From stripping and refinishing ideas to maintenance tips, a professional restorer breaks down the process.

November 17, 2020
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Your fireplace mantel is brimming with design potential, it just takes a little maintenance. "Mantels that surround a hearth often feature unique, artistically inspired designs based on styles representative of the period in which they were created," says Michael Watkinson, owner of Shenandoah Restorations in Virginia. "In many homes, mantels are the most well-crafted and elaborately ornamented woodwork in the home."

However, over time, Watkinson says that the heat and smoke from the fireplace, along with general wear and tear, can take a major toll on your mantel. "Generally, it is the finish that is most vulnerable to damage," he explains. "Fortunately, there are several ways to remove old finishes so you can apply a fresh one." Interested in learning more about how you can restore you mantel to its original glory in time for the holidays? From stripping and refinishing ideas to maintenance tips, we asked Watkinson to share his advice and this is what he had to say.

Prep your mantel for repairs.

If a mantel is in need of a major restoration, Watkinson advises removing it from the hearth if possible. "Older mantels are attached with nails directly into a mortar joint or wooden nailing blocks wedged into the masonry," he explains. "They can sometimes be difficult to remove so if the mantel does not need major work, it is easier to do the work in place." If this is the case, he says to determine what work is required, then clear and cover the surrounding area with painter's tape and protect your furniture with plastic sheets because refinishing work can be messy.

Remove the old finish.

While some finishes can be removed with a sharp scraper or sander, Watkinson says the easiest methods involve heat, chemical strippers like Blue Bear Soy Gel Paint and Urethane Stripper ($23.99, acehardware.com), or steam. "If it is an older mantel then most likely it has several layers of paint and probably has lead somewhere in the mix," he explains. "The methods we use for removing lead paint are soy-based chemical strippers or infrared heat. The soy stripper cleans up with water and is easy to use but is messy, while infrared heat lamps heat the wood underneath the paint and gets to the bottom layers efficiently." Since lead-based paint should never be sanded, he suggests picking up a test swab at the hardware store to determine which stripping technique is best your mantel.

Prep the mantel for refinishing.

If a paint stripper was used to remove the old finish from your mantel, Watkinson says it is crucial to remove any residue of the finish with whatever solvent is recommend by the manufacturer. "Otherwise, the stripper could work from inside the wood grain to remove the new finish," he explains. And while some soy-based strippers can be cleaned with soap and water, he says others contain methylene chloride as the active ingredient, and may require acetone to clean the surface. "This kind of work requires a well-ventilated area," he says. "At this point the wood can be sanded with 120 grit sandpaper then brushed off."

Refinish.

Depending on the condition of the wood, Watkinson says most people prefer a clear finish or stain for their mantels. "However, not all wood is beautiful and stains can make the grain look weird and unnatural, so it is best to test some different finishes on inconspicuous areas of your mantel before committing to one," he says. If the wood is in good shape, Watkinson says there are several options for transparent finishes. "The most commonly used clear coat is polyurethane, which can both be oil based or water based. Regular oils, like boiled linseed oil or natural Tung oil, also look nice on wood and are easy to maintain."   

Maintenance matters.

A little maintenance can go a long way in preserving the new finish on your mantel. "The type of maintenance required for your mantel will depend on its type of finish," he says. "However, in general, cleaning your mantel periodically with soap and water should be enough—and try to avoid scratching it as much as possible."

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