Little Red Milk-Painted Bench

Last fall my dad and I made a 15th century Gothic style bench out of walnut. It has been a welcome addition to my medieval encampment and a vast improvement over my 3 1/2 legged Cabela’s folding camp chair. While the walnut seat works perfectly well for me, I was lacking furniture for guests, so I went to the hardware store and purchased a board to fix that.

Bench Materials:

  • 1×10, 8 ft. long (I used “premium” pine from Lowe’s)
  • 3/8 maple dowel, 1 ft.
  • 8 wood screws, at least 1 in.
  • Poster board or paper for patterns

Tools:

  • Handsaw or tablesaw
  • Jigsaw or bandsaw
  • Chisel
  • Rasps and files
  • Sandpaper of various grits
  • Craft saw
  • Wood glue
  • Pencil

Paint Materials:

  • Skim (Fat Free) Milk, 4 cups
  • Vinegar, 1/2 cup
  • Hydrated Lime, 28g
  • Pigment, 50g
  • Water
  • Wax finish (I used Roman Beeswax Polish)

Tools:

  • Bowl for milk & vinegar
  • Separate small containers for lime mix and pigment mix
  • Container (preferably plastic with lid) to hold final paint mixture
  • Colander
  • Cheesecloth
  • Something to stir with
  • Paint brush
  • Soft cloth to apply wax finish

The first thing I did was draw my patterns. The pieces couldn’t be more than 9 1/4″ wide so I designed with that in mind. I had enough board to get a 30″ long bench out of it so that’s what I did.

1 patterns
The designs were drawn freehand onto poster board, modeled from 14th and 15th century examples similar to my existing bench.

Once I was happy with the pattern I traced them onto the 1×10 and marked where the top would go as well. It didn’t need a pattern because it’s just a rectangle.

2 tracing pattern
Traced onto the wood and ready to cut out.

10 minutes with a jigsaw took me from an 8 foot piece of lumber to elements of a medieval bench.

3 rough cut
Rough cut top (seat), rails, and legs.

It was all hand tools from this point forward. A chisel squared out the leg and rail slots. I used a wood rasp and files to get to the pencil lines. 100, 150, and 400 grit sandpaper for clean up and rounding sharp edges.

4 pine bench may 17
Stacked it all together to make sure everything looked like I wanted it.

To affix the rails to the seat I used 8 screws, positioned near slots. The rails were stood up on the underside of the seat and lines were traced where they would be. I used these lines to mark where I wanted the screw holes. Once the smaller holes were drilled I flipped the seat over and drilled 3/8″ diameter holes half way into the seat for the maple dowels. The pieces are glued, screwed, and clamped until dry.

5 screwed together
The seat and rails are now all one piece.
6 filler dowels
Dowels are cut a little long, glued and pushed into place, then sawed off flush and sanded smooth. If done well, the holes should all but disappear.
7 woodworking done
The whole bench got a once-over with 400 grit sandpaper (or even fine steel wool if you prefer) to prepare for paint.
8 with walnut buddy
Side by side with the previous walnut bench. The new bench is slightly shorter, narrower, and longer than the old one. Due to the wood being 3/4″ thick instead of a true inch, I opted for a more conservative cutout on the legs.

At this point you have a complete bench you could finish in a number of ways: stain, shellac, linseed or tung oil, or paint. I chose a traditional milk paint for a few reasons. First, I have never worked with milk paint before so that had me curious. Secondly, an application that could have existed in the middle ages and provides a color that could have been achieved back then was appealing. And lastly, because medieval people were known to decorate furniture with paint. Fairly often. With bold, bright colors.

The milk paint ingredients and instructions are from Earth Pigments. I quartered the recipe but otherwise followed the directions on their webpage. It was a very enjoyable process as it felt half like a science project and the other half like a fine art project. The first step was to mix up the milk and vinegar and let it sit overnight.

9 curds and whey
A bowl of milk after separating into curds and whey. It didn’t smell bad like I thought it might.

The lime was mixed with water into a paste and the pigment was mixed into a different container with just enough water to remove the grit. I am using red iron oxide for my color but I encourage you to choose one that catches your eye or suits your project best. Once the three separate mixtures were ready it all came together quickly.

  • Drain the curds and rinse with water
  • Transfer the drained curds into the paint bucket
  • Mix in lime paste and stir until uniform
  • Drain again if necessary (I thought there was way too much water in my paint so I drained a lot of it out. Looking back, I think it would have been okay to be rather thin.)
  • Mix in pigment
  • Congratulations, you have paint!

Milk paint, like milk, is perishable, so it is recommended you use it immediately. So I did. And WOW, was I surprised by the results. Everything I had read suggested that the first coat would be unsightly, uneven, and washed out. That was definitely not what I experienced. The first coat went on fire engine red and promptly dried to a pleasant brick color.

10 first coat
My very first coat of red milk paint. It went on BOLD. It dried translucent enough to see the grain still.

As impressed as I was, things only improved when I sanded down the first coat. I ended up with a gorgeous, uniformly matte, rusty red finish. I loved it. One coat and that would have been enough for me. But I had paint left in the bucket, and I knew that this bench would not be ready for outdoor use in this state, so I hit it with another coat of paint and sanded it again with the 400 grit paper.

11 first sanding
After sanding. This photo doesn’t show how neat this looks. It came out so even and bright.

Unlike being able to work linseed oil into the grain to finish and protect unpainted projects, I needed a protective finish that suited the natural milk paint. I picked Roman Beeswax Polish because it was suggested and available on the Earth Pigments site and I had heard positive things about beeswax finishes before. Once again, after just one coat the results were amazing.

12 first wax
After rubbing in and buffing off the beeswax polish. It darkened and added a soft glow to the bench.

Like the painting however, I knew I needed this to be durable for rough use outdoors in a medieval camp so I put on a second coat and buffed that smooth. The final product is something I am proud of and I believe would compliment any lord or lady in their encampment, on the field, or in their home.

13 finished top
Finished top (seat). Totally even color throughout.
14 finished bench
Completed bench. I’m so happy with my milk paint experience. It turned out a lovely color. Final dimensions: 30″ x 18″ x 9.25″

I consider this a basic woodworking project. With a few tools and a trained eye, most crafty people could handle this bench. It was enjoyable and entertaining for me from patterning, through woodworking, and into mixing and applying the paint. It took me about a week and a half of casual weekend and after work hours. I hope this entry is interesting and gives you ideas of your own.

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