Milk Paint, Non-toxic DIY Desk Makeover

upcycling an old desk with white milk paint and new knobs

As I mentioned in my last post, I found a turn of the century desk for $20 on Craigslist.  I was thrilled to find the desk I did.  Since the listing called it an executive desk, I like to imagine it originally belonged to some stuffy old business tycoon, back when a woman like me was not expected/allowed to work- never mind have her own desk.  I read somewhere that antique desks with finished backs were intended to sit in the middle of the room, not against a wall.  They were designed to be intimidating and imposing to anyone sitting and facing the person behind the desk.  Sometimes I like to marvel at how much has changed in the United States, and many parts of the world, since my desk was built.  Women’s rights, children’s rights, civil rights, gay rights…  The past is fading away and it makes me happy to realize that we as a nation have restored a bit of balance and sanity to our collective consciousness.

The dear soul who made my desk never heard of a computer, or the internet or a blog, or any of the other technological advances that we currently take for granted.  So, it’s a good bet that what I’m using my desk for now (mostly computer work) would certainly amaze and bedazzle my dear desk maker.

desk before

desk before

The desk had most likely been kept in a basement.  It was smelly, covered in mold and showing signs of it’s age with cracked/chipped veneer.  It took some cleaning and experimenting to get out the musty smell.

back of desk before

back of desk before

before- dovetail joints inspired me to check out the desk

before- dovetail joints inspired me to check out the desk

The changes I made in my desk reflect the changes in time.  My desk is where I work but I wanted it to be pretty, creative, fun and inspiring and a reflection of my personality.  So, out with the brass knobs I didn’t really like… in with the depression green replica glass knobs.  A few coats of chippy, white milk paint over the ruined pieces of veneer and we have a transformed desk!

milk paint desk makeover

milk paint desk makeover

Upcycling an old desk rather than buying a new one is a great way to recycle and fits in with my goal of furnishing my house with eco and earth-friendly materials- ones that won’t off gas toxins into my home.  Older furniture was built to last and dovetail joints are a sign of good construction.  Though I kept the wood exposed on the sides and back of the desk, some parts were too messed up to save and those got painted.

antiqued milk paint desk foot

antiqued milk paint desk foot

I have a growing love and fascination for milk paint, and I think there are many reasons for others to be just as smitten.  Let me mention a few!  First of all, milk paint is non-toxic.  It is no VOC and consists of very few ingredients, mainly milk powder, lime, and natural pigments for color.  They say the lime can be caustic, but honestly I’m a messy painter with semi-sensitive skin and have had no problem when it lands on me. (But I still will advise you to take precautions to avoid that- just in case) The only smell you’ll get from milk paint is a slight milky smell that goes away once it dries, but it’s barely there at all.  I have no problem painting furniture right in the middle of my living room (to my husband’s dismay).  Milk paint comes in a powder, you add warm water and stir until all the lumps are out.  It doesn’t keep for long so only mix up as much as you need.  You can control the thickness of the paint, and even make it thin for a stain. It dries relatively fast- new coats can be re-applied half an hour to an hour later.  As the paint dries the lime reacts with the air and basically becomes limestone again.  I like to think of it as a rock coating for your furniture.  It’s durable and safe for children’s furniture.

back of desk partially painted

back of desk partially painted

Milk paint is great for an old-fashioned look.  It is perfect for that chippy look.  And that leads to one of my favorite benefits of milk paint- only for the really adventurous at heart- no sanding necessary, if you are going for the chippy look that is.  Just mix it up, apply a few coats to your wood (allowing drying time between each), and then lightly scrape away once it’s dry.  You never know how much paint will stay on and how much will go, so every piece is a surprise. It’s perfect therapy for recovering perfectionists- you just have to go with the flow.   If you don’t want the chippy look they do make a non-toxic binder to help the paint adhere better to non-porous services.  Another fun technique is to paint each coat a different color and then sand down parts of the topcoat to expose the colors underneath.

depression green glass knobs- vintage replica

I like to burnish my milk paint with 220 grit sandpaper at the end for a semi-gloss finish.  Then I wax it and antique it with Miss Mustard Seeds Antiquing Wax.  The wax has virtually no smell and the one it does have is pleasant!  Using the antiquing wax pay special attention to cracks and crevices and places that would naturally collect dirt.  I can’t help but find it ironic that I spent all the time to clean and paint my desk white only to paint on mock dirt at the end.  But… she’s just so darn cute I don’t care.  (yes, the desk has become a she in my mind)

white foot against beautiful red wood

white foot against beautiful red wood

Anyway- since milk paint can be hard to find and there are some brands out there with chemicals I wouldn’t use, I will recommend the natural brands I have tried.  Miss Mustard Seed has beautiful colors and many tutorials (including one on chippy paint) an her website.   I also used Old Fashioned Milk Paint because  I found it at my local Woodcraft store!  Both were good.  When in doubt, check the ingredients!  And happy painting to you 🙂

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