I’ve been thinking about painting my back porch and deck white since it was built last summer. After all, we spend about fifty percent of our time out there. I’ve long disliked the toxicity of commercial paints on the market. Most common indoor and outdoor household paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contain a variety of chemicals, some of which give off noxious fumes and may have short term or long term adverse health effects. According to the EPA, levels of some VOCs are 2 to 5 times higher inside a home than outside; when you are painting or stripping paint in your home, particularly in older homes where lead paint may have been used in the past, indoor levels of VOCs may be 1000 times that of outdoor levels. I’ve used VOC-free paints for all of my indoor and outdoor painting since they came on the market some years back.

In thinking about my outdoor living area, I wanted to investigate additional ways to paint more safely, and came across two options that I could possibly make myself: whitewash and milk paint. Whitewashing, which many of us remember from Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was commonly used for years because it is inexpensive, can be homemade, and homeowners could use ingredients they had on-hand, improvising their own recipes. It is still used in rural areas to protect wooden surfaces like fences and barns, or by designers who want to give furniture a rustic look. The mixture’s base is always lime and water, which makes a chalky type of plaster. Then, ingredients might be added to thicken or strengthen the mixture, like flour, glue, sugar, soap, soil, or milk.

One of the downsides of using whitewash to cover a surface is that it takes a few days to cure. Until cured, it has almost no sticking power. Even then, whitewash can sometimes rub off on clothing or other surfaces, even years after painting. It adheres fairly well, however, to porous substances like adobe. Other outdoor whitewashed surfaces, like barns, are often painted with many coats for a more long-lasting coverage. This is why you may see white barns or fences that have flaking exteriors; though one layer may flake away, there are other layers beneath to maintain coverage. However, whitewash does not offer the greatest protection against rain damage, since repeated exposure to moisture will gradually saturate its natural ingredients.


10 pounds hydrated lime
2 gallons water
3 pounds salt
2 – 5 gallon buckets
Large spoon

Using a large spoon, mix 10 pounds of hydrated lime with 1 gallon of water in an extra-large bucket. Add more water if needed to make a thick paste.

In a second bucket, mix one gallon of warm water with 3 pounds of salt and stir until dissolved.
Slowly add the salt water to the lime mixture, stirring well. If mixture is too thick to apply with a paint brush, slowly add additional water to thin to the desired consistency.

If covered tightly, you can store whitewash for several days in a cool place.

The second alternative to traditional paint is milk paint. Milk-based paints have been used for over 20,000 years and have been found on ancient cave walls. When King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1924, artifacts inside were found to have been painted with milk paint. Almost all early American furniture prior to the Civil War was painted using this technique. After the Civil War, commercial oil paint was developed. It was easier to store and ship, since its shelf life wasn’t limited; milk paint will spoil in the same manner as whole milk.

From what I understand, this covering is durable because the milk contains casein, a protein that hardens as it dries and adheres well to wood, plaster, terra cotta, and clay. When applying to wood surfaces or plaster walls, milk paint is supposed to be self-priming, which removes a time consuming step from the painting equation. The first coat may be slightly uneven, due to the texture of the paint, so it is recommended to apply the second coat immediately after the first for a smoother finish. The finish will be translucent, but the opacity increases with each coat you add. As you might expect, milk paint has a slightly milky odor when first applied, but this odor fades as the paint dries.

I was given this recipe for milk paint which seems a lot like cheese making:


1 lemon
1 quart skim milk
Strainer or sieve
Dry color pigment (optional)

Mix the juiced lemon with 1 quart of skim milk in a bucket and leave the mixture overnight. (Sitting at room temperature causes the mixture to start curdling.)  The next morning, pour the mixture through a strainer or sieve lined with cheesecloth to separate the solids and whey.

To give color to your paint, you may choose to add four or more tablespoons of dry color pigment to the curd and stir until the pigment is incorporated. Continue to add color pigment, stirring constantly, until you achieve the desired hue (Be sure to wear a mask when using dry pigments and/or follow the manufacturer directions.)  .

Milk paint will spoil quickly, so it should be applied to your surface within a few hours of mixing. The recipe above makes a small batch, so you will want to test this on a smaller project to get started.

The first milk paints were dyed with pig’s blood, but, luckily, these days you can buy both natural pigments and the color pigments mentioned in the recipe above in a range of shades. You can also experiment by leaving steel wool in a dish of water and adding the resulting rusty water to your paint; simmering blackberries on the stove and straining the liquid; brewing and adding strong coffee for the desired shade of brown; or adding store-bought juice concentrates to your paint.

You may also buy milk paint already mixed and ready to go. Personally, I’m not really sure how I will finally choose to seal this wood. But, no one – even the ancient Egyptians – has been able to provide a recipe for keeping carpenter bees at bay. If you have any suggestions (for paint or bees) or experiences (good or bad), please share them in the comments below. In the meantime, I will keep researching my options and perfect my Tom Sawyer-style pitch to get the neighborhood kids excited about painting.  Of course, such a specialized job can only be done properly by one in a thousand, maybe one in two thousand people…



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Click to read 18 comments
  1. Donna

    Thank you Natalie for the recipes! I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of ordering woad paint from France to use on doors, etc. Shipping is expensive and it is not a local product so that has stopped me from ordering some. But, I am still intrigued by the thought of having that beautiful French blue around me, and best of all it’s made from the woad plant. Hummm….. I could probably use some woad pigment in the milk paint recipe you gave. Thanks, again!

  2. Zoe

    I found the powdered milk paints have a very similar ingredient list to old fashion whitewash so I used that to paint my interior brick fireplace white —- went on like a charm and I still love it. It was a small amount of space though, big spaces might be expensive.
    I remember some of the recipes for milk paint having gasoline as an additive, perhaps to help in cure faster, or keep from spoiling so fast?

  3. Susan

    This won’t work on your deck, but I have used this product on furniture and finishing paneling in a room in our barn. It is called Tried and True Wood finishes. It is made from linseed oil and bees wax and has no VOC’s or other nasty chemicals. A great product that I have used for many years.


  4. Claudia Phillips

    I want to whitewash the interior of my garden shed. However, I am not sure where to buy the right kind of lime. Everything I read says to use hydrated lime just like your recipe says. I also read that this is NOT garden lime. But some garden lime says it is “hydrated lime”. There are many different kinds of lime available, but none state that they would work for whitewashing.Can anybody tell me where to find the right lime? Maybe send a link?

  5. Dot

    Hi ?

    Thank you for so kindly sharing your paint technique tips ?. Can you please tell me how to make salt wash paint?

    Thanking you kindly

    Dot Hardick

  6. Dot Hardick

    Hi 🙂

    I would like to make my own salt wash paint and I thought ”;this is it” when I saw your blog. However, even though you use salt and lyme, you refer to it as ”whitewash” Same thing?

    1. Alabama

      Hi Dot,

      Thanks for your interest in this post. After doing a little research, I do not think this whitewash is the same as the saltwash paint you’re looking for—if the saltwash you’re referring to is used to get a distressed look. This is simply an all-natural, toxin-free paint you can make at home with common ingredients. It’s similar to the whitewash paint that was used during Colonial times (and even further back than that) when tinted paint was very expensive. The whitewash was often used as the main color on a house or in interior rooms, and the more expensive tinted paint was used for woodwork, doors, and windows.

      We do not have a recipe for any type of saltwash paint—however, I’m sure some searching through Google could produce the information you need. Thanks again!

  7. Eric Westhagen

    So Tom!—-just how did all that work out in these three years? Just how did you “old fashioned” paints work out? Remember–oil paint was not “merely invented” after the Civil War—it seems Rembrandt and others used oil paint? And how long has their work lasted?

    Eric Westhagen
    Brandon, WI

  8. mike

    Do you have to be concerned with mildew? I painted my deck with it and had to add tongue oil wash told to guard against mildew.

  9. Kristin

    You’re forgetting to add the chalk (calcium carbonate). Your recipe is for “lime wash” and not “white wash”. White wash must include the chalk –
    From Wiki: “Whitewash, or calcimine, kalsomine, calsomine, or lime paint is a type of paint made from slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, Ca(OH)2) and chalk calcium carbonate, (CaCO3), sometimes known as “whiting”. Various other additives are sometimes used” (I like to use a bit of linseed oil, old timers added whites of egg, I haven’t tried the eggs myself)
    Conversely :”Lime wash is pure slaked lime in water. It produces a unique surface glow due to the double refraction of calcite crystals. Limewash and whitewash both cure to become the same material. ” So, they both DRY to the same material, chemically, but there exists a difference in application with these two.

  10. tam

    I buy 20kg bags of hydrated lime for 5lev a bag about £2.50.
    Put about 2kg of lime into water, mix to a thick milk, thin cream with a long stick in a plastic container. Do this OUTSIDE and keep the dust away from eyes and lungs!
    To colour I use kids powder paint, about 200grams of cobalt blue, gives a quite nice Med. sky blue.

    Did my balcony about 4 years ago, straight onto the cement render. Has resisted snow, torrential rain, minus 20c and plus 40c in summer., including direct sunlight as balcony is south facing.
    Blue areas still the same colour as the day it dried!

    The entire area about 3m by 2m costs about 10lev,( 5pounds) including the powder paint!

    Works well on unprimed (raw) wood too, great for inside of animal sheds as helps to kill bugs.

    1. Alabama Chanin

      Hi Tam,

      Thank you for sharing your process! Cobalt blue sounds beautiful, and we love that it’s standing the test of time.

  11. Eli

    Isn’t hydrated lime hydraulic lime? That’s not the right kind of lime as it hardens when wet. You need lime putty. It hardens in contact with air. Also different types of hydrated lime can contain cement and toxic chemical because hydrated lime just means any lime that’s not hot. It can be any grade. And any level of hydraulic. By lime putty is not hydraulic lime. It is hydrated to a saturation and it only sets on exposure to air so will last for years. Hydrated lime is a powder of varying kids which will harden when exposed to water or in Damon conditions it will set. So won’t last. Also it was pig fat they used in white wash as well as pigs blood. But not for pigment.

  12. Eric

    To protect against boring insects try pretreating the wood with a 60/40 mixture of Borax and boric acid.