Fireplace Makeover: How to Refinish a Mantel

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Well, as promised, I wanted to share some of the details of my fireplace makeover project, starting with tips for how to refinish a wood mantel! Since there are already tons of DIY articles out there on how to refinish wood written by people who know far more about it than I do, I am not going to make this a comprehensive “how to” post. However, as a relative “newbie” to DIY projects, I learned a ton from this process, so I thought I would share a few tips and words of advice from this experience. I really hope this is helpful to anyone else who is new to this type of home project!

Stripping the Mantel

The first step in the process is to remove the old finish in order to get down to the raw wood. Since my mantel was firmly affixed to the wall, I had to do the entire project inside my house, so I opted to use CitriStrip, which is supposed to be a relatively “non-toxic” chemical stripper. The directions say that you can leave the stripper on for anywhere between 30 minutes and 24 hours before scraping it off. I tested the product on a scrap piece of furniture and tried leaving it on overnight, and it actually left dark marks in the wood—almost like burn marks. So after that, I only left it on for 30 minutes before scraping it off and that did the trick. However, because it’s a less “toxic” and less aggressive stripper, it does take a few layers of it to completely remove the old finish. I ended up stripping my entire mantel two to three times using CitriStrip, working my way across the surface in multiple small sections, rather than trying to do it all at once. This is not a super quick process—it took me a total of one full day and two evenings to completely strip the mantel. After scraping off all the Citristrip, I wiped down the whole surface with mineral spirits and let it dry overnight.

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Sanding the Mantel

The next step is to sand the entire mantel. This is the point where I have to say, if there is any way possible for you to remove your mantel and do this part outside, then you will save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run. If you can’t, like in my situation, just be aware that this will make a HUGE mess in your house. Be proactive and cover up as much of your furniture as you possibly can. My dad tried to warn me about the level of dust that this would create, and I am really glad that, thanks to his advice, I did cover up as much of my living room with plastic sheets as I could. Nevertheless, the dust still went everywhere, and it took me and my husband a whole day of detail cleaning our house to even begin to get rid of it. Other than the “mess factor,” the sanding process is very straightforward. Once again, I worked slowly and thoroughly over the whole mantel in sections, beginning with 80 grit sandpaper, and then working my way up to 150 and finally 220, to produce a very smooth surface. While I did do some sanding by hand, I used an electric palm sander to do most of the work—otherwise it would have taken forever and been incredibly exhausting! As it was, it still took me an entire day of sanding for eight hours to get the mantel ready for staining. But it’s important to really take your time with this part of the process—how well the wood accepts the stain is really determined by how thoroughly and evenly the whole surface has been prepped first.

Staining the Mantel

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Finally, this is the fun (but also nerve-wracking) part! First off, I selected my stain color. I wanted the mantel to have a deep rich “espresso” finish, so that it would coordinate better with the rest of the wood tones in my living room. However, I didn’t want the stain to be too red, so I picked out this “dark walnut” stain by Varathane. Next, before you actually begin staining the wood, it’s important to make sure that all surrounding areas are covered, because the stain can easily drip or splatter when you are applying it. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that my dad helped me with this next part, since I had never tried staining anything before. I assumed it would take two coats to get a dark enough finish, so the plan was that he would do the first coat, and I would try applying the second. He applied the first coat of the stain using a foam brush working carefully across the mantel, bushing the stain on in one direction. He painted the stain on fairly liberally so that it would really soak in to the wood, and then we waited 15 minutes before he began wiping it off with a paper towel. He carefully wiped the stain up very gently, so that a lot of it remained in the wood. In fact, as it turned out, the wood soaked up so much of the stain, that we didn’t need to do a second coat! But I do feel like I learned enough from watching my dad, that I would be confident in doing it myself next time.

After letting the stain dry for 24 hours, I finished it off by applying three coats of wipe-on satin gloss polyurethane, allowing each coat to dry at least 12 hours before applying the next one. I applied each coat as thinly and evenly as possible, and I sanded very lightly with super fine steel wool between each layer.

I honestly could not be more pleased with how the mantel turned out! The dark stain shows off the natural beauty of the woodgrain and completely transformed the mantel from a dated eyesore into a stunning focal point! The entire project cost very little and took about two weeks from start to finish (keeping in mind that I work during the week, so I could only work on it in the evenings and on weekends). Next up, I’ll be sharing more about how I painted over my ugly fireplace tiles! Thanks for reading!