Over the years, I have received so many questions about the differences between chalk paint, milk paint, traditional furniture paint and specialty paints for furniture revamp projects. With so many furniture paints on the market today, it’s understandable that there are so many questions! There are some significant differences between all the end finishes in these paints and if you’ve never painted a piece of furniture before (or you’re a beginning painter), I know all of this is very confusing with all these different type paints on the market.
My goal today is to answer all these questions and show/explain to you the differences between all these paint products. I will also point you to very easy tutorials that I have done on the various finishes that will walk you through each of these finishes, step-by-step. I especially want to give you first timers the confidence to paint a piece of furniture for your first time and understand which paint to choose and exactly how to use it.
I want to warn you though, this post is very long because I want to give you as much info as possible! So, I will just quickly tell you here in the beginning the very basic difference between all of the finishes, then you can scroll down to the paint finish section that you want to read more about and gather more detailed information.
So just quickly…, chalk type paints are thicker paints that have a matte chalky like finish because of the increased lime in the base. The chalk paint finish is easy to distress and can be very durable if you wax the top layer.
Milk paints are also have a matte like finish but not quite as chalky as chalk paints. Milk paints are more like a very intensely pigmented stain/ink-like that (I think) is easier than chalk paints to layer colors if you’re looking for a multiple shades of colors.
Traditional paints would be those interior paints that you can get at Sherwin-Williams, Lowes, etc. These would be the type of semi-gloss/matte paints you would normally use for trim, cabinetry, etc., and they too are fantastic for furniture paint projects. However, traditional paints will not have a chalky, variated finish in the colors like chalk and milk paints.
Specialty furniture paints are smaller boutique lines of paint specifically designed for furniture that offer very unique and specialized finishes. These type paints can be blends of chalk-like and ultra matte, or on the other end of the spectrum, highly distressed and worn finishes and even some lines of high gloss and lacquer. Specialty boutique paint lines run a myriad of various unique finishes.
Chalk type paints have really become very popular in the last 5-6 years and from a texture standpoint, chalk paint has a chalky type finish because of increase of lime in the flat finish type base. A sign of a great chalk paint should be thick, almost like a traditional semi-gloss trim paint.
It use to be chalk finish paints were used primarily used for shabby chic type distressed paint finishes because the finish can give the appearance of old paint, especially if it is lightly sanded and distressed. Chalky paints are also easier to distress because there is less acrylic and more lime in the base.
These days, chalk type paints are not just for distressed shabby chic finishes anymore. People like me love to use chalk type paints for more modern type finishes because you can get an super ultra-matte finish and smooth finish with some of the brands.
There are now tons of chalk type paint finish products on the market right now and I think I have pretty much tried them all at some point in the last 6-7 years. While the various brands are all somewhat similar (although some are more watery than others), they all vary greatly in price and color range. In my opinion, the more expensive brands are not necessarily the better product. Chalk Paints like Rustoleum’s Chalked (affiliate link) are excellent.
There is a new chalk finish paint line coming out in the next few weeks by JoAnna Gaines called Magnolia Home that she created in partnership with the KILZ paint company. I had the chance to preview the line and test it and I was really impressed.
The end finish on Joanna’s Magnolia Home Chalk Style Paint is simply gorgeous and I loved Magnolia’s wide range of colors that you don’t get with other chalk paint lines. You can read my review of the line here.
Also, there is a line of spray chalk paint by Krylon that came out last year that I love for smaller furniture projects and accessories like lamps. I was VERY skeptical when this product first came out (actually, I laughed when I first heard about it) but I was so shocked with how beautiful the ultra-matte chalk paint type finish turned out. The downside is the lack of range of colors, which they only have 16.
I wrote a review on the Krylon Chalky Finish tutorial here if you want to read how to use it. You can also order the paint on Amazon here if you want to try it.
One last thing… There are a lot of recipes out there for mixing your own chalk paint and of course, I have a recipe as well. I use it a lot and it’s super easy with one part flat paint, one part primer and one part spackle.
Milk paint is a non-toxic water-based paint that is made from milk and lime. Often times, milk paint will come in the form of powder but it’s not always the case. For instance, Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint (my very favorite) comes in powder form and you add water.
General Finishes Milk Paint is already mixed together in a traditional paint can.
The texture of milk paint is a lot thinner than chalk paint. I describe it as a intensely pigmented combination stain-like/paint. Because of the lime in the base (as well as other stuff), it does give a somewhat chalky/milky finish but not as intensely as chalk type paints.
Again, what I love the most about milk paint is that it’s very highly pigmented, so really, it’s more like ink going on and not as translucent as a stain. It doesn’t have much of a chalky type texture finish but milk paint is also favorite for people who want to distress a furniture piece.
Here is the texture and consistency difference between milk paint and a chalky paint.
This is a collection of more vintage type finishes you can get with milk paint. Look at that rich color pigmentation.
You can get more subtle color layers with milk paint better than you can with chalk type paints in my opinion. However, for solid colors, I prefer chalk paints and other traditional type paints.
Look at how smooth this layering is.
I really like to use milk paint and wrote a tutorial here about it here. I think milk paint is ideal when you want to layer multiple colors and wipe color on and off.
Traditional Furniture Paints
Traditional furniture paints are the standard paints that you get at Sherwin Williams and other paint stores. Of course, they are either water or oil-based. The end finish on furniture depends on what type of paint (and finish) you choose. In comparison to chalk and milk paints, traditional furniture paints will be thicker and will cover more opaque with a traditional thick like finish.
The best part of traditional paints is that you get the widest range of colors. Pretty much any interior color you can use. I wrote a post here last year with some of the most popular furniture paint colors.
If you’ve never painted furniture before and just want to change the color of a piece of furniture and get a beautiful flawless matte finish, I would suggest you read my tutorial here that I wrote with very detailed step-by-step (specifically for beginners) for how to get a beautiful finish using traditional latex paint.
I point first timers to water-based traditional paint first because of all the paints and furniture painting technique, I think it’s the most forgiving. My technique using traditional latex with the Floetrol additive (the tutorial explains what that is) helps extend the painting time allowing beginnings to work a little slower and the additive eliminates brush marks. The finish is absolutely stunning for any type of furniture and the color selection is of course endless.
If you have a high traffic furniture piece that you want to paint that is going to get heavy daily wear (like a kitchen table), I am a huge fan of using oil-based enamel for these type pieces that get battered daily. While the finish is thicker than chalk and milk paints (and latex), the finish will hold up for years and you can easily clean it.
Oil-based paints are also great for high traffic built-in furniture pieces and cabinetry.
I have a very detailed tutorial here for getting a beautiful finish using oil based paints on high traffic furniture pieces.
There are quite a few specialty paint or boutique paint lines that really don’t fall exactly under fully any of the above categories. These type of paint lines are smaller companies and are are unique furniture paint finishes like Salt Wash, Mud Paint, Black Dog Salvage and lines of high gloss lacquer type paint lines. Really, there are some amazing boutique furniture paint lines out there for different unique types of finishes. If you guys have an interest, let me know and I will do a post comparing these specialty boutique type lines.
One specialty paint line that I like and use every now and then is Velvet Finishes. Velvet Finishes is a cross between chalk paint and a ultra-matte traditional paint. It’s a fantastic paint line for furniture and the colors are great.
If you want to learn more about Velvet Finishes, you can find my tutorial and review here.
I hope I have explained the differences clearly and you now have an idea of what type of paint you will use on your next furniture revamp project. If you have any questions at all, leave the in the comment section and I will get back to you right away. Also, let me know if you guys would like to see a post with more information on all the specialty boutique paint lines that I mentioned above.
Thanks for stopping by friends!
Cyndy Aldred of The Creativity Exchange is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
Colloni Keener says
I would like to hear your thoughts on the specialty paints. Thanks
I think I will work on a post about specialty paints because there are some fantastic products out there! Thanks! 🙂
Fantastic breakdown. Greatly appreciated
Teresa McKinney says
Thank you for this very informative review. It answered many of my questions. Love your blog.
Thank you so much Teresa for such kind words! I hope this helps! 🙂
Thanks for the awesome tips!! I have a dining room set to paint and this has helped a lot 🙂
Yay! Glad it will help! Good luck on the table set! 🙂
Wondering if you have a favorite warm white chalk paint. I bought the Rustoleum Linen White, and it is extremely cold looking – way too sterile. I haven’t waxed or finished it though – hesitant to do that since I really don’t like Ike the color. Will it warm up if I do that? I have BM Dove White on all the trim in my house and am looking for a white chalk paint that would have a similar warm, but not yellowy, tone. Thanks – great and (for me) timely post!
Hi Cyndy. I have a dresser in my guest room that has been waiting on me to refinish. Your post has given me the bravado I needed lol. I’ll be hunkering down with your tutorial as the weather gets warmer. I go back and forth as to just going out and replacing it but its size is perfect for the room and I think I should just paint it. Its solid cherry (gasp) in the “original” cherry finish. Very dated looking now. So….the sanding, priming etc is my first task. Oh boy!! I’ve been putting it off forever. No more excuses. Thanks for the great post. As usual.
Cindy Lou says
For Robin…you DO NOT necessarily have to sand & prime your dresser if it is in good basic shape….that is the best part of using chalk paint, it will cover anything (metal, glass, even fabric). After painting with chalk paint and maybe highlighting the recesses or curves of your dresser with a complimentary chalk paint color, complete your piece with clear wax & it will have the most smooth, velvety finish when you touch it.
Quick question: Can Floetrol be used with chalk or milk paints? Love your blog–always full of pertinent information and would definitely be interested in your take on specialty paints!
I’m not sure I would recommend using Floetrol with chalk or milk paints. Honestly, I think both these type paints have less brush marks and slower drying times than traditional latex that I really don’t think it needs it. Floetrol is a companion additive to latex, so I’m not sure what it would do with the added components to chalk/milk paints. 🙂
Cindy Lou says
You may thin chalk paint with water & stirring well…would only recommend doing this in small increments at a time until you are satisfied with concistency of paint. Thinning your chalk paint for a second coat application is really the only good time to do this. Also, chalk paint dries quickly!
Gloria Anderson says
Thanks for all the info! What do you think of Annie Sloan’s chalk paint now that there are more options out there?
ASCP really was the first brand selling chalk paint and while I love the color selection and like the paint, I think Rustoleum Chalked is just as good but a lot less expensive. I know there is a faithful follow of ASCP but again, it’s so expensive in comparison to other equally good products and if you’re painting a large hutch or something, it gets crazy expensive fast. Thanks for your note Gloria!
I plan to paint oak dining room chairs. I would like to use chalk paint and then a poly finish. Would you recommend this for durability?
Pamela Wise says
Thank you for this post. I think it’ll help me a great deal with my paint collection. If you do get a chance to post on the other specialty lines then I’d love to read that too.
Cheryl Cloudy says
You make me want to do something I’m not good at! I love everything about you. Such a great encourager with amazing talent.
Thanks you so very much for this info. I was really confused on the difference in these paints and you cleared that up so nicely. I can’t wait to start a project now!!
I would love to paint or white wash my brick fireplace. Do you think my best option would be milk paint?
We are redoing our kitchen and changing the layout and possibly adding a few more cabinets. I have med oak cabinets with a Minwax stain.( i stained them when we moved in to brighten them up. What paint do you recommend for my cabinets. I am new to painting furniture so what steps do you recommend? I would like white, not a bright white but i would like a glossy finish. Thank you in advance.
I love the blue of the kitchen table you painted. Can you please tell me the brand and color? Thanks.
Deborah Cade says
I’m going to paint my kitchen cabinets a soft white. They are wood with a very easy to clean and wipe dry surface. What paint should I use, do I prep, if so how? Thx!
Thanks for the overview on all the different paint options. I am refinishing my night stands and dresser. For the drawer fronts, I stained the wood with the tea/rusted vinegar technique to highlight the wood and give it the reclaimed wood look. Unfortunately, I can not use this process on the cabinet box, as it is not all real wood. So, I’m thinking that I need to paint the boxes. Have you used a combination of stain and paint, and if so, what type of paint would you recommend for the boxes? I was leaning towards chalk paint.
I have a waterfall style dresser with mirror that belonged to my grandmother. I’d like to paint it an off white and have thought about using chalk paint. What prep do I need to do first before I paint.
Do you know when Joanna’s chalk paint will be available? I’m DYING to get my hands on it!
If chalk paint covers everything, would it be a good choice for some kitchen cabinets in our fixer-upper farm house? They are white, with pressboard inside and some sort of slick white covering on most of the outside of the doors? Not sure what the best way to paint these is. I want to go all white, to cover the pressboard looking brown edge around them. Thanks for the advice. I just found your blog today and am soaking it all in!
I’m wanting to paint our kitchen table legs and chairs, I’m staining the top and recovering chair seats. The table is a dark espresso and I want to go to white-ish. I was told the best would be to use the Annie Sloan Chalk paints because they don’t require any sanding or prepping and you just paint and go. However I’m beginning to think the oil based is the way to go. Never painted furniture like this before but not super worried about this piece. I have two toddlers and wanted your opinion and best advice! Thanks so much this is so helpful!!
Gina Harris says
You mentioned in an old post about contacting a body shop about spraying a piece of furniture for a high gloss and durable finish. Cold calling and web surfing has not been successful. Do you know of a place in the Atlanta area that does this?
I have a set of rattan furniture ( 2 chairs / 2 seat sofa / table) and it is natural. I would like to paint / stain it and was thinking of a stain that looks like white wash. Do you have any suggestions? I prefer not to have it “painted” in a high gloss color……rather a softer look. The new cushions have a lot of that pop of color.
Thank you in advance!
Lynn Koerner Maier says
Thank you for your review. I have a retail store and looking for a new paint line. Now I have some other ways to answer customer questions.
Beth Fye says
I found your post while searching paints for kitchen cabinets. Was wondering what you would recommend. Appreciate your input!
Hmmm.. I think you’re asking what paint I recommend for painting kitchen cabinetry? I always recommend Sherwin Williams (oil-based) enamel in a matte satin for cabinetry. It’s about as durable as you can get and the finish is stunning. 🙂
Maureen Cumming says
Just wondered if you have ever tried Rustoleum Chalked paint for any outdoor project?
I bought this for an indoor piece but am wondering how well it would hold up on some outdoor metal furniture. People seem to use Annie Sloan chalk paint outdoors successfully, but the
Rustoleum can says ” Interior use only”.
Thanks a lot.
Dana Tooker says
I’d like to use chalk paint on my very old laminate kitchen cabinets. I have heard the paint can’t peel, is this the case? If so do you have any suggestions?