Painting 101: Learning the Difference Between Chalk Based, Milk and Acrylic Paint

Last week I sent out a handy paint guide I created just for my readers. If you didn’t get it, be sure to sign up for my weekly emails over here to the right >>>>>>>>

It’s a fun little infographic that walks you step-by-step through the first (and sometimes terrifying) furniture makeover decision:

Which paint should I use?? 

Using my guide, you will quickly be able to make the perfect paint selection for your piece of furniture and the look you want.  So easy!

I talk about three different types of paint: chalk-based, acrylic and milk.  So this week I want to show you up close and personal what the difference is between them.

First, all three are artistic paints, formulated to make furniture transformations simple and easy.

Also, your furniture will need very little prep work. No stripping, priming or power sanding, just a good cleaning with a degreaser (like Simple Green). Depending on the existing finish, sometimes you will also need a quick sanding before painting. (More information about that below.)

So let’s break down all three, so you have a little more info in your back pocket and feel more confident as you get started.

Chalk BasedMilk Acrylic
Calcium carbonite or chalk baseCasein or milk baseAcrylic base
Water based (clean up with soap and water)Water based (clean up with soap and water)Water based (clean up with soap and water)
Use a brush, roller or sprayerUse a brush, roller or sprayer
(strain if using a sprayer)
Use a brush, roller or sprayer
Fast drying to a matte, chalky finish. Requires a topcoat, usually wax. Fast drying to a matte finish. For protection, topcoat with a wax, oil or poly. Fast drying to a slight sheen. Does not require a topcoat. Can wax if you want more sheen.
Comes in a can (quarts or smaller sample sizes) Comes in powder form and must be mixed 1:1 with water. (Hint: for best results let newly mixed paint sit for at least 30 minutes before using.)Comes in a can (quarts, pints or smaller sample sizes)
Great for layering colors and distressingGreat for layering colors and distressing. Milk paint can lift off existing varnish creating a primitive, chippy look unlike the other two paint options. If you don’t desire that, use a milk paint bonder when mixing the paint. Great for layering colors and distressing
Thickest of all 3 paints, can leave brush strokes which are desirable if using dark wax. (creates age and patina)Thinnest of all three. Comes in powder form and must be mixed with water. Doesn’t leave brush strokes. Smooth, self-leveling paint that duplicates a sprayed finish. Best if you don’t want brush strokes.
Opaque finishMore like using watercolors since the pigments in the paint sometimes create color variationOpaque finish
For indoor or outdoor use (don’t seal with wax if using outdoors)For indoor or outdoor use (use polycrylic to seal if using outdoors)For indoor or outdoor use
Certain brands have great adhesion to shiny surfaces (Amy Howard One Step has a built in sealer that is great for a modern finish)Not the best for shiny surfaces unless you quickly sand your piece with a medium grit sanding block beforehand to rough up the surface. Also bonder is a must.Great adhesion, but super slick surfaces need a quick once over with a medium grit sanding block to degloss and give some “tooth” to the surface so paint will adhere.
Very easy to distress. Amy Howard One Step paint should be distressed as soon as the paint dries, since the longer the paint dries and cures, the more difficult it will be to distress. Very easy to distress. Paint will also take on a chippy appearance if you don’t use the bonder which gives it a very neat, primitive look. Very easy to distress if you do it right away. The longer the paint dries and cures, the more difficult it will be to distress.
Recommended brands:
Amy Howard One Step
Annie Sloan
Maison Blanche
Country Chic
Cece Caldwell
Recommended brands:
Miss Mustard Seed
Old Fashioned Milk Paint
Sweet Pickins Milk Paint
The Real Milk Paint Co.
Recommended brands:
Fusion Mineral Paint
General Finishes Milk Paint (not a true milk paint, but an acrylic based paint)

Examples of chalk based finishes:

one step paint amy howard


chalkpaint buffet2

Milk paint:



chippy milk paint table legAnd acrylic paint:

dark grey server


Has this helped?  Feel free to comment below if you have any questions.  If you haven’t received your paint guide yet, make sure you sign up for my weekly emails to get it right away!



  1. Thanks for the chart, Mary. It helps to have the side by side comparison. I am wanting to paint an old pine dining set I’ve had for years. I like the opaque effect of the chalk and acrylic paints. I’m going to paint the set black and am wondering which paint, chalk or acrylic, has the most durable finish and would hold up best to wear and tear? I love your work! My favorite piece is the black French nightstand. Just beautiful!

    • Thanks Susan! Amy Howard One Step paint is the MOST durable in my opinion, just because there is a sealer built into the paint. It’s also a very thick paint which I don’t love. I water it down and it goes on fine, but it can leave brush marks. I’ve also used Annie Sloan and Maison Blanche with good results. More so than the paint, the trick to creating a durable table top is the right topcoat. You’ll want to use three or four coats of a water based poly (follow directions on can). A wax topcoat will leave streaks no matter how long you let it cure! Have fun painting!

  2. Hi, and thanks for the info. I am wondering whether there is a difference in how you actually apply the paint. I have seen many online videos that show the chalk paint being put on with strokes being applied very haphazardly. They also use those thicker, rounded brushes. My husband is a prideful painter and won’t even consider such things. Any tips about application or input on why the round brushes? Thanks so much.

    • Hey Julie,

      Chalk paint is considered an artistic paint and the finish you end up with is entirely determined by the WAY you paint. So, excellent question! A round brush and haphazard strokes create subtle brush marks on your furniture. Those brush marks pick up the dark wax during the finishing stage and create that beautiful authentic antique painted look. Your husband is probably used to using latex paint which does require a careful hand and smooth strokes! You can also do a more modern, clean look on your furniture by using long careful, strokes in one direction, sanding between coats and finishing with a gloss poly. Completely different look! Oh, and I’ve used round brushes, but my favorite is actuallly a 2″ angled purdy brush. Still works just fine if you want the antiqued look, just don’t paint in one direction. Thanks for the question and thanks for stopping by!

      • Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to give me a reply. My husband painted a very fine rolltop desk in perfect condition but in that yellowish oak which looked kind of outdated. He painted it as he always does with acrylic paint. We have only used chalk paint twice. Both times we had blotchy paint. Some spots were chalky, some had some shine to it. It was this way before we did the finish. We used wax on the desk and poly on the prior piece. Have you ever seen this happen? I am wondering if this could be because of his brush strokes. You said to not paint one way, what happens if you do? Also, he used a roller for much of the piece. I’ve heard that’s OK, but could that have caused the problem?

        • Hey Julie,

          Sorry to take so long to respond. I am not 100% sure what would have caused the splotchy and chalky conditions you’re describing. It would not be because of the way it was painted, rather I’m guessing it’s from the finishing product you used. Make sure to use at least two coats of poly. Wax can be difficult to apply and can cause streaking or splotchiness. Just don’t put it on too heavy and make sure you buff well.

  3. Kim Beitel says:

    For chalk paint, I like Vintage Market & Design. They have a wipe on sealer instead of a wax. Easier to work with and if you ever decide to paint over – just clean and paint again. You don’t have to strip off any wax! I did just try the Fusion Mineral paint and that was really easy to work with. Guess each project may dictate which product to use. I love your comparison sheet. Thanks for putting that together. It was great!

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