Country Folk Art - February 1994
Ancient Milk Paint Lives Again
By Phyllis Rossiter
Photos Courtesy of Cynthia B. Sawyer Furniture Co., Inc.
Antique lovers know about milk paint. They know their beloved old piece - the one with the flint-hard painted surface that has withstood the wear and tear of centuries - was finished with a homemade concoction based on milk. And, though the surface maybe dirtied and dulled by the passage of the years, once it is cleaned the color is as vibrant as yesteryear.
"What goes around comes around," homespun philosophers like to say. And milk paint is a very old idea whose time has come again. Indeed, milk paint may be even more popular this time around because, unlike its first incarnations, it is now possible to store it and seal it against dirt and grime. And best and most timely of all, milk paint is absolutely nontoxic and not polluting - a completely natural, child safe, environmentally friendly decorative medium that we can love and lavish without worry or guilt.
As a matter of fact, it was an antique lover, desperate for "the real thing" for his reproduction furniture, who revived milk paint. Charles Thibeau, already a two time retiree, wanted authentic milk paint for his creations but could not find it. Milk paint was no longer made, having gone out of vogue with the introduction of petrochemical and leaded paints.
Though Thibeau successfully located old formulas for milk paint and worked with them, the results were unsatisfactory. He then undertook months of experimentation and trial and error until he finally achieved the authentic paint with the desired qualities. That he did so seems an extension of the original definition of milk paint as "homemade".
"Prior to the Civil War," Thibeau explains, "there was not store bought paint. You had to make it yourself or hire a painter who mixed it for you." The material was made on the spot by itinerant painters who used skim milk saved for the purpose by the householder. Unused portions could not be stored.
But milk paint was ancient even then. It's impossible to say just how long milk-based paint has been used, but Thibeau believes it was probably the first true paint. He points out that cave paintings - which may be anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 years old - were done with milk paint, and that the Chinese used it some 6,000 years ago. "When explorers opened up King Tut's tomb in Egypt," Thibeau says, "they found artifacts 4,000 years old - models of boats, furniture, people that the deceased were supposed to use in the afterlife - that were painted with milk paint."
Thibeau's modern formula for milk paint is chemically identical to that of the Egyptians. "It's not a substitute," he emphasizes. "It's the real thing." And it really does contain milk, which acts as a binder to enhance adhesion of the paint. The milk protein works with the hydrated lime to form a hard, permanent surface. And just as in ages past, the range of authentic earth colors derive from natural clays and earths such as cobalt, lampblack, iron oxide, ocher and umber. There are no additives-no lead, no chemical preservatives, and no hydrocarbons or other petroleum derivatives.
After Thibeau had used his milk paint for his own antique reproductions for a while, word began to get around that he made authentic milk paint. Eager would-be customers beat a path to his door, and The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company in Groton, Massachusetts was born. Today the company has "a couple of hundred dealers" worldwide.
One of those dealers is Cynthia Keefe, who owns Homestead Paint and Finishes in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, a ten-year-old home-based industry. She buys the dry powdered milk paint in huge quantities from Thibeau and repackages it into the small quantities used by crafters and homeowners.
Keefe says modern milk paint users range from museums and other preservation and restoration experts seeking authenticity- including regimental companies doing reenactments, who use it on their accoutrements-to those who want the "country magazine" look with real milk paint colors and the characteristic dull, flat look with no sheen.
Others use milk paint on unpainted furniture to create their own heirlooms. "Used on unfinished furniture, milk paint can give instant age to a brand new piece of furniture," Keefe says, "and its color is authentic." Such pieces are reminiscent of Shaker furniture, and Cynthia confirms that, indeed, the "Shakers used it extensively."
Milk paint is also used for interior walls, wainscoting, ceilings, floors, beams, woodwork and trim. (Since it is susceptible to water spotting, it is not recommended for exterior walls unless it is suitably sealed.) Decorative artists and professional painters demand it for special custom work, murals or large pieces of furniture. It is popular in the Southwest, possibly because of its characteristic earth tones and in California where it is especially welcomed under the stringent pollution controls in the state. Keefe sells milk paint nationwide including Alaska; she also mentions international customers, citing Japan, Arabia and England.
She finds that craftspeople love milk paint. Many are not happy with the acrylic versions of country colors on the market, while others seek the authentic colors for checkerboards and other antique game boards, or for accents on grapevine wreaths, dollhouses, miniatures, stenciling and much more. It can even be thinned with water to a wiping stain. To simulate a timeworn look, a popular special effect called crackling results in a textured surface.
Because of its versatility, Keefe says, milk paint allows for self-expression and individuality. With the exception of exteriors, "Anything that can be painted" will accept milk paint. She has seen it used on canvas for a truly folk art look, and "It's amazing the gradation of colors that can be obtained" by mixing any of the fourteen standard colors with white or black. Windsor Green and the old Aqua so popular on primitives are but two of the many colors that can be blended. The colors are fast (nonfading) and the paint durable, as witness the specimens that have survived the ages.
Some of her customers are innovative in their decorative effects, such as those who rub ashes and dirt onto the painted object to "age" it. Others sand through the paint around areas of greatest use to make the object appear worn. Another applies milk paint to "distressed-looking" furniture with stunning effect. Interestingly, Cynthia says that customers have actually stumped museum specialists by using the new milk paint on old wood. "In the hands of an expert or restoration specialist using old wood," she believes it would be impossible to tell the difference between an authentic antique and a reproduction finished with milk paint. Such use is fraudulent, she hastens to add, if done to deceive potential customers. She asserts that such manufacturers "should let people know they have reproductions of antiques. I won't sell paint to people if I know they intend to pass off their furniture as antiques."
She emphasizes that another attractive feature of milk paint is its environmental sensitivity, pointing out that it is totally natural and completely safe for bedrooms, hospitals and children. Some of her customers are "people who have been poisoned by, or are hypersensitive or allergic to, petrochemicals and paints and fabrics containing them."
Keefe recalls in particular the customer who bought the nontoxic milk paint for her goat barn. Her goats, it seems, were in the habit of nibbling at the paint on the structure. Since she couldn't change the goats, she substituted the harmless milk paint for the toxic kind. "I love my goats," she said. Even the fence around the fortunate goats' pasture is painted with milk paint.
Because milk paint has a very short "wet" shelf life, it is manufactured in dry, powdered form for reconstitution with water by the user. But mixing the paint for use is easy, Cynthia points out: "As easy as making chocolate milk." And, unlike paints containing toxic driers, milk paint emits no fumes. When wet, the paint has a slight milk odor that disappears in a few hours. The dry hydrated lime is strongly alkaline but becomes neutral when combined with the acid milk protein and water; it becomes totally inert after it dries.
"As with any paint job, the biggest task is preparation," Keefe says. "Raw wood is no problem; preparation consists of just wiping the surface with a damp cloth." In order for milk paint to adhere to a previously finished surface, however, an acrylic additive is added. And there must be no layer of dirt on the surface to be painted.
"Don't paint a dirty surface," Charles Thibeau admonishes. "It's like trying to paint a TeflonŠ frying pan. It may cover, but it won't stay there." Milk paint can be applied with brush, roller or spray (straining is recommended before spraying). The first coat of milk paint acts as a primer and dries very quickly. The second coat can be applied as soon as an hour later. Since milk-painted surfaces will absorb dirt unless sealed, the manufacturer recommends sealing the finish with paste wax, tung oil or flat Polyurethane.
In retrospect, it seems doubtful that cave artists or early Egyptians understood the chemistry of how milk protein makes a superior paint. "It just worked," says Cynthia Keefe, and it is still working. She speaks of a photo sent to her by a customer of himself leaning out the window of his log cabin in the woods. "Your milk paint is alive and well and living in my house," his note said. Cynthia Keefe likes that.
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