Milk Paint 101 - Basic Furniture Refinishing Vocabulary

Milk Paint 101 - Basic Furniture Refinishing Vocabulary

Time for another installment of Milk Paint 101, where we learn techniques, tips, and tricks on how to use milk paint to give old furniture new beauty. If you want to see the rest of my Milk Paint 101 tutorials, click here.

In this article, I’m sharing valuable info from Jenn Baker, one of the experts on staff at Miss Mustard Seed’s MilkPaint. Understanding basic terms used in furniture refinishing will go a long way in helping you find the information you need to turn your roadside find into a beautiful accent for your home. I'm always Googling terms to improve my knowledge in the furniture refinishing world. I love that Jenn pulled together a list for us! Here’s her article:


Title image with open drawer on dresser

If you’ve spent time in the world of furniture refinishing, you’ll come across the same words time and time again. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced refinisher, we thought it would be handy to come up with a list of basic furniture refinishing vocabulary.

Pin this page so you can reference it during your next project!

Prepping Vocabulary

Scuff Sand/Prep Sand - Using a medium grit sandpaper to rough up the surface of your project. The goal is to break the seal on the existing finish, NOT to remove it completely. This is a crucial step in prepping your project for a new paint finish.Hand using sandpaper to scuff sand furniture

Denatured Alcohol - This is a fabulous cleaning product that can be used to get rid of dirt, grime and other surface contaminants. Mix with equal parts water in a spray bottle. It’s not the same as Rubbing Alcohol and can be purchased in the paint aisle of your local hardware store. One advantage of using Denatured Alcohol is that it does not require rinsing after use.

Can of denatured alcohol

TSP - Trisodium Phosphate. This is a white granular chemical that can be mixed with water to create a tough-working cleaning solution. Once it’s diluted with water, TSP makes short work of stains, grease and other surface contaminants. TSP must be rinsed off the surface thoroughly before moving forward in the refinishing process.Bottle of TSP solution with scrubbing pad on table top


Bleed-Through - When stains wiggle their way through your paint, and they keep coming back no matter how many coats of paint you apply. They can take the form of red or pink splotches, tan or brown rings or yellow knots commonly found on pine wood species. For tips on how to combat bleed through, click here.Side table with arrows showing areas with bleed-through

Shellac - A resin that comes from a bug called the “lac bug” that lives in the forests of India and Thailand. It can come in dry flakes, or can be dissolved in alcohol, making liquid shellac. You can use shellac as a finish on wood, to create a crackle finish (learn how here) or to prevent bleed-through. Shellac has a very strong odor and it ambers over time and does not dry clear. It’s best you don’t use it over white paint. (UNDER white paint is fine though!)

Shellac being brushed onto table top

Primer - A product that is specially designed to provide adhesion and/or stain-blocking properties. They can be clear, bright white or tinted to a light shade of gray. They can also be water-based, shellac-based or oil-based. Primers should always be applied in 2 coats - the first draws out stains and the second covers them over. They can be sprayed on or brushed on your project.

Can of BIN Primer

Bondo® - Bondo® is a brand that manufactures all-purpose putty and wood filler. It’s an excellent product to use if you need to make repairs on your project. It fills in holes, gauges and sections of missing wood veneer. It has a strong odor, so make sure you use it in a ventilated area. Bondo® dries quickly and rock hard, making it an ideal product to have in your workshop.Bondo used to repair damaged wood

Wood Putty - A dense putty that is used to repair damaged wood. It doesn’t dry hard, allowing it to flex with the natural expansion and contraction of wood surfaces. Use it to cover nail holes, small imperfections and joint mis-matches. Wood putty is different than wood filler in that wood filler dries hard and is made from actual wood fibers. It’s used to maintain the integrity of the wood and usually comes in one color. Wood putty comes in many different colors so you can match it to the species of your project.

Furniture Construction

MDF vs. Particleboard vs. Plywood - MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard. It’s smooth and is made from wood grains that are all the same size. Particle-board does NOT have a smooth surface because it’s made from wood shavings and chips. MDF is much denser than particle-board, so it’s much heavier. Plywood is made from thin layers of wood veneer that are glued together.

Several sheets of plywood


Particle board being cut with power saw


Dovetail - A type of joint that looks like interlocking teeth. Dovetail joints are one of the strongest joints in furniture construction, and can be hand-cut or machine-cut.

Side of drawer with hand-cut dovetail joint

Hand-cut Dovetail Joint

Side of drawer with machine-cut dovetail joint

Machine-Cut Dovetail

Wood Veneer - Paper-thin sheets of real wood that are glued or laminated onto lesser quality wood to simulate the look of fine furniture. Wood veneer is usually made from expensive decorative wood, like mahogany, and is placed over less attractive wood, like tulip poplar. Veneer can sometimes be missing or damaged on antique furniture, but it can easily be repaired with Bondo® or wood putty.

Removing damaged veneer with a heat gun and scraperRemoving Damaged Wood Veneer With A Heat Gun

Missing wood veneer on a depression era dresser

Missing Wood Veneer On A Depression Era Dresser

Cove-And-Pin - A type of joint that looked like scallops with a dowel in the middle. The dowel is the “pin”, and the scallop is the “cove”. This joint was used from 1870 - 1900, and is also referred to as a “Knapp Joint” after it’s creator, Charles Knapp.Side of drawer with cove and pin joint

Mortise-And-Tenon - A type of joint that fits a protruding piece of wood (the tenon) into a corresponding slot (the mortise). You’ll find these joints on the body of dressers, buffets and washstands. This joint has been used for thousands of years because of its strength. Here are examples of side panels on washstands that were attached to the supporting corner pieces using mortise-and-tenon joints.Side of dresser with mortise and tenon joints

Washstand with mortise and tenon joints

Furniture Painting Techniques

Distressing - The act of removing paint from a surface to simulate age and wear. It can be done with sandpaper or by using a rag to rub the paint away while it’s wet.Hand using sandpaper to distress table edges

Resist - A resist is anything that causes paint to resist adhering to the surface. As a decorative technique, this involves applying a product such as our MilkWax™ - Clear or MilkWax™ - ECO to the surface, then painting over it. Once the paint dries, the paint on areas where the resist product was applied will fall away, revealing the surface beneath. This is a fabulous technique to simulate the “chippy” look on raw wood (click here to learn how) or to create multiple of layers of paint.MilkWax loaded onto a brush to create a resistMilkWax applied to various places on wood to create a resistPaint be applied over wood with spots of MilkWax for resistLight scuffing with sandpaper to reveal the resist

Whitewash/Limewash - Applying white wax or white paint over top of raw wood or a different color of MilkPaint™ to make it appear as if it’s whitewashed. You can also do this with any color (aside from white) and do a color wash. Usually the washing color is mixed thin, allowing it to be a bit translucent. Click on the image below to read how this red brick wall was whitewashed using MilkPaint™.

 Applying whitewash paint to brickWhitewashing A Brick Wall

Antiquing - When you antique a finish, you apply a dark tinted topcoat or paint over your project. Typically this is done in a brown, black or burnt umber color. Our MilkWax™ - Antiquing is a great product choice to achieve this look!Applying antiquing wax to painted wood

Wiping away excess furniture wax

After applying antiquing wax to painted furniture

Chipping/Chippy Paint - Chipping paint is essentially a look you get when your paint fails to adhere to the surface. It falls off in patches (which can be big or small), creating a chipped paint effect. This can happen naturally on your project, or you can force it by using a resist.

Wash stand with chippy paint finish


Opaque - Unable to be seen through i.e. full coverage.

Translucent - Watered down and able to be seen through. Color washes are translucent.

Topcoat - A product you apply on your project to protect it from wear and tear. The topcoat goes on last and come in the form of a wax, oil, lacquer, varnish or polyurethane.Brush applying MilkOil to painted furniture

Poly (Polyurethane) - Poly’s are plastic in liquid form. They range in sheen from flat to gloss and can be oil or water-based. Our MilkCoat™ is a water-based poly that’s easy to use, quick to dry and comes in a variety of sheens.Brush applying poly to painted furniture

I hope this list of commonly used words will help you in your furniture painting journey.

Do you have any suggestions of words we should add? Write them in the comment section!

A note from Nancy:

What great info from Jenn at Miss Mustard Seed's MilkPaint! Many of the products mentioned in the article are available for purchase right here on my website. Just click "SHOP" at the top of this page.

Was this post helpful? Please feel free to leave a comment below or message me with any questions. If I don't know the answer, I'll talk to the experts and get you the info you need.

Send pics! I’m always happy to see what you’re working on or planning to work on.

Happy Painting!


Furniture RepairWood PuttyShellacTopcoatsChippy PaintResistWhitewashBrick WallVocabularyMiss Mustard Seed's Milk PaintMilkPaint™Milk PaintMMSMPMMS Milk PaintPowdered PaintNon ToxicEco Friendly PaintEnvironmentally Friendly PaintBiodegradable PaintCompostable PaintFood Contact Safe


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