The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company

In Colonial America, most houses had their own cow to provide milk, and were situated near a community lime pit for agricultural and construction uses, says Anne Thibeau, president of the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. Itinerant painters wandered the countryside, offering their services to homesteaders and shopkeepers. They carried rainbow sets of pigments, which, when mixed with a customer’s own milk and lime, would create a milk paint that added soft color to furniture and walls.

In 1974, Charles Thibeau—an entrepreneur who’s done everything from gem cutting to electronics manufacturing to starting his own environmental foundation—turned his artistic attentions to fashioning replicas of the Colonial-style furniture he’d seen in various museums. To add just the right touch of authenticity, he started trying to recreate the milk paint those itinerant painters used.

After scouring old milk paint recipes in library books and conducting at least 300 experiments in his basement, he devised a mixture that duplicated the unique Colonial look to his satisfaction—the paint dried to a matte, velvety-looking color. Tweaking the natural ingredients produced different results. His original formula was for porous surfaces such as bare wood and masonry. His latest “SafePaint” formula, launching in fall 2007, works better on sealed surfaces like joint compound on sheetrock. It will also result in a smooth, even finish on pre-painted walls, while you’ll get a more irregular, mottled finish with the original formula.

Soon, people were flocking to his shop to buy his uniquely painted, handmade pencil post beds, six-board chests, and Windsor chairs, and his reputation spread. Yankee Magazine came calling to interview him about the authentic milk paint he used on his pieces. They published the interview in a book on “forgotten arts,” and that’s when the phone started ringing off the hook as readers called to ask how they could get some of his paint. So Charles, knowing a good business venture when he saw one, started the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. in his home city of Groton, MA, to meet the obvious demand.

The basic ingredients of the company’s milk paint are the same as they were hundreds of years ago—lime, milk, clay, and earth pigments like ochre and umber. Though you can use milk paint for exteriors with an exterior sealant, it works best on indoor walls and furniture.

Conventional paints are often filled with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the form of chemical preservatives, pigments, and fungicides, which the US EPA says can cause ill health effects from headaches and respiratory distress to memory impairment and even cancer. The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint’s 20 color varieties contains zero VOCs, as does the tung oil sealant the company sells to prevent water spotting. Their acrylic sealant is low-VOC.

“Our paint is so safe, you can pour it down the drain or even into your garden, and it won’t harm a thing,” says Anne. As Charles’ daughter, she took over the company when he moved on to his next big idea.

“He’s 80 years old, and right now, he just started doing pocketwatch repair,” she says. “There’s never a dull moment around here.”

Once it’s applied to a surface, milk paint won’t spoil and is completely odorless. After a few days in liquid form, the company’s milk paint will start to gel a bit, so Anne says it works best mixed up fresh. That’s why the company ships the paint as a colored powder to customers to ensure that it lasts until they’re ready to use it—just add water, and you’re ready to paint.

Anne notes that you can paint your walls in the morning with milk paint, and sleep in the freshly painted room at night without suffering any health problems or noxious smells.

“Dad is also a health nut, so he didn’t want to add unnatural and toxic ingredients,” she says. “Our paint is safe for children and a boon to chemically sensitive people, too.”

—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy