Milk Paint vs. Chalk Paint — Which is Better for Furniture?

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In my years as a woodworker, one question I’ve frequently been asked is the difference between milk paint and chalk paint. These two paint types have gained popularity recently, especially among those looking to revive old furniture or lend a vintage feel to their decor. 

However, despite their similar rustic appeal, they come with their own unique characteristics and uses. Let’s talk about it.

History and Composition

First, let’s dive into a little history. Milk paint has been around for centuries. It’s one of the oldest paints known, with evidence of its use going back to ancient civilizations. 

As the name suggests, milk paint is made from milk protein (casein), lime, and natural pigments. 

This gives milk paint its unique matte finish and rich, deep colors. On the other hand, chalk paint is a relatively new entrant to the market. It was popularized in the 1990s by Annie Sloan, who sought a versatile paint that required minimal preparation work. 

applying chalk paint

Chalk paint is primarily made of calcium carbonate, giving it its velvety, ultra-matte finish. Its composition ensures it adheres easily to surfaces without priming or sanding.

Texture and Finish

Texture is one of the most striking differences between milk and chalk paint. Milk paint is water-based and often provides a more transparent finish. If mixed thicker, it can give an opaque appearance. 

Due to its natural ingredients, milk paint can sometimes produce a chippy, unpredictable finish, especially if applied to a non-porous surface.

Chalk paint, on the other hand, usually offers a more consistent and opaque finish. It goes on smoothly and dries to a velvety matte texture. The finish is reminiscent of the soft touch of chalk, which is how it earns its name.

Durability and Application

Both have their strengths when considering the durability of milk paint vs. chalk paint. Once cured, milk paint is incredibly durable, largely because of the lime in its composition. It’s common to find centuries-old pieces with intact milk paint finishes. 

milk paint

However, a bonding agent may be necessary for certain applications because it can chip if applied to non-porous surfaces. Chalk paint is known for its adhesive properties. It can stick to virtually any surface without prior sanding or priming. 

However, while chalk paint adheres well, sealing it with wax or a sealer is advisable to ensure longevity. This step is especially crucial for surfaces that require a lot of wear, like tabletops or cabinets.

Versatility and Customization

Both paints are incredibly versatile. Milk paint can be mixed with its natural ingredients to adjust its consistency. Want a wash-like finish? Add more water. 

Would you prefer a thicker, more opaque look? Use less water. Plus, you can mix various pigments to achieve your desired shade. Chalk paint also boasts of versatility. 

paint brush an pink paint

While you cannot alter its consistency like milk paint, you can layer colors, distress it, and combine it with waxes and finishes to achieve a wide range of looks. It’s particularly popular among those who enjoy the shabby chic or vintage look.

Environmental Considerations

For those eco-conscious DIYers, both paints have a lot to offer. Milk paint is arguably one of the most environmentally friendly paints available. It’s made from 100% natural ingredients and doesn’t emit any harmful fumes. 

Milk paint is an excellent choice if you’re looking to go green in your home improvement projects.

Chalk paint is also generally low in VOCs (volatile organic compounds) [1], making it safer for indoor use and the environment than many traditional paints. However, always check the brand specifics, as formulations might vary.

Ease of Use and Learning Curve

For novices entering the world of DIY and furniture refurbishing, the ease of use can be a significant deciding factor.

spraying milk paint

Milk Paint

There’s a slight learning curve with milk paint, especially since it often comes in powdered form. This means you must mix it to your desired consistency, which can be intimidating for first-timers. 

Additionally, since it can produce a varied finish (like the chippiness), it requires a bit of experimentation to master the desired outcome. On the bright side, this can be an adventurous journey, offering much room for creativity and unique results. 

Chalk Paint

Chalk paint’s popularity surged, in part due to its user-friendliness. Straight out of the can, it’s ready to apply. For beginners, this can be a relief. The no-prep feature – where you often don’t need to sand or prime the surface – is a big plus for those looking for quick results. 

However, perfecting the distressed look or working with waxes for sealing can require some practice.

Layering and Blending

Both paints bring different advantages to the table when considering more advanced techniques, like layering and blending.

dresser painted with chalk paint

Milk Paint

Due to its consistency and translucence, milk paint can be fantastic for layering. Artists and advanced DIYers can blend colors seamlessly, allowing for gradient finishes and ombre effects.

Chalk Paint

While chalk paint is more opaque, it, too, can be layered for a multidimensional look. With the many colors available, one can create a deep, rich texture on furniture by layering different shades and then distressing sections to reveal the underlying colors.

Cleanup and Storage

Another practical aspect to consider is the cleanup and storage of leftover paint.

Milk Paint

Being water-based, milk paint is easy to clean up with just water and soap. If you’ve mixed more than you need, remember that its shelf life is limited once it’s in liquid form. It’s best to store the powder in a cool, dry place and mix as needed.

furniture painted with milk paint

Chalk Paint

Cleanup is similarly easy with water and soap. As for storage, ensure the lid is tightly sealed, and it can last for years in its can.

Price and Availability

Milk paint often comes in a powder form, which can be more economical since you’re mixing what you need. You’ll find both local and online retailers offering a variety of shades. 

Chalk paint tends to be pricier, especially the original brands, but its ease of use and minimal prep work often justify the cost for many users. It’s also widely available both in specialty stores and online.

Conclusion

In the debate between milk paint and chalk paint, the “better” choice comes down to the specific project and the user’s preference. Both offer unique finishes and have their own sets of pros and cons.

For those aiming for an ancient, time-worn look or who appreciate the eco-friendly attributes of natural paint, milk paint might be the choice for you. Chalk paint could be your go-to if you’re seeking a consistent, ultra-matte finish without the prep work. 

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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