Sweet Pickins Milk Paint – Artisans Spotlight
Sausha Khoundet was a DIY’er who discovered the soft look of milk paint and ended up owning her own companies, Sweet Pickins Milk Paint and Old Fashioned Milk Paint. Milk Paint has been used for thousands of years and is durable and long lasting. Made of all natural ingredients; milk, lime and natural earth pigments, it is safe and non-toxic.
What makes it so different? It is sold in powder form. Once the casein in the milk is activated with water, the spoiling process begins. When applied to walls or furniture, it hardens due to the lime in the mixture which also accounts for its durability.
Sterling Vernon sat down with Sausha to find out more about her and her products.
Sterling Vernon: What is your background and how did you get started in the milk paint business?
Sausha Khoundet: Growing up, my parents were always DIY’ers. I can’t recall them ever hiring anybody for anything. That’s just how they grew up. My brother and I did projects with them and we were always involved. My parents were always improving their house. It’s just been part of my life. When we bought our first house, I was about twenty one years old. We were just the same way. We just started doing projects. Even though I’ve learned a lot from my parents growing up, we took on a lot of stuff on our own. We did a lot of projects that I’d never done with my parents. We taught ourselves a lot and figured if they can do it, we can do it and we can figure it out.
We sold that house a few years later and bought a bigger house with even more stuff to do. We finished our basement, finished our whole yard including landscaping, making us learn even more. My husband has always been in the Army since I met him. During our second house, he was deployed. He served a couple tours overseas.
During that time I started painting furniture with my friends on the side. I worked as a court clerk for about 10 years. I loved that job. But then I started painting and I would sell things on our local classifieds. They would sell very quickly. Soon, people were coming to me requesting custom paint jobs. I did that on the side for about two years. I was slowly starting my business. It wasn’t really a business at that time. It was more of a hobby. I was so busy that I knew I could make more money doing that than working as a clerk. So I decided to quit my job. I painted furniture for a couple years–using commercial paints from Sherman Williams, Lowe’s, Home Depot, or whatever. One day I tried milk paint and that started a whole new story!
Milk Paint comes in powder form. When water is added, it activates the casein and the powder.. becomes paint.
SV: Are you originally from Utah?
SK: Yes. I’ve been within about a fifteen-mile radius my whole life!
SV: How did you discover a milk paint? What was your first interaction with it?
SK: Working in the court as a clerk, I had a lot of downtime. I would look at blogs. I’d heard about milk paint, but it wasn’t very popular. Even chalk paint was just becoming more popular at that time. Paint wasn’t talked about much. There was a Woodcraft in our area that sold milk paint. I went one day and bought some. It was amazing. It was unlike any other paint that I used before. I had tried many things such as additives in the chalk paint. Milk paint gave me that chippy, farmhouse, authentic, old look that you would try all these different techniques to try to replicate with other paint. Once I tried milk paint, I thought, “This is it. This is the only paint that I’m going to use from here on out.” I just loved it. There was just something about it that was just perfect. And here I am now!
SV: That’s funny. In my house that’s 250 years old, I look around at all the stuff that looks really old and I’m thinking, “how do I make it look fresher?” It’s striking for me to see somebody trying to do the opposite!
SK: I know! We’ll have some like old men come into our shops to pick things up for their wives and they would say, “when are you going to paint that?” And I’m thinking, “Dude, I just painted that! It looks so cool that way. What are you thinking?”
SV: Very funny, indeed! There’s also an environmental and safety aspect to your paint as well. Can you tell us more about that?
SK: In the beginning, this was less of a focus. l was used to using toxic paints and I would use lacquer, all these commercial paints full of additives, and who knows what… In the beginning it wasn’t really a major concern for me, certainly less so than the look of the paint. I’ve become much more aware of it in the last few years, and I now clearly recognize how much more important it is to use products that are nontoxic and safe. Our customers are very focused on it. When we purchased the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company, the manufacturers of Sweet Pickins Milk Paint, there were so many people with sensitivities. I had no idea so many people have chemical sensitivities and how important it was in the lives of so many people. This is often the only type of paint that they can use. I am often reminded of how important it is to have a paint on the market everybody can use, especially when we are working with our most sensitive customers.
SV: Safety and chemicals and paint is a huge and fascinating topic that most of us probably don’t think enough about. Do your products have MSDS sheets?
SK: Yep. We do have MSDS sheets. There are five or six main ingredients and every single one of them is food-grade material. It’s all USDA-certified food safe and completely non-toxic. We were the first paint on the market to get the USDA seal of approval. It’s called a bio-based certification. Our line of milk paint was the first to get that certificate.
SV: Amazing. Now you can not only come out with colors, you can come out with flavors too! [just kidding]
SK: Don’t eat the paint! We would not advise that. [laughing]
SV: Just kidding, of course. We certainly agree that no one should ever eat paint! I saw some pictures of your recently-built house on your Instagram account. It looked like you added a big shop for the business? Is that primarily where you’re operating the company?
SK: When we bought our land, we bought five acres. We designed our house with the shop and we built the 3000 square foot shop. When we originally designed it, that was only going to be for my painting area and a showroom. In the middle of building our house, we decided to purchase the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company, the manufacturers of Sweet Pickins Milk Paint. The purchase had been in the process for a couple of years–getting a small business loan and all that is a long process. When it finally came together, we were almost done building our house. In the end, I have a tiny little sliver for a workshop–about the size of a single car garage. That’s my work area right now. The rest of it is all the paint manufacturing. We do everything out of here. We manufacture, we package, we ship and it’s all done out of our little shop attached to our house. We’re building a second shop. I need a workshop. I need a creative space. I am going crazy right now.
SV: How many employees do you have in the business now?
SK: And we have a total of five – three full-time and two part-time.
SV: Having two kids myself, I’m always curious to ask how you balance running a business like this with your projects and your family and your kids.
SK: I think I’ve been the same way that my parents were. When my son, who is almost 22 now, was younger our time was jam-packed full of sports and soccer and all that stuff. Our business wasn’t as busy back then. It’s a whole different thing now. He’s moved out and he lives on his own. My daughter is sixteen. She helps out with the business. It’s been good for her. She just pitches in and helps out. And when she wants her fancy shoes and all that…I think it’s been really good for them to see like what it takes to run a business. They see it all because our shop is attached to our house.
I really try every day to come in [from the shop to the house] at six o’clock and I don’t work for the rest of the day. I just try to keep it separate. In our old house, when I worked out of our garage space before I had a shop off site, I would just run out to the garage all night to paint. Or I’d run down and work on a blog post and the computer. The kids were doing their thing and I was doing mine. Here, I’ve really tried to keep a balance of spending my hours and not working after that time. It’s worked out well.
SV: Can I use this on the exterior of my old barn? Can this paint be used outdoors?
SK: Milk paint is the original paint that they used to use on the old barns. Before there was commercially-made paints on the market, they had to use ingredients that were easily accessed. Farmers would make it themselves. Everybody had their own recipe for paint and they would use things like rust to tint the paint or grass to make it green. They would even use cow’s blood. That’s what they would use for all the old barns back in the day.
We do two formulas of paint. We have our regular milk paint, which is the original formula, and the new Farmhouse Finishes Safe Paint. About 15 years ago, the owners of Old Fashioned came up with a new formula that people could use on their walls. It has more of the binder in it. And we sell a lot of that. It’s called the Farmhouse Finishes Safe Paint. We sell a ton of that, especially to customers back East because they are finishing their colonial homes and they want to stick with the authentic paints–that flat look. You can use that on the interiors. And our Farmhouse Finishes Safe Paint is also better for exterior use. It doesn’t water-spot as readily as the traditional milk paint. It’s got limestone in it , more water that is absorbed into the paint, the more durable it becomes. It becomes like cement. It’s really great. We’re getting ready to build a fence and we are excited to see how the paint weathers over time.
SV: Which paint would you suggest for kitchen cabinets and high traffic surfaces?
SK: Any of the paint brands are fine. We just painted our cabin a few weekends ago with the Farmhouse Finishes Safe Paint. They were your traditional, standard oak cabinets. We did a light sand and painted them. Light sand again to smooth them out, to scuff them a little bit. And then we just filled them with our oil wax, which is originally a formula that was made for floors, so it’s really durable. It worked great on the cabinets. There are a few high-end cabinet shops that use milk paint a lot. They spray it on their cabinets and it makes for really cool kitchens.
SV: How long does it take for milk paint to dry typically? What’s the working time?
SK: It depends on your application, but it dries to the touch in five or ten minutes. It also depends on the temperature where you are painting. I was just painting something here this morning. It was 45 degrees and it took about an hour to dry. It definitely depends on the temperature.
SV: In terms of longevity do you have data on how long to expect the finish to last, on average?
SK: The prior company owners near Boston had some boards that they painted and kept out on the side of their shop to just watched them weather. Over 12 years, they showed some fading but the paint still was great. It wasn’t like latex which starts chipping off and coming off big sheets and cracking and peeling. Besides the water spotting, the milk paint was fine. And they hadn’t clear-coated it at all. If you’re going to use milk paint outside, and you don’t want the paint to fade due to UV, we recommend you use something like a Thompson Water Seal–something that’s made for outdoor use. We have a customer who calls us frequently to buy paint. He painted a wooden car like 20 years ago with the Old Fashioned milk paint. It just sits outside and it’s great. We have our own boards that we’re testing now so that we can take pictures and plan to put those on our website.
SV: Are there any aspects of preparation or application that you find to be more tricky? What are the really important focal points for painters?
SK: The main thing is mixing. People struggle with the mixing in the beginning until they do it right. There’s full instructions on the package, but we still see that many people don’t follow the directions. You really need to put the water in the cup first, then add your paint. Otherwise it just clumps on the bottom. And you need to really mix it for a good two, three minutes. The second issue is with not using the extra-bond additive on the specific non-porous surfaces that require it. You add it to your already-mixed paint. It keeps the paint from chipping off. If the surface has been painted before or has a finish on it, you need the extra-bond additive but many people ignore this. They paint their glossy Ikea cabinets and wonder why there’s no paint left on them! Those are the two biggest things: it’s mixing and then just being familiar with the extra-bond products. We don’t want to see you end up with all of your paint on the floor. We have written tutorials with pictures.
SV: What do you most enjoy seeing coated with your paint?
SK: For me personally, it’s the furniture. That’s what I do. And that’s what I started out with. And now that we’ve bought Old Fashioned, the manufacturer, people send us pictures of their interior walls that they painted, which is really cool. When we finish our basement, we’re going to use milk paint for our whole basement. The look is really cool. It’s “old world” and different from your traditional, latex-painted house. We get a lot of pictures from houses back East. I love seeing the interiors they paint. They are so much different than what we have here. When I’m back East, I’m constantly taking pictures of every single little house with all the cool architectural details. But the furniture is what got me started.
Sterling could not avoid being an old house owner. Born in Salt Lake City to a pair of ambitious home renovators and architects, he grew up visiting his grandparents’ 1886 Queen Anne Victorian in industrial New Britain, CT and family colonial houses in historic Litchfield and Madison, CT. He currently lives in an evolving 1750’s Federal Colonial in Cumberland, RI with his wife and two children. He still cuts his own grass, tends an herb garden,hand-glazes his own windows, does the family cooking, and loves vintage cars. Favorite House Restoration: c. 1750 Farmhouse