it away in a few spots to see if I like the faux-aged look and the color combination better than plain peacock.

I might also dress it up a bit with some stencil work, to mimic vintage painted chests I’ve seen in museums.

Then there’s a topcoat to consider – but I’ll write about that when I get to it. I’ve a clear, water-based acrylic on order that I’m going to test out on my sample board. (I already tried a coat of linseed oil…the yellowish oil and greenish paint together produced puce. Blech.)

My “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” is almost complete…on the outside. Once the painting is done, I’ll bring it home to finish the interior fittings and tills. (My shop, for those of you who don’t know, is also my study, which has a nice hardwood floor that needs to stay nice – so thanks again to Chris for letting me spatter his shop with casein-based product). And I’m very much looking forward to filling the chest with my planes, chisels, saws etc., rather than moving those tools around on my bench and bookshelves and desktop.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

* Note: The lead photo was taken before I fit the lid or planed off the tool marks. I don’t know why I didn’t think to take a snap of the prepped-and-ready-to-paint chest…but it possibly had something to do with bourbon.

** You can also make your own milk paint, if you’re so inclined. I am not.

Finishing Resources:
– If you’re new to milk paint and want to give it a try, I urge you to read Mike Dunbar’s article – it’s very good.
– And of course, we have available Bob Flexner’s book “Flexner on Finishing” – 12 years of Bob’s magazine columns updated with new information and images, and collected in a gorgeously designed hardcover book (which, curiously, is on sale right now for $15.59…less than the PDF version)


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Showing 17 comments
  • PWFan

    What did you decide to topcoat with? Brand and sheen?

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      Ended up with topcoat of dull lacquer (sprayed) – retained the chalky look, but a smoother feel

      • PWFan

        Did you paint and topcoat the bottom of the chest as well? I can’t find anything on finishing underneath chest pieces of any kind.

        My chest is in an unfinished (rented) basement shop with unsealed concrete floor that gets some very shallow puddles if we get a lot of rain. The floor’s dry in a day or so, but since it’s also cool, I worry about condensation and encouraging mildew underneath something that’s close to the floor, even on something like cypress that’s naturally resistant. (Tung oil? Hoping for something that won’t require taking the chest outside to apply and maintain, but I’ll do it if I have to.)

        • Megan Fitzpatrick
          Megan Fitzpatrick

          Nope. The bottom is naked – that’s the beauty of the nailed-on bottom and rot strips; they’re easily replaced if they rot (but you might want to use white oak or some other rot-resistant species because you expect the problem).

          However, because you get standing water (that sounds a lot like my basement, by the way), consider adding casters, perhaps with rubber wheels, to raise the wood entirely off the floor. Or make rot strips with beveled edges that are thick enough to lift the bottom out of the danger zone. Chris wrote about this here: https://www.popularwoodworking.com/woodworking-blogs/chris-schwarz-blog/how-to-save-your-tool-chest-and-your-tools-from-water

          I don’t think any finish is going to provide long-term protection against water – once you get one tiny scratch in that finish, the moisture will be through the barrier. But if you feel you have to finish the bottom, Bob Flexner writes that paint is the most effective coating to combat the elements (and oil-based wears better, according to his book “Understanding Wood Finishing”). The best clear finish for this purpose would be a marine varnish.

          • PWFan

            Thanks for the speedy replies. Good point about a scratched finish being a broken barrier, though that’s less likely if the chest is on casters, which mine has been since I installed the bottom. (4 in. polyurethane casters because of the water as well as bumpy concrete.) I’ll re-read the section in Flexner’s book. I may be worrying too much — I just thought painting or top-coating the bottom now might be easier to do while I’m painting the rest and have everything set out. (GF Milk paint, still testing top coats)

  • chrismobley

    Great work, Thank you Megan.
    Chris Mobley

  • woodctr51

    Yes, Megan, I thought it looked pretty good with only one coat, and I don’t even drink anymore (my choice). But the thought of reveling in the aura of a superior paint job while enjoying a quality bourbon poured over ice sounds really interesting. I may need to give it a try, after shutting down all tools, of course.

  • nstahlmann

    I was and idiot and painted my chest with latex based on another idiots recommendation…I think I read it in a book or something. Milk paint is much easier to use, don’t mix it too thin! I too have used shellac over milk paint and love it. Also Curtis Buchanan has an excellent series of videos on making a comb back chair in which he explains how to mix and apply milk paint. I believe the paint mixing happens on video 46. http://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/videos.html

  • hughmac13

    Imagine, if you will, spending somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 hours working on a large built-in breakfront project with inset glass-front doors, beaded faceframes, and dovetailed drawers, that not only looks halfway decent, but sensational, and is destined to satisfy a client, bolster your reputation, and to help earn you enough money to shelter and feed yourself.

    Then, imagine wetting your brush with your carefully chosen and carefully mixed milk paint–for you are mixing two or three milk-paint colors to achieve a certain color you have chosen after a few days of consideration, because you don’t have time to dither–then drawing the brush across your freshly planed surfaces only to think, “Wow, that looks pretty wack.”

  • MarkHulette

    I took the sackback class @ the Windsor Institute and wanted to get the authentic look of a Windsor. So glad Mike gives out info on Milk Paint with the class and what to expect… that first coat looked like a goat’s hairball. Rough. As others have added, additional coats make a HUGE difference. Just stay with it. I believe he recommended danish oil but I don’t have his instructions at hand.

  • Ixzed13

    Great chest and storytelling. Thank you for putting such marvelous colour in all your writings 🙂

  • tjhenrik

    Do you have an opinion on top coating milk with Danish Oil? I have used it twice and have been happy how it darkens the milk paint without adding color like BLO might. I realize it doesn’t offer the best protection but it sure gives a wonderful feel and texture to the finish.

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      I haven’t tried it. But I will!

  • andrae

    Yep, I was glad I had read Dunbar’s article first. I wish I had experimented on a test piece though, because my first batch of milk paint was way too thick… sort of like spreading watery peanut butter. After I got that sorted out, then it worked better. But I had to buy a second bag of the powder for additional coat(s). I’ll have to try David’s suggestion of letting it sit overnight.

  • David Keller

    “And, because it’s water based, you have to either raise the grand and sand before starting or sand after the first coat.”

    Ha! – Obviously a typo that escaped Word’s spell check, but the substitution of “grand” for “grain” is amusingly ironic. I estimated the last chest I built was worth about a grand based on time and materials.

    By the way, if you allow milk paint from The Real Milk Paint Company to solubilize overnight before applying it, the paint is considerably smoother and less lumpy. There’s no negative affect on adhesion as far as I can tell.

    Personally, I don’t top-coat milk paint very often. I prefer the “chalky” look. But I have tried 2 coats of super-blond shellac over a thoroughly cured milk-paint finish (and I mean THOROUGHLY cured – there’s a lot of water in the paint, which wicks into the wood when applied). Once the shellac is dry, I go over the piece with a medium-fine synthetic steel wool gray pad from Klingspor’s Woodworking Shop, which dulls the occasional shiny spot imparted by the shellac overcoat.

    It works well, and shellac adheres to the milk paint undercoat far better than laquer or alkyld varnish.

    • Megan Fitzpatrick
      Megan Fitzpatrick

      argghhhh. Note: Do not use iPad to add a line in the morning (at least not before having coffee).

      Interesting on the shellac – I’ll try that on a wee bit of my sample board.

  • Bryan Robinson

    Nice work, Megan. it looks great.

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