Whitewash, Distemper and Milk Paints
Whitewash, distemper, and milk paints are old-time formulations that are still in use today in professional and DIY historic restoration work and when a subtle, antique effect is desired for new or old furniture.
- Whitewash, usually an exterior paint, is a mixture of water and lime, which forms a plasterlike coating. All kinds of binders -- salt, sugar, flour (rice, wheat, rye, or buckwheat), starch, varnish, glue, skim milk, whiting, brown sugar, vegetable oil plasticizer, casein, formaldehyde, borax, or sulfate of zinc -- have been added over the years to improve its durability and reduce chalking. Alum would harden the coating and keep it from rubbing off, and tintings -- earth pigments, brick or stone dust, indigo, and bluing -- counteracted the tendency of some binders to yellow.
- Distemper paints were mixed in two categories, depending on the binder used. Glue-bound distemper was usually produced from powdered chalk and a gelatinous sizing, such as rabbit-skin glue, although there were many substitutes for both the chalk and the glue. Modern formulations can include white glues and other synthetics. Distempers were often used as decorative paints over new lime plaster or previously painted interior walls. The addition of oil and emulsifier created a more durable coating -- the predecessor of today's oil-base paints.
- Milk paint, a mix of lime, casein (the protein component of milk), clays, and any of a variety of earth pigments, makes a rich, lustrous, and complex finish that improves with time. It was used as a coating for furniture, producing interesting textures and degrees of tinting across the surface.
Each of these old-time paints produce subtle shadings that have an allure all their own. Because of this built-in patina, they are frequently used in modern applications.
All these paints were home-mixed from materials readily at hand. You can brew your own following the traditional recipes shown below and opposite. Commercially prepared powdered mixes that generally require only the addition of water are also available.
- Make lime paste by soaking 50 pounds of hydrated lime in 6 gallons of clean water or by slaking 25 pounds of quicklime in 10 gallons of boiling water. Either will make about 8 gallons of paste.
- Dissolve 15 pounds of salt or 5 pounds of dry calcium chloride in 5 gallons of water. Combine with the lime paste and mix thoroughly. Thin with fresh water as necessary. Caution -- adding water to quicklime releases tremendous amounts of heat and can cause the water to boil violently. Take proper precautions.
- Make lime paste by soaking 50 pounds of hydrated lime in 6 gallons of clean water or by slaking 25 pounds of quicklime in 10 gallons of boiling water. Either combination will make about 8 gallons of paste.
- Soak 5 pounds of casein in 2 gallons of water for about 2 hours or until thoroughly softened.
- Dissolve 3 pounds of trisodium phosphate in 1 gallon of water. Add to the lime paste and allow the mixture to dissolve.
- Allow both the lime paste and the casein to thoroughly cool.
- Stir the casein solution into the lime paste.
- Just before using, dissolve 3 pints of formaldehyde in 3 gallons of water; SLOWLY add this solution to the whitewash; stir frequently; thin the mixture as desired.
- Mix 2 teaspoons of low-fat sour cream in 1 liter of nonfat or 2 percent milk, whip it well, and keep it warm until it thickens (a day or two).
- Warm up the mixture or add lemon juice or vinegar to curdle it. Separate the curds by pouring the mix through a cheesecloth.
- Dissolve 1 tablespoon of ammonium carbonate in 3/4 cup of warm water and add it to the mix. This is the binder for the milk paint, but it will lose its strength quickly if not kept refrigerated.
- Add pigment and extenders to the binder up to a 75 percent proportion. Make a paste of the extender, pigment, and water, then add the binder.
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