Milk + Chalk, Part 1: Inspiration and Method

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Do you ever get this vision in your head for just how you want something to look, but you can’t really put your finger on why? That’s how this project started out for me. I wanted BEAUTIFUL BRIGHT RED chairs for our kitchen table.

Oh, I had reasons, I suppose—I thought it would look nice, be fun and colorful, etc. But then an old memory came back to me and I realized that the rustic red look was more than just a fashion statement.

Back when I was a little girl (from the time I was two until I was about twelve), my family would often travel to Canada for a week in the summer. We’d go with my grandparents and stay in little fishing cabins along a river.

Sounds quaint and charming, doesn’t it? Actually, rustic and occasionally disgusting is a bit more accurate. It usually took about two days to get over the initial revulsion from the smell of fish, the intensely overloaded strips of fly paper, and sharing one shower with the entire fishing camp. The squeak of the coil-spring beds with plastic-covered mattresses, the deafening roar of bullfrogs, and the dive-bombing mosquitoes lent their own charms to the night.

I LOVED it. Okay, not the mosquitoes, but I hold these as fond memories. What I remember is running across the damp morning grass in my nightgown and a sweatshirt to join my Nan in her cabin, where we would drink hot chocolate while we waited for my mom and Pap to return from their predawn fishing trip. I remember my Pap teaching me how to bait a hook, how to start the motor on the boat, where to cast my line, and how to clean a fish. I remember the sizzle of fresh fish frying in Nan’s cast iron skillet. I can hear the hushed conversation and giggles from my mom and aunt talking late into the night. Obviously seen through rose-colored glasses now, but sweet memories to me nonetheless.

And the kitchen table there had the most awesome set of mismatched, chipping, fire engine red chairs.


I remembered that connection about halfway through this project and it made total sense why red chairs struck me as being a fun, cozy, and charming addition to my kitchen. They’re part of me.

Okay, on to the meat here.


I picked up three chairs at the local thrift store (for $6, $7, and $8, respectively—yay!) but then I couldn’t find a fourth one for a long time. Either the store wanted $20 for one chair or it wasn’t the right look to go with the others. I finally found a set of four chairs that had been repainted white, so I went with that. I broke up the set, but now my living room has some cool new distressed white chairs 🙂

I decided I wanted to use milk paint on these chairs. It’s nontoxic, so I’m not worried about using it around my kids, and it’s very easy to clean up. I’ve worked with milk paint some before and I love the multi-toned, antique look that it gives. I’m no expert at getting that cool chipped, crackled look, but that’s okay. I’m still happy with the look I get.

My "helper." As you can see, I was working with VERY different colors on the original chairs. #chalkpaint #milkpaint
My “helper.” As you can see, I was working with VERY different colors and finishes on the original chairs.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. These chairs were all different colors. If I painted milk paint directly on them, they wouldn’t come out the same color and the different foundation colors would show through. What could I use that paints well on almost any surface or previous finish, makes a thick, even covering, and isn’t super toxic? Chalk paint!!

I’ve painted a little with chalk paint before, too, but had never thought about combining them. I read a post on suggesting that chalk paint can make a great primer for milk paint. They are a bit pricey, which is a drawback, but very easy to use, clean up after, and I’m not worried about the fumes killing me or my kids (that’s a plus!). At any rate, I decided I wanted to give it a try.

I picked up my Annie Sloan Chalk Paint and Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint from The Purple Painted Lady. I’d gotten paint there before and they are extremely helpful; I had to email the owner last time, and she responded with helpful advice very promptly (and patiently, especially given that the problem was I hadn’t read the instructions carefully—eek!).

I chose to go with two sample pots of chalk paint instead of a quart. Especially since I knew it wouldn’t be the final coat, I felt comfortable cutting it close.

Here are my products: Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in Emperor's Silk, Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint in Tricycle, and Clear Zinsser Shellac. #chalkpaint #milkpaint
Here are my products: Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in Emperor’s Silk (I used two sample pots), Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint in Tricycle, and Clear Zinsser Shellac.

Particularly because of the dark wood and stain on some of the chairs, I needed to seal them with shellac first to keep the dark colors from bleeding through. I chose to just use spray shellac since I was dealing with so many spindles and crannies on these chairs. I sprayed two coats on the dark wood chairs and two (slightly lighter) coats on the light colored chairs.

As you can see, after the first coat of chalk paint, they were still all slightly different shades of red. #chalkpaint #milkpaint
As you can see, after the first coat of chalk paint, they were still all slightly different shades of red and the stain and sanding marks showed up (especially on the chair in the front right corner).

Possibly the scariest thing about working with chalk paint and milk paint is that they both usually look like crap after the first coat. Seriously. I hit a stage in every project where I’m fairly certain I’ve ruined something. The chalk paint was showing as distinctly different, streaky colors after the first coat, but by the second coat they had mostly evened to nearly the same color.

I had just enough for two coats on each chair. The two sample pots was a gamble, but it paid off. (Just a side note: Part of my thinking was that I don’t want extra paint sitting around; if you have the space and the inclination, the quart is definitely the better deal and chalk paint has an indefinite shelf life if stored properly.)

After blending my milk paint in a smoothie cup, I put it in a mason jar for storage. #chalkpaint #milkpaint
After blending my milk paint in a smoothie cup, I put it in a mason jar for storage.

Now that my chairs were nice and evenly primed with chalk paint, it was time to mix up the milk paint. Yes, mix it up. Milk paint comes in a powder form that you have to mix with water. Some colors you can just shake up in a jar, but unfortunately, red pigments resist the water and it takes a bit more work to produce the right texture of paint. Time for the blender! (For more details on blending milk paint, see Part 2 of this post series.)

I lightly sanded the chalk paint before starting with the milk paint, but only lightly. Then I went through the stomach-churning experience of a first coat of paint—again. This was the point in the project when I was really starting to wish I’d taken someone’s advice and bought spray paint. I’d hope that maybe, just maybe I could get away with only one coat of milk paint since I had primed the chairs. It was not to be. They still definitely needed two coats to get a nice even coat of milk paint.

Chalk and milk paint chair redo #chalkpaint #milkpaint
Peanut and Pipsqueak were much more interested in the neighbor putting up Halloween decorations than in Mommy taking pictures. But as you can see, the chairs are finally almost an even color.

So, after another light sanding job and a second coat of milk paint, I had to decide how I wanted to seal and finish them. I ended up going with spray shellac, which honestly may not be the best choice (more about that in the next post). However, I’m happy with the decision; I used shellac on a milk paint refinished dresser and it has held up very well. If it doesn’t hold up well on these chairs, then I guess I can fix them later! (Heaven help me.)

At any rate, despite my temptation to resort to spray paint amidst eight coats of shellac and paint, I am SO PLEASED with how these turned out. They look beautiful. Check out the finished product and my review of the process in part 2 of this post 😉 (coming soon!).



Comparison between finished chair with shellac on left and chair with milk paint before shellac on right. #milkpaint #chalkpaint
Comparison between finished chair with shellac on left and chair with milk paint before shellac on right. It’s amazing (and so relieving!) to see the beautiful tones and colors the shellac brings out in the milk paint.

Products used:

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