The problem was the paint. I really didn't want to use toxic paint, not only because I don't want to be exposed to the volatile organic compounds (VOC's) that are so deadly, but also because I didn't want anything toxic to be brought to where all of our food comes from.
Non-toxic paint seems to be worth its' weight in gold, especially because the "local" corporate hardware stores don't supply it, and the shipping is very expensive. The next option was to get "Zero-VOC" paint from Home Despot and hope it wasn't too toxic (none of the employees could give me any information on the toxicity of the paint other than provide advertisements that flaunted the Zero-VOC label). All the major brands seem to offer a no-VOC version, so it wasn't a special kind or anything.
We got one gallon of the cheapest brand of the exterior paint, in white, because adding color adds VOC's like crazy. It didn't need a primer, but required two coats. One gallon, for more than $20, barely covered the trim, and we realized the real cost of painting it all.
So this was where we started looking into some DIY options. Milk paint was tempting, but we don't have any milk right now, and we didn't like the idea of spending money on someone else's skim milk. A Swedish oil paint recipe caught my eye, and we crunched the numbers and realized how much cheaper it would be - one coat, nearly all ingredients (except for pigment and zinc sulfate/ferrous sulfate) to be obtained locally and not shipped, the long life span of the paint even under harsh conditions. The catch was that it had to be on a vertical surface of bare wood, and can't cover previously painted surfaces. This was exactly what we needed to paint, so we got everything together and looked through all the pigments to find the least expensive one, which turned out to be brown ochre.
Making paint was amazing. You start with a big, boiling pot of water and as you add the other ingredients, it becomes more and more like paint. The brown ochre, rather than becoming more pale and mild as we had expected, took on the dark lustre of a chestnut. It painted on beautifully. The one recipe covered the entire outside of the barn, with a gallon or so left over.
The color was far too dark for the inside, however. We decided to try whitewash for the inside, which was historically used in barns, kitchens and dairies.
Lime, salt, and water are all that are needed for whitewash. It doesn't last as long as regular paint, and has to be redone every so often. Still, one 50-lb bag of masonry lime cost us $11 and we used only a small fraction of it. Unlike regular paint, which will mold and mildew unless it has very toxic things added to it, whitewash is naturally anti-microbial. When you wash the brushes and paint-dishes off, it sweetens and mineralizes the soil instead of poisoning it.
It was a challenge to actually find the right kind of lime, the "local" corporate hardware stores having a clever trick devised where it is listed on their websites, but it is kept perpetually unavailable (perhaps it would compete with their deplorable paint choices?). In the end we had to drive outside of town to a family-owned hardware store to find it.
It was easy to mix up, but there was some anxiety when it was finally brushed on. It didn't cover very well. It looked transparent and was barely white at all. I thought perhaps successive coats were necessary, but once I turned my back and it started to cure it turned a uniform bright white. It was like a pot boiling. I couldn't detect the change if I watched it (yes, I was watching paint dry).
|Whitewash, still curing. It became much more white and uniform.|
The character of the wood was preserved, however, as you can still see knots, or the distinctive swirls of the grain. The lime releases oxygen as it cures, and the barn felt so airy and light and clean. It was such a different experience than the freshly-painted part that was the regular paint, which was also white, but could certainly not be called "fresh" or "airy".