There is one topic in woodworking where I have changed my mind completely – 180° – from when I began woodworking. And that is with finishing.
My first woodworking job was finishing doors in a factory where we used industrial (read: nasty) coatings. And when I signed on at Popular Woodworking in 1996, we used a Binks 2000 system to spray lacquer and all other sorts of solvent-based finishes.
And I loved it.
These finishes produced outstanding results in minutes instead of days. I could finish an entire bedroom suite in a few hours with a spray gun and fast-drying lacquer. Yes, I wore a face mask. And we had a fantastic spray booth. But that’s not enough. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are prevalent in many woodworking finishes. And though the home woodworker is probably OK if he or she uses them every couple months in a well-ventilated area, I have turned my back on finishes with unhealthy solvents.
Why? Perhaps it was one too many headaches after spraying lacquer, or cleaning something with acetone or xylene. Now, I try to use finishes where the solvent is water or something nearly as harmless.
When I did this, I was afraid I was doomed to use some difficult finishing processes. It turns out, however, that safe finishes can also be fast and easy. When it comes to paint, a good place to start is milk paint. The following is excerpted from the “back matter” – this is one of the appendices – of “The Anarchist’s Design Book: Expanded Edition,” by Christopher Schwarz.
— Christopher Schwarz
About Milk Paint
First thing, milk paint is essentially a myth… I have never seen anything called ‘milk paint’ advertised in period publications (of the nineteenth century), it doesn’t show up on probate inventories or other historical records and is apparently entirely a made up 20th century idea.
— Stephen A. Shepherd, “Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint” (Full Chisel Press, 2011)
The milk paint used for in-door work dries in about an hour, and the oil which is employed in preparing it entirely loses its smell in the state to which it is reduced by its union with the lime. One coating will be sufficient for places that are already covered with any colour….
— Henry Carey Baird, “The painter, gilder, and varnisher’s manual …” (M. Taylor – London, 1836)
Milk-based paint has been around a long time – I’ve found dozens of sources that describe how to make it from the 1800s and earlier.
It was inexpensive, didn’t smell, dried fast and could be made with commonly available materials – milk and lime. Some recipes added linseed oil, pigment, egg yolks (to give the paint more sheen) or white pitch (to make it weather-resistant).
I’ve used it for almost 20 years now on furniture and can attest that milk paint looks good, wears well and is not going to expose you to nasty solvents. You can make your own – there are lots of recipes online – or you can buy a commercial powder that you mix with water. If you live in the United Kingdom, casein-based paints are available from stores that cater to the restoration trade.
Most beginners will opt to buy the commercial powder because it’s foolproof and comes in lots of nice colors.
If you go this route, here are my instructions for mixing the stuff:
- Throw away the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Mix the paint 2:1 – warm water to powder.
- Mix your proto-paint for 10 minutes to ensure all the lumps get dissolved.
- Let the paint sit for 30 minutes. It might thicken a bit.
- Strain the paint through cheesecloth and into your paint tray or bucket.
After that, it’s just like using a very thin paint. It’s not like latex or oil paints that have a lot of body or oiliness. It’s like applying colored water.
It dries quickly, so I apply the paint with a small foam roller then use a natural-bristle brush to push the color into the details and corners. Then I “tip off” any flat surfaces.
After one coat, you will have a translucent colored surface. If you applied the paint with any skill, you can stop painting here if you like the look (I do).
If you want things more opaque, then sand the first coat with a #320-grit sanding sponge, dust off the project and apply the second coat.
This coat should obscure most of the wood grain, but not all. Repeat the sanding and painting if you want a third coat.
Once the color is laid on, you have a choice: Do you add a topcoat of some other finish to it or not? The raw painted surface will be dead flat. If you like this (I do), you can smooth the painted surface with a folded brown paper bag and call it done.
If you want some sheen or a deeper color, smooth the paint with the paper bag and add a coat of boiled linseed oil, wax or varnish. This will make the finish look less chalky.
As always, make a sample board if you are unsure of the look you want or if you are unfamiliar with a finishing product. I know you won’t do this, but I am obligated to beat my head against this particular wall.