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How to Finish a Wood Mantel

Chris Deziel

The fireplace is the focus of the living room and the mantel one of the most prominent features, so the way you finish the mantel strongly influences the decor theme in that part of your house. Whether it's an older one you're refinishing or a brand new mantel you're finishing for the first time -- and whether you paint or stain it -- the key to doing a bang-up job starts with the preparation.

Stripping an Existing Mantel

Whether painted or stained and varnished, the mantel always attracts attention.

It's easier to strip a painted mantel if you take it down, but that may require digging out some plugs so you can get to the screws, and it isn't always necessary. You'll probably need a strong methylene chloride stripper -- orange oil- or soy-based products won't be strong enough -- so cover the floor and mask off the walls if you leave the mantel in place, and wear protective clothing and a respirator. Use a pull-scraper to get paint out of crevices, and be prepared to rub some areas with fine steel wool to get paint out. Finish by wiping off the residue with water to neutralize it.

Sanding the Wood

Most mantels have molding and carved features that make sanding with an orbital sander challenging, but if you must use a machine, the best choice is an orbital sander with a triangular base that reaches into small areas. It's best to do most of the sanding by hand, though, rubbing with the grain of the wood. If the mantel is new, it probably needs only a light sanding, but if you're preparing a previously painted mantel for stain, sanding may be a chore. Use a rotary tool with a sanding drum attachment to help clear paint residue from corners and edges that are hard to reach.

Staining and Sealing the Wood

If you removed the mantel, you need to affix it to the wall before you finish it, so you can repair dents with wood filler and cover screw holes with plugs. If you plan to use a clear finish, stain the wood before you seal it -- gel stains are easy to use and provide even coverage without drips; just wipe the stain on with a rag and wipe off the excess. Use a stain-blocking primer if you plan to paint, and a sanding sealer before clear finishing. Primers and sealers seal the wood grain, and they also raise the grain and require scuff-sanding with 220-grit sandpaper before the application of paint or finish.

Applying the Finish

Whether you're painting clear polyurethane or latex enamel, a good finish depends on long, straight brushstrokes. Always brush toward the wet edge of the previous stroke to allow the strokes to merge and disappear. Dab a little finish into the top corners of the uprights to start, and then use upward strokes to cover them. Finish off by doing the top of the mantel. Go over each side of the mantel with light strokes to even the paint or varnish and remove drips. You'll need at least two coats to get the best results -- three may be better.