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How to Restore Old Milk Cans

The charm of antique milk cans makes them appealing collectibles, but their age and original use means your "find" will probably be pretty beat-up -- maybe even rusty. It's not so tough to restore an old can -- you'll want some signs of wear to show, and you may even want to distress your new finish to "age" the can. Just do some basic cleanup, and then give your prize a highly visible new home.

The Deal About Rust

Really old milk cans were made of galvanized tin. From the 1879s through the early part of the 20th century, tin milk cans with plug -- depressions and handles -- or umbrella -- flat -- covers were delivered by cart, or later by rail or truck. Stainless steel cans weren't made until post-World War II, when milk was shipped in cans submersed in ice water to prevent spoilage. A tin or steel can will probably have patches or a film of rust on it, but you're not contemplating days of laborious sanding. Sand off the worst patches of rust and remove peeling or chipping paint. Wipe down the can, inside and out, to remove any rust or dirt; a very dirty can will need sponging or scrubbing with soapy water, rinsing and drying. Then coat the can with a rust-destroying metal primer that seals the surface and creates good "grip" for a decorative paint job.

Tables and Chairs

A milk can with an umbrella top makes a terrific end table or stool. The flat top is strong enough to support some weight because shipping cans were made to be tough enough to survive years of rough handling. For a contemporary setting, prep the old can with a base coat of rust-inhibiting metal primer. Once it dries, spray or paint the can with a solid-color glossy enamel. Black is both sharp and chic; a bright red, yellow or orange adds a boost of brightness to a dark corner; a muted tone or a neutral blends into spare decor wit natural colors and materials.

Rustic, eclectic or primitive decor absorbs a funky recreation of a weathered milk can after you faux-distress it:

Prime the can and brush on a rough coat of dull oil-rubbed bronze paint.

When the dark paint is dry, decorate the can with low-adhesive old-fashioned type stick-on letters to spell out the name of a dairy. Find a real historical dairy name online, make up one for your town, or use your family name.

Paint over the letters and the dark bronze with muted rusty orange, pea green or gray-blue. Use a dry-brush technique with very little paint in some places. Thin the color slightly and "miss" large areas and sections around welding or the rim so it appears that the paint is worn away.

Before the top color dries, wipe away some of it with a rag to simulate further wear. Then peel off the letters to reveal the name in the darker paint.

Ye Olde Umbrella Stand

That a milk can umbrella stand is something of a cliche does nothing to diminish its rustic charm. Go ahead and park it in your entry, but first restore some individual character and identity to your useful and decorative container.

Paint the primed can with solid-color latex in an "historic" color -- milky soft turquoise, creamy yellow, barn red and forest green will look like really old paint.

Cover the latex with white chalk paint -- just one coat, lightly applied. Rub the dried chalk paint in spots with a wet paper towel to wear away some of the paint and reveal the color underneath.

Create a dairy logo in a period font and print it -- add a milk cow for a picturesque touch. Tape the printed logo and any art over a piece of carbon paper on the can, and burnish the design onto the can. After you remove the paper, hand-paint the stenciled artwork in a dark, contrasting color.

Rub the design with sandpaper to distress it once it's dry and clear-coat the entire umbrella stand with protective polyurethane.


A plastic plant saucer liner, available in garden supply stores, slipped inside the open can, catches wet umbrella drips so water doesn't sit in the bottom of the milk can.

from around the civil war to ww2 most milk cans were made from galvinized tin. stainlee steel was invented in 1908. in the 20's an 30's there were a cpl. companies producing ss milk cans, but there pretty rare now. after ww2 with the exempion of a few aluminum cans all milk cans were made of stainless steel. the reason for this was the cans were submersed in cold water to keep the milk or cream fresh longer in the late 40's to early 60's. regular steel would not hold up as well under those conditions. therefore nearly any milk can after 1945 was ss. what you have there is a ss milk can with surface rust. they can be cleaned up and restored provided the rust hasnt eaten thru. stainless steel contains chromiam and carbon mixed thru out the steel, not just the surface. there are several products on the market to remove the rust, and a little elbow grease may restore it to reasonable shape. hope that helps. by the way i have several milk cans and i use one for a boiler on my still, i like them

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