Product Reviews Restoration

MILK OR CHALK? How to pick the right paint for the job!

Do you have a project you have been dying to dive in to, but don’t know where to start? If you are like many DIY’ers, you have heard the terms “chalk” and “milk” when referring to types of furniture paint, and have probably considered them for such projects. However, we have found that many of our customers, and even fellow refinishers, have trouble defining and distinguishing between the two.

What IS the difference anyway? And what’s all they hype about? Well, I am here to answer your questions!

Milk Paint

Let’s start with a brief history on milk paint. Modern milk paint mimics an actual form of paint that originated thousands of years ago using real milk mixed with lime and naturally derived pigments. This product was found to have been used on cave paintings, and was even said to have coated the furniture found in King Tutankhamen’s (AKA King Tut 😉) tomb! This is SO COOL, and is such a testament to its popularity as a durable, effective product.

Today, milk paint is still widely popular for painting furniture and wood work. You can buy traditional milk paints in powder form, or for those die-hard DIY’ers you can also make your own! Check out Bob Villa’s recipe if you’re interested. [Disclaimer: I have not tried this recipe yet, but will absolutely share it with you when I do!] You can also buy milk paints pre-mixed, which is super convenient (and hey, who doesn’t like convenient?) but less traditional. Milk paints are made to reproduce the look of old-world painted furniture. The sheen is low (comparable to a typical eggshell) and the hardness is high. It is extremely easy to use, but certain colors can be harder to cover with than others, like white or red (as is true with most paints). You can also manipulate this product to achieve many beautiful special effects like layered colors, or a chippy finish.

Chalk Paint

Chalk based paints are also said to be one of the first paints used in recorded history (around 800 B.C.!). Chalk paints were mixed similarly to milk paint using a pigmented lime (the chalky part) base. Chalk paints have a VERY low sheen, which is perfect if you are looking for a classically flat finish. They also tend to have better coverage than milk paint, requiring maybe 1-2 coats versus 3-4. However, you will find chalk paint is less durable than milk paint. Due to the formula required to create chalk paint, there are more fillers added in order to achieve the look, feel and coverage for what makes a chalk paint, a chalk paint! An easy way to test this is by holding a can of chalk and a can of milk in each hand – the chalk paint will be heavier! These fillers give that desired matte sheen, and make the product easily sandable for distressing… Unfortunately this also means it will be easier to scratch and scuff, and it will be less resistant to unwanted oils and residues.


We do feel a need to mention waxing at this point, since it has become such a popular pairing with chalk paint. You may have read my previous post regarding I feel on wax… either way, bear with me.

I find that most refinishers are simply choosing (or told) to just wax right over the top of a chalk paint to get a smooth, but still very low sheen finish.  While I do not believe in waxing over an unfinished surface as wax is not a durable finish, I understand the draw for that type of look (it’s so pretty!). Most pieces we have seen ended up feeling like fine-grit sandpaper after using this method, and did not result in the smooth appearance we believe was aimed for. While this could be due to improper prep-work or inefficient dry time/conditions, it may also be the direct contact of an unfinished high-filler product with a soft finish. To avoid this and also add durability, we suggest applying a barrier coat of a waterborne finish over the chalk paint, and then use your wax over the top to get the look you want. If you want to learn more about types of finishes and clear coats for your projects head over to my blog post Guide to Wood Finishes.


Eventually, society progressed to develop oil base paints and those quickly became very popular. These products have been around for a long time, but had not been perfected until recently, leading us to many of the typical paints you find on shelves today.

For you science savvy followers out there, here is a closer look at some spec comparisons between the two products from, General Finishes.


  • Water Base
  • Low VOCs
  • 30 Min dry to touch
  • Recoat 2 hrs
  • Sheen – Flat
  • Long lasting color
  • Can be used for exterior use with proper top coating
  • VISCOSITY (CPS) 2,000- 3,000
  • Solids 54%
  • Durability – High


  • Water Base
  • Low VOCs
  • 30 Min dry to touch
  • Recoat 2 hrs
  • Sheen – Flat (chalky look)
  • Not for exterior use
  • VISCOSITY (CPS) 2,000- 3,000
  • Solids 60%
  • Durability – Medium

See more of the compared charts here.

Both milk and chalk paint are water base products, so they are eco-friendly. These paints have no odor and can be used indoors. Because both of these paints are water based, you can also mix them together to make customized colors!

Happy Painting 

Tara Lou

Check out next weeks blog on upcycling doors and drawers! 

* This blog contains affiliate links. \

Tara Lou
<p>Mama, wife, furniture connoisseur, small business owner, nature-lover, homebody, hunter.</p>

3 thoughts on “MILK OR CHALK? How to pick the right paint for the job!

  1. I love a good upcycling project, I’m always up for anything to keep useable things out of the landfills. Unfortunately, creativity is not something I’ve been blessed with. I had no idea there was such a thing as milk paint that could actually be used for anything other than kids crafts. Now I’m intrigued. I’m thrilled to have happened upon your website so I can be inspired.

  2. Hi I’m wondering what would be your choice for painting cabinets, milk or chalk paint? After reading this I’m leaning towards the milk paint. I painted my desk with chalk paint but it stains easily, would the milk paint do the same? I also have the wax over it.

    1. Hello Sally, yes milk paint would be a much more durable option for kitchen cabinets. If you do a suitable top coat such as a poly acrylic waterbase finish it will resist staining. Milk paint also doesn’t have fillers in them so it won’t stain as easy either. Read our blog post on waxing furniture too.

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