There’s no doubt about it… paint is expensive! But there are so many things a homesteader needs paint for. Especially when trying to preserve wood in things such as fencing and animal housing.
How’d they do it in the old days, when there wasn’t a Home Depot nearby with hundreds of paint types to choose from?
Ever heard of the term ‘white-washing’? (I remember reading about the boys whitewashing a fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.) Well, that’s what they did! Whitewash is a type of homemade paint (well, it’s paint-like). And it’s super cheap to make!
Here’s a helpful how-to from Fiasco Farms:
To make your own whitewash, you need lime. There are two kinds of lime you can buy so be sure you get the right kind: hydrated lime, which is pure white. It is also called slake lime, builder’s lime, or mason’s lime (the old timers at our feed store incorrectly call it “burnt lime”- DO NOT use burnt lime). Hydrated lime is also very caustic, so the bag will have a warning on it. The other kind of lime is light gray and is the kind we use to spread on our barn floor. It is called “ag lime”, “garden lime”, “barn lime” or dolomite. Do not spread hydrated lime on your barn floor. Why do we spread lime on our barn floor? It provides that antibacterial quality, dries out, “sweetens” the floor , and Larry says it makes it easier to clean.
Please, remember that when handling hydrated lime and preparing the whitewash not to breathe the dust from the lime and to wear gloves. I learned the hard way about the gloves (I hate wearing gloves). The lime will ravage bare hands. If you do get the wash on your hands it’s a good idea to rub your hands with vinegar; the acid in the vinegar counter acts the alkaline in the lime. Larry says a little Bag Balm later helps too. Barn lime on the other hand is not as caustic and you can handle it with your bare hands without worry.
Notes about this whitewash:
- It will wash off over time if exposed to rain.
- This is “authentic white wash” and is not paint and is not permanent: rubs off and sometimes flakes off over time.
- If you lean against a white washed wall you will end up with white on your clothes.
- I do not recommend this for home decorating use.
- It is safe to use inside barns and is not harmful to small animals.
Mix in a large bucket, a five gallon paint bucket is ideal:
- 3 large coffee cans of hydrated lime (about 12 cups)
- 1 pound or 1 small coffee can of salt (about 4 cups)
- 2 gallons of water
When you mix this together, mix a little lime/salt, then a little water, then a little lime, etc. It you just dump it all together it’s like stirring boat anchor. You should let the mixture sit over night, but we usually just use it right away and have had no problems.
The white wash should be fairly watery, remember it’s a wash, not a paint. Give it a stir once and a while as you use it.
To use the white wash, just get a big brush and slop it on. Don’t worry about getting it on your clothes, it washes out very easily. It may seem like it’s not covering very well as you paint it on, especially on new pine 2x4s, but it will whiten up considerably when it’s completely dry, be patient.
Note:I have been told you can improve this white wash recipe by adding about a tablespoon of powdered alum per gallon of whitewash. This supposedly will improve it’s “sticking” characteristics, i.e., makes it more resistant to rubbing off. I have not tried this and do not know if it helps or not.
I was also told by the same source that, to really make it last — get some hide glue flakes. Dissolve about 1/2 a pound of glue flakes in enough boiling water to dissolve thoroughly and add it the recipe (with alum added). This supposedly reduces the frequency of re-whitewashing at minimal additional expense. I have not tried this and do not know if it helps or not.
If one is concerned about the animal content of glue, it’s supposed to work with goat milk. I have not tried this and do not know for sure.
Tiny Farm Blog shared how they made whitewash to paint (or ‘lime’) their chicken coop. They used a basic recipe using only lime and water (no salt), mixed by eye until it resembled a watery pancake batter-ish substance.
I love that it’s not only super inexpensive (a 50 lb bag costs about $7, and makes about 15-20 gallons of paint!), but it’s also completely safe for animals and humans.
Whitewashing would be a great way to paint something like a big barn on a budget! But what if you don’t want to paint it white?
Historically, pig’s blood was used to create a pink tinted paint. Or livestock blood was mixed with earth to create brownish hues. They also used rust, and berries to create different tints.
Nowadays, we can tint our whitewash with any water-soluble powdered dye available in craft stores.
But whitewash isn’t just for looks. Some farmers swear by whitewashing half-way up the trunks of their fruit trees to prevent sun-scald and to reduce insect damage.
Another do-it-yourself paint that the pioneers in particular were fond of using was milk paint. Milk paint was made from mixing lime with milk, and was tinted with natural things the same way whitewash was.
Earth Pigments shares a good recipe for homemade milk paint, along with lots of other great info on creating your own pigments and paints.
Tip Nut has this to share:
Recipe From 1870:
1 Quart skim milk (room temperature)
1 Once of hydrated lime by weight (Available at building centers. Do not use quick lime, as it will react with the water and heat up. Hydrated lime has been soaked in water then dried.)
1 to 2 1/2 pounds of chalk may also be added as a filler.
- Stir in enough skim milk to hydrated lime to make a cream. Add balance of skim milk. Now add sufficient amount of powder pigment to desired color and consistency (Pigment powder must be limeproof). Stir in well for a few minutes before using. For best results continue to stir throughout use. Apply milk paint with a cheap natural bristle brush. Allow project to dry sufficiently before applying next coat. Extra paint may be kept for several days in the refrigerator, until the milk sours. Double or triple the recipe for paint. Allow to dry thoroughly 3-4 hours before use. For extra protection, give paint a coat of oil finish or sealer. Color may change – test in inconspicuous area.
Another recipe including tinting suggestions found here on the PainterForum Basic Recipe:
For approx. 1.5 Gallons Milk Paint
One Gallon Skim Milk
Two Cups Builders Lime also called Hydrated Lime (Do NOT use Quick Lime)
One Quart Linseed Oil (the boiled type)
1/2 Cup of Salt
Dye (Color) add in as needed
- Strain with cheesecloth or fine mesh screen wire
Use within Two Days of mixing
Martha Stewart also shares a recipe for Milk Paint, that doesn’t require the use of lime:
1. Mix the juice of a lemon with 1 quart of skim milk in a large bowl. Leave the mixture overnight at room temperature to induce curdling.
2. Pour it through a sieve lined with cheesecloth to separate the solid curds from the liquid whey. Add 4 tablespoons of dry color pigment (available at art-supply stores) to the curd; be sure to wear a mask, and stir until the pigment is evenly dispersed. Artists’ acrylic paint also can be used in place of powdered pigment.
3. Add it one drop at a time, and stir constantly until you achieve the desired hue. Whether pigment- or acrylic-based, milk paint will spoil quickly, so it should be applied within a few hours of mixing. Rest assured, its sour smell will disappear once the paint dries.
Both of these paints are making their come-back, as more and more people are looking for greener, healthier options in home improvement.
The next time a project comes up around your home, consider mixing up your own whitewash paint!