When I made my tool chest I opted for an-off-the-shelf powdered milk paint that you mix yourself. I was pleased with the finish once it was sealed with a couple coats of linseed oil. However one thing nagged at me. Due to the nature of powdered milk paint, it was not good fun trying to cut in and get a crisp edge. I reflected also that perhaps it was a bit of a dead end for me as I was aiming to find an authentic and easier-to-use paint finish for the projects I like making, and I could not imagine milk paint being appropriate for me in most of those cases.
So it was back to the drawing board. In our workshops we have used linseed oil paint for some of the external joinery we make, so that became my next line of enquiry and it was much more fruitful in terms of authenticity. Linseed oil paint works much more readily than the milk paint I used. To reassure me further I took to reading up – and two sources were very helpful, one new and one old. The new is Stephen Shepherd’s book “Shellac, Linseed Oil & Paint” and the old is Peter Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion.”
Shepard’s book is excellent and a very worthy purchase for those who are interested in traditional finishes of the19th century (and extra uses for garlic) and Peter Nicholson’s work is an informative period reference which shows there is more to offer in his work beyond the tools and the bench. A word of warning though: If you do undertake researching and making your own paints, be very cautious of the older text and interacting with old paint. Older text is not your “How-To Guide.” It should be treated as historical practice. One of the constituent parts of nearly all old paint finishes is lead, and that is something you must not use just because it says so in an old book. Paints containing lead have been outlawed for some time due to their heath hazards so avoid lead with good reason. Thankfully lead is not essential to linseed oil paint but even then if you do choose to make your own paint, make sure you follow all the manufacturer’s guidance and warnings to protect your health.
If that’s enough to give you the heebie-jeebies don’t revert back to milk paint just yet; simply buy some ready-made linseed oil paint and give it a try.
So after consulting the texts, one thing I seemed to miss was a basic recipe for paint so I just got stuck in. Liberon* had all the bits required. I bought small tubs of Liberon pigment, some boiled linseed oil and some turpentine.
The first coat is the primer coat and this needs to be thinned more than the following coats. I made this with a 50 percent linseed oil and 50 percent turpentine mix and enough pigment to give the colour I wanted. As this is new territory for me, I tried the primer on a scrap board; the last thing I want to do is ruin a project at the last moment. This primer I made created a colour wash of sorts that leads me to think I could have used a touch more pigment (see the above) – but not too much, as the primer needs to be thin to key nicely .
The following full coats I’m applying will be a ratio of two parts boiled linseed oil, one part pigment and a small dash of turpentine. You can see the first coat over the primer in the first photo. This will be applied in thin coats and allowed to dry. With the off-the-shelf linseed oil paints I have found drying is best done in natural but not direct sun light, because UV helps cure the paint. However, this is not a fast-drying acrylic so you will potentially need to wait two to four days before applying the next coat (I’ll confirm my drying times for you once I’m done).
If that all sounds a lot of faffing about I understand that and the modern off-the-shelf paints and ready-made linseed oil paints are very good options. But what gets my juices flowing is an element of discovery in my work. And on the basis I hope my projects will potentially last for many decades (if not longer) waiting a while to get the finish how I want it is OK by me. This paint finish is being applied to my boarded chest project. Once dried and finished I’ll share some photos so you can judge the finish for yourselves.
— Graham Haydon
* Liberon is available online and in most woodworking stores in the United States.