I’m Sorry, But It’s Not.

 From time to time I visit chairmaker web sites. At shows I pick up and read their marketing materials.  Both frequently contain the proud statement “I finish my chairs with the authentic milk paint used by 18th century Windsor chairmakers.”  I’m sorry, but it’s not.  The simple answer is that 18th century Windsor chairmakers did not use milk paint.  They used paints made with lead and oil. 

There is an important word in that last line — LEAD.  As everyone knows, lead is a poison, and we can’t use it in paint anymore.  That is too bad, because lead paints  have  a  distinctive look  that I find very appealing.   Everyone who watches Antique Road Show knows that original paint on a chair adds a whole lot to its value.  So, I’m not alone in my appreciation for the look of the original finish.

Fortunately,  we have milk paint, because it is a very good simulation of  lead and oil. When I started selling Windsors in the early 1970s I painted my chairs with commercial oil paints, but   I was very dissatisfied with the results.   Modern paints are solid and uniform.  The original lead paints were much more  complex.  They had subtle variations in shade and thickness.   They had luminosity and depth.  Modern paints just do not have the same look as did the early  lead paints that I wanted so very much to imitate.  Back then,  nearly all  my customers were antique collectors, and they too were discerning enough to  want the look of early paint.  

About the same time  a fellow in Groton, MA named Charlie Thibeau  developed a new product – a commercial  milk paint in powdered form.  I had known Charlie for a number of years and so,  he  sent me a sample.  I tried his milk paint on a chair and  I immediately fell in love with it.  The results looked remarkably like the old lead and oil paints that I found on original Windsors.  Charlie started the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. and the business is still in operation today under his daughter Anne’s guidance.

 Milk paint looks good when freshly applied, but Time is even better to it.  As the top coat gets older, it  emphasizes the subtle differences in shading.    Milk paint  also wears in the same manner as  the original lead and oil paints.  In other words, like wine and cheese,  a chair finished in milk paint actually gets better as it ages.

After my first experience, I did all my finishing with milk paint.  When I started teaching Windsor chairmaking, I extolled the virtues of this finish to my students.  I  always  explained to them that because the two finishes looked so much alike, milk paint is a good substitute for the original lead and oil.  When I published Make a Windsor Chair I again promoted my favorite finish to my readers.  I wrote, During the 18th century, when Windsors were being developed, they were finished with paint made with white lead, turpentine, linseed oil, and earthen pigments.” I also included Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co.’s address. 

That is how milk paint became so closely associated with modern Windsor chairmaking.  Everyone who read that book decided to try this new type of paint on their chairs.  The link between milk paint and  modern Windsors became permanent, but somewhere along the line what I had written about lead and oil was forgotten.  In chairmakers’ minds milk paint became the authentic finish used by their 18th century antecedents.  At last the record is straight.

I have  never lost my appreciation for milk paint’s look.  Every chair in our show room is finished with this product, as are all the stools on the classroom floor, all the benches, and my dining room chairs.  For most of the project articles I have written for woodworking magazines I  have used milk paint.  I still recommend this finish to our students.  In fact, each of the information packets that students find on their stools at the beginning of each class contains an instruction sheet that I wrote for mixing and applying milk paint.  This is my way, the way I have used for more than 30 years.  If you would like to receive a copy of this sheet, email me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com and I will attach it to the return email.

One last story.  When we were in the permitting process for building The Windsor Institute the woman who chaired Hampton’s  Conservation Commission attended the Zoning Board meeting.  She was very concerned about a furniture business coming to town, because she was afraid of environmental damage from  our finishing procedures.  I explained that we only used milk paint which is made of all natural, non-toxic products.  I told the board that one could actually drink  milk paint and the only result would probably be a big burp.  That clinched it for the  woman.  She  became a proponent of our project, and even showed up to speak in our favor  before the Planning Board.

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It always catches my attention  when a student’s address includes the word Windsor.  Some guys live on
Windsor Road, and others come from cities of that name.  I was very surprised to have enrolled in the October 15 sack back class two combinations –a father and son and a husband and wife – from Windsor, Virginia.   It is a small town, so I assumed the four  were friends coming to take a class together.  It turns out that husband and wife Shawn and Angie Nystrom did not know, father and 12 year old son Dave and Josiah Hunt, even though they all live about 5 miles part.  It was purely coincidental that the two families from the same town attended this class together.   There are now four Windsor chairmakers living in Windsor, VA.

By the way,  Josiah is home schooled and as part of his school work he will be writing a report about his chairmaking experience.  In making a chair with his father,  Josiah participated in a practical application of history, art, geometry, algebra, physics, and engineering.

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Sack back students attending  The Windsor Institute  are exposed to our culture of fun for the first time.   They do eventually figure out that while we  take chairmaking seriously, we like to  have a good time while doing it.  So, when we introduce Hall of Fame innovations with a lot of fanfare (“Now, thanks to a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and a chairmaker concerned with the well being of his/her fellow chairmakers, an inductee into the Chairmakers Hall of Fame by a unanimous vote of the trustees….”) they don’t know what to think.  Is this a joke? Are these people real?  

Is there an actual Hall of Fame? The October 15 sack back found out that yes, the Immortals are very real.  They discovered this when we were visited by Hall of Famer Rich Bruno, Sr.   Rich had dropped by to pick up some chairmaking materials.   He and his son Rich, Jr. are the only father/son team in the Hall.  They were jointly inducted in 2004 for their innovation The Wealthy Bear.  (A wealthy bear is a rich bruno. Get it?) That very afternoon, the class  used the wealthy bear to prevent swapping their bevel squares while reaming their stump holes.

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