With prices of goods constantly rising, people are turning to all kinds of D-I-Y products — including paints.
For those who aren’t well-versed in the world of building construction, home decor and crafts (like me), making one’s own paint may sound like a far-fetched idea. But homemade paints, whether for aesthetic or functional purposes, have been used by our forebears for centuries. And despite this modern age of latex and oil-based paints which can be easily bought from the store, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try making our own. Not only are D-I-Y paints easy and inexpensive to make, they’re also non-toxic and don’t leave as much footprint as their factory-made acrylic equivalents.
I realized this when we started farming and my husband built a corral for the goats. After just a few months, molds and termites had eaten away at the wooden fence. We should’ve known better to paint it, especially in a wet and tropical region like ours. So I looked for some paint or sealant to salvage the wood, keeping an eye out for the non-toxic kind as goats love to nip and chew on the bamboo railings. It didn’t take much research for me to learn that I could just use whitewash, which is what’s traditionally used to protect wood and smarten up walls.
Whitewash, in spite of its connotation being the “poor man’s paint,” can do as much preserving and sprucing up as would any regular synthetic, store-bought paint. And it can easily be made at home using cheap, natural ingredients.
For simple paint jobs like basic coating and maintenance of barns and fences, conventional whitewash can be used. For delicate, aesthetically important projects like decorating and refurbishing old furniture, old-fashioned milk paint would be great, as well as the newly rediscovered “chalk paint” which is all the rage these days. I’m sure there are other kinds of natural and eco-friendly paints around but for this post I’ll discuss only these three, which are quick and simple to make at home.
Whitewash, otherwise known as lime paint, is made primarily of water and lime or calcium hydroxide. Aside from brightening up walls and other surfaces, it has sanitary purposes that prove useful around the farm. Lime has disinfectant properties that promote hygienic conditions in barns. It’s also used as a plaster to smoothen rough and porous surfaces like rough-cut lumber, stone and brick masonry, making these much easier to clean.
Whitewashed walls help lend a light, airy feel on buildings. In sunny Mediterranean countries, houses are periodically whitewashed not just to keep them looking clean and fresh, but also to stay cool during the summer months. Whitewash, like any white paint, reflects heat. Ironically, though, it also serves as a thermal insulator when applied in thick layers. So it keeps homes cool during the heat of the day, but helps retain interior warmth on chilly nights. According to the US General Services Administration, it is also an effective fire retardant.
In many orchards around the world, whitewash is painted on the lower trunks of fruit trees to protect them from either frost, sun scald or pest infestation.
There are literally dozens, even hundreds of recipes for preparing whitewash, as there are just as many ingredients that can be added to the lime-water solution to improve its thickness and durability. These include salt, glue, sugar, molasses, flour, corn starch, clay, milk, egg white, whiting (chalk), borax, soap, alum, Portland cement, formaldehyde and zink sulphate, among others. Oils like linseed, safflower, and even tallow can be incorporated to make it more elastic, water-resistant and adhere better to surfaces.
For color, natural pigments are blended in depending on the hues desired. Historically, livestock blood was used to add a tint of pink, finely sieved soil to obtain creamy or earthen tones, and blue laundry dye for hints of pale blue. Other pigments consisted of berries, rust and even coffee. Nowadays, though, we can easily obtain powdered dyes at any craft store.
When making whitewash, be sure to use hydrated lime — the white, powdery kind. It is also known as “slaked lime,” “quicklime,” “builder’s lime” or “mason’s lime.” (Don’t get the coarse, light gray kind called dolomite, a.k.a. “ag lime” or “garden lime”, which is used to dry and sanitize barn floors and alkalize garden soil.) A 50-pound bag of lime at Home Depot or Lowe’s costs a mere $11-13.
A few things to remember:
- Hydrated lime is caustic, so wear gloves and a dust mask.
- Since whitewash is thin, it may appear as though you’re not covering a surface well as you apply it; but it will whiten up considerably as it dries. Give it some time before you add another coat.
- It isn’t permanent and will wash off over time, especially when frequently and heavily exposed to rain. Some may even rub off on you when you lean against a whitewashed wall. If it gets on your clothes, don’t worry – it’ll wash off easily with water.
- It is not harmful to humans or animals.
Milk may sound like an odd ingredient to use in paints, but this has been done for centuries. The milk protein casein is an effective binder, giving natural paints a stickiness similar to what oils do in oil-based paints and polymers in latex. Skimmed milk is best, whether fresh or in powder form, or in dry curds or quark (curds with vinegar or lemon juice). The finish it gives is reminiscent of colonial-era furniture — rich and lustrous, yet when sanded afterwards it can have a matte finish with a worn, antique look that’s so popular today. It goes smoothly on wood, plaster, terra-cotta and other porous surfaces.
It is recommended for less expensive woods like pine and fir that aren’t prioritized for their grain patterns. It leaves a thin coverage and lightens a bit when it dries, so applying more than one coat may be needed. It is recommended that you apply a protective layer of finish or topcoat, whether natural or acrylic. If the item you’re painting will be exposed to rain and high humidity, it is best to go for an oil-based sealer like hemp oil or polyurethane. Applying a wax, varnish or shellac finish is also a good protective measure.
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As with whitewash, natural pigments can be added in the form of berries, juices, rust and ocher. Some use iron oxide to get a reddish tint, or copper sulphate for some green hue. But most just blend powdered dyes, acrylic or food coloring. You can find some recipes for milk paint on PaintedFurnitureIdeas.com.
Milk paint spoils quickly so it should be applied within a few hours of mixing. It also may leave a sour odor but no worries — it’ll disappear when the paint dries up.
Milk may be expensive for city dwellers, but for those living in homesteads or have access to ample supply of fresh dairy, making milk paint shouldn’t be a problem.
Chalk paint is a simpler mixture of water, regular paint and white, powdery substances like plaster of Paris, unsanded grout, calcium carbonate, baking soda, limestone or whiting powder. In the late 90s, British painter and interior designer Annie Sloan developed her own designer formula for it and marketed it commercially, launching a D-I-Y furniture restoration craze that has since hit crafts and home decor enthusiasts worldwide. Unlike milk paint which has a slightly translucent finish, chalk paint has a flatter, more opaque look — perfect for that same vintage, lime-washed look, or else a totally chipped, crackled, shabby-chic look. It is said to go smoothly on almost anything without any priming or pre-sanding. It covers easily in just two coats, and can be sanded easily, too, for that centuries-old, “distressed” look. Best of all, it’s cheap.
You can find a comparison of different home-made chalk paint recipes on SalvagedInspiration.com.
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Chalk paint dries quickly, so make a small batch — just enough for the project you’re doing. But unlike milk paint it won’t spoil so you can store the leftover in a glass jar, then just add a few drops of hot water whenever you need to use it again.
Whatever you choose among these three kinds of paints, the important thing to do is to test your mixture on a piece of board or an inconspicuous area, and let it dry completely. Then adjust the ingredients as you see fit. Experiment, be creative and have fun! Painting is not only a joy — it’s stress-relieving, too. Especially when you know you’re not spending a fortune on the paint job!
Do you have any tips for making or using all-natural paint? Leave your reply in the section below: