Design DIY: Applying Milk Paint


from Furniture Makeovers by Barb Blair | Photography by J. Aaron Greene

Milk paint is my favorite paint to work with. Its earthy tones, washed finish, and self distressing tendencies are perfect for maintaining the integrity of a piece of furniture while also giving it a truly authentic time-worn look. Milk paint is very user friendly, and easy to apply. Before you start, prep the furniture piece by lightly sanding with a fine to medium sanding sponge and then clean the surface with a clean damp shop towel. Fill any old hardware holes that you will not be using with wood filler and drill any new holes. Do not use any type of wood cleaner or solvent, as it will leave an oily film on the surface and may seep through the paint or prevent the paint from adhering properly


Measuring cup, for measuring and mixing (see Tip #1, below)

Milk paint powder

Hot water

Stir stick

Paintbrushes: Purdy Nylox brush for paint and White China Brush Series brush for finish

Sanding sponges, fine and medium grits


Orbital sander (optional)

Shop towels

Polyurethane, water or oil based

Paper for drawers (optional)


1. Mix the milk paint, use the measuring cup to mix equal parts powder and water. Hot water works best for mixing, and when I say mixing, I mean lots of mixing! Mix with a paint stirring stick until all of the lumps are gone and the paint is nice and smooth. I suggest mixing every now and again throughout the project to make sure the paint stays smooth.

2. Apply the paint with a Nylox brush, in the direction of the wood grain. Be careful not to overwork the paint with excessive brushing back and forth, and apply in nice long, even strokes. I love to use a brush application because it gives the paint finish more depth. Milk paint can sometimes seem a little translucent when applying the first coat, but once the first coat has dried and the second coat is applied, your surface will be covered completely. As milk paint dries, it starts to look very chalky and it flakes and lifts off the piece of furniture where it does not want to adhere. This can be a scary moment, but it is exactly what is supposed to happen. Experiment with the level of coverage that best suits the piece you are creating. See Figs. A1, A2

3. After the first coat of paint is completely dry, lightly sand with a fine sanding sponge to remove any loose or flaking paint. If you skip this step, you may end up with a lumpy texture in your finish. Using a vacuum, go over the entire surface to remove all sanding dust. See Fig. B

4. When you have finished sanding, apply the second coat of paint. Milk paint dries within 1 to 1½ hours, so you do not have to wait long in between coats.

5. When the piece is completely dry, it is time to sand again. This sanding is to remove any lingering paint flakes, but also to create the texture pattern that you would like for the piece. You can choose to hand sand here with a fine sanding sponge for a more natural look, or you can use an orbital sander to create a highly distressed look. Milk paint tends to be a self-distressing paint, and will do most of the initial work for you. The most important thing to remember here is to remove all loose paint, because you do not want it flaking off after the final polyurethane finish has been applied. Vacuum, and wipe down with a shop towel after sanding to remove all dust. See Fig. C

6. Apply the first coat of polyurethane with a China brush, and let it dry for 2 hours before sanding with a fine sanding sponge. After lightly sanding down the entire piece, vacuum and wipe down with a clean shop towel to remove all sanding dust before applying the second coat. If you are using your milk paint piece as a sink fixture or any other surface that will get lots of wear and tear, I highly recommend an oil-based polyurethane for proper water protection. See Fig. D

7. Attach the new hardware, and, if using, line the drawers with paper.

Tip #1: Mixing milk paint is almost as important as the application! I use plastic measuring cups from Home Depot for both measuring and mixing milk paint. Milk paint comes in both premixed and powder form, but I personally prefer the powder. It is really easy to mix.

Tip #2: One really important thing to remember is that as milk paint dries, it is completely porous and unprotected. You will want to keep any oils, moisture, and solvents away from the surface until you have properly sealed it.

For more fun distressing tutorials, check out Furniture Makeovers from Chronicle Books!