Sun Prairie shop owner Laura Distin is making the most of a very old product — milk paint. She restores furniture with milk paint, teaches workshops on the process and plans to begin coffee design chats for local women and furniture restoration classes for middle-school students.
Her enthusiasm for milk paint is fueled by what she says is the product’s simplicity: it’s an old, natural product with a variety of applications.
Milk paint has five ingredients: lyme, clay, chalk, and casein and iron oxide pigments.
“There’s absolutely nothing synthetic in it ,” Distin said.
Distin’s store, The Ironstone Nest, is inspired by a home design blog she began a few years ago after transitioning from a career as a legal administrator for a Detroit law firm to a stay-at-home mom in Sun Prairie.
The blog was successful; she discovered milk paint and opened the Ironstone Nest store in May 2013. Milk-painted pieces are displayed in the store’s “farmhouse chic” style. Her beloved ironstone pottery collections are placed alongside wooden dressers painted navy blue or soft gray, wrought iron train station clocks, linen drapes and burlap accent pillows.
The look is a carefully chosen one Distin has honed in 18 years of furniture restoration and as a “habitual home decorator.” Distin says when she discovered milk paint, she knew it was her favorite.
“Milk paint is the original paint,” she said. “Farmers used what they had on hand — they had milk, they had rust and they had linseed oil.” Mixing these ingredients created the rust red barns that dot Wisconsin landscapes today. “Even long before that, Egyptians used milk paint to create hieroglyphics and cave drawings,” she said.
Today, designers are going back to traditional milk paint roots. Distin is a retailer for the Pennsylvania milk paint manufacturer Miss Mustard Seed. One of about 200 Miss Mustard Seed retailers worldwide, Distin sells the lines’ 18 colors. The line will add a new pallet of colors in a European Collection debuting this fall. She said the most popular shades are linen, a warm white and Eulalie’s Sky, a soft blue and Shutter gray, a dark gray with hints of blue.
All of the shades, including a teal, mustard yellow and deep navy, are reminiscent of looks found in pages of Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware catalogs.
Distin teaches milk painting techniques in workshops at her Ironstone Nest store in downtown Sun Prairie. She says learning to milk paint provides an opportunity to recycle old furniture with no chemicals.
Her first step to milk painting? Have courage. Find a solid wood piece with interesting or classic lines and begin. “What’s the worst you could do?” Distin asked. “You can repaint it if you don’t like it.”
The Ironstone Nest storefront features a tall dresser painted in Eulalie blue. When Distin found the dresser, she says it was painted a pink, salmon color with a triangle pattern stenciled over it.
“It was very ’80s, it was time for a change,” she said. Today the dresser is a summery blue gray. The paint is slightly distressed, allowing subtle hints of the old pink to show. Here’s how she did it:
How to start: No priming necessary. Distin does recommend sanding to ensure a lasting top coat, but says this step shouldn’t be discouraging. She sands most pieces quickly with a wet sanding sponge.
“I’m talking five minutes,” she said. “You want to rough up it a little bit to give the piece some teeth for the paint to stick to.”
Sanding isn’t mandatory, but a bit of prep work will help the piece’s new finish last longer.
“Your painted piece is only as good as the prep work you do,” Distin said. In the case of the salmon dresser, Distin left a few chips visible to accentuate the dresser’s vintage look.
After sanding, the next step is to determine the desired look of the finished project. Milk paint can be used to create different finishes: A subtle stain, a wash or “pickle” finish, a chipped-paint look that many associate with milk paint, a crackle finish that shows veins of woodwork, or a solid, opaque finish with no distressing at all.
Now get creative! Milk paint colors can be mixed to create new shades. Mix black with white to create your personal shade of gray. A muted navy dresser on display in the Ironstone Nest was created in a custom shade Distin mixed with two parts French Enamel and one part Typewriter (paintspeak for blue and black).
After choosing a shade, consider which finish you like best. Milk paint can provide different finishes depending on technique and top coats. Add more water for a light, stain finish. Add less water and a bonding agent for a solid coat.
Additional looks can be achieved by adding an antiquing wax to create a distressed finish or furniture wax to add shine. Coat with Tung oil to provide a water-resistant surface to items for a kitchen or bath. If the surface will be used for food or dining, hemp seed oil gives the paint surface a food-safe top coat.
One bag of milk paint powder retails for $24 and yields a quart of paint.
The process becomes easier with practice, Distin said. By recycling abandoned furniture and using an ancient technique, Distin said she has found a connection to the past in a consumerist culture.
“People will go to Target and pay $100 for a nightstand and it’s pressed board and who knows where it was made,” she said. “Here, we have a piece that’s been found and completely refinished. It’s been loved, it’s solid wood and it’s one of a kind.”