DIY Fireplace Makeover: How To Strip & Stain Fireplace Mantel Before & After

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Welcome to part two in my “DIY Painted Brick Fireplace Makeover On A Budget” series! Today we will be tackling the fireplace mantel. We had a pretty big learning curve on stripping and restaining the fireplace mantel. Which sucked for us, but is great for you because you can learn from our mistakes! This post is a bit chatty, but it's so you don't make the same mistakes we did. Because let me tell you, once you've wire brushed and scrubbed brick for a week straight, you may feel a little delirious and make some bad choices when remodeling your fireplace mantel like I did! 

Here's the full video with BTS looks at this before and after tutorial on how to strip and restain your fireplace mantel:

I'll link all of the products in this tutorial so you can shop them. Some links may be affiliate links. 

So let's get into the mistakes mistake when stripping your fireplace mantel:

Mistake #1 when stripping your fireplace mantel: Don't use the right wood stripping agent

Our fireplace mantel was grey with a white wash finish. I wholeheartedly thought the mantel had been painted grey, and then someone took some white paint and just brushed it over. Never in a million years would I have guessed that someone had stained our fireplace mantel that dark.

Well, let's just say, we did two sessions of stripping the mantel with Citristrip and we still had to go back to the store to get another type of stripping agent to strip it again. I do want to note: we loved Citristrip. It went on easy, didn't have any bad off gassing, worked quick, and I do believe it would've pulled off well if it was just a paint job. 

However, since it was stained we had to use Multi-Strip. This was a pain to coat the mantel with, had horrible off gassing (so bad that we had to leave the house for the entire day), and took HOURS to work. 

Mistake #2 when stripping your fireplace mantel: You prime it.

Maybe I was delirious or just overly excited once we actually started priming the brick… but I got a little roller happy (it's a thing) and ended up priming our mantel… after we'd already stripped it. I had gone down a google rabbit hole and read about people priming their wood and got confused and did it. Now, I'm sure there is a right way to prime your wood, but it definitely wasn't with our brick primer and it definitely wasn't a necessary step for us.

From what I read, conditioning the wood to “open it up” can be helpful when applying stain. Some people suggest wood conditioners, others just said use water. Ultimately I had decided to skip doing anything (more on that below).

How to stain the fireplace mantel: 

As if this mantel wasn't the bane of my existence already (remember, we stripped it FOUR times already!!); I had a total meltdown when it came time to stain. Over the years, I had heard SO many people tell me how challenging staining is. “Staining is a fine skill that takes years to perfect.” People had gotten in my head and even my normally adventurous “let's DIY and figure this out!” mentality was cracking at this point.

We had originally gotten Minwax Hornbeam. I cracked it open, did a small test area as the experts had recommended, but I felt TOTALLY uncomfortable. The color didn't look quite right, it was very drippy, and I swore, I would never strip this mantel ever again.

Calling in a professional…who we didn't use but got some good insight:

So I reached out to the woodworker who had done a few custom furniture pieces for the previous owners of our house that we loved. We had chatted about what I wanted and she asked if I had a gel stain. A WHAT? *does quick Google search*

No, I do not have a gel stain. She suggested we use one for the project and tried to match the color. Long story short, things didn't end up working out with her (other deadlines, hurricane, etc.). 

But with this knowledge of gel stains, I felt a renewed energy and excitement for the project: I can totally do this! I'm going to figure this out!!

Quick note on gel stains (not an expert):

Gel stains are not what you think of when you hear “stain.” They are thick, almost putty or pudding like. People like them particularly for vertical surfaces since they hold better and don't really drip like a traditional stain. Since we had no idea how to take the mantel down, it meant we'd be staining vertically and on the underside. A gel stain was the exact solution to make me feel comfortable after my drippy experience. 

How to prepare wood for a gel stain…

I read a bunch of stuff. Most said to skip the wood conditioner. Some said to use denatured alcohol to wipe the surface. I decided to just go for it without doing anything more (see above). Generally it didn't seem like wood needed a ton of prep for gel stains. 

Tools for applying a gel wood stain:

Somewhere along the way, it was recommended to us to use a high density foam roller for applying the gel stain. I read that gel stains aren't really great with old t-shirts since the stain just gets pushed around and it's kind of sticky, rather than absorbing. We decided to go with the foam roller. As a side note: I did test a cotton towel with the gel stain and it didn't work well; so stick with the foam roller!

Queue the great gel stain color debacle:

Gel stains come in far fewer and less customizable colors. I had a very specific vision of our fireplace. I wanted it to be warm like honey, but didn't want it to look cheap like the kind of yellowish finish an elementary school desk has. 

Anyway, ultimately I decided to go with antique maple. I knew it was more orangey, but our raw wood was fairly yellow and thought they'd balance each other out while avoiding looking like a cheap elementary school desk and assumed I could always sand it later…

Mistake #4 when redoing a fireplace mantel: Not doing a test area with your stain

I panicked once it went on. And well, if you know anything about me through this post, it's that I get ROLLER HAPPY. Once I start going, it's hard for me to stop. So yes, a normal person with self control would've done a test area, realized it wasn't quite the color they wanted, and stopped.

But not I. I rolled that entire top part of the mantel. My concern here was that if I only did a test area, and it dried and lightened, it'd be impossible to match or get cohesive. Don't worry about that! Do the small test area, make sure you like it. So I did the whole thing. It looked way darker than it actually dried, but it wasn't my color. It was more of an orangey red and I wanted honey!! So – you guessed it – I made my husband strip it (I told you I would never strip this mantel again!). 

A quick note on the gel stain application:

Using the foam roller allowed me to get a thick smear on that'd I'd roll out into an even coat. This meant that there wasn't really any “excess” to wipe off. Maybe I did it wrong? Either way, I wanted the color as light as possible so this method worked for us. I did test with a towel, and it did kind of scrub off in ugly streaks and wouldn't recommend.

Ordering my next color gel stain:

I decided to order a half pint of the honey maple gel stain. It was more yellow and I prayed it'd be exactly what I was looking for (though, in my gut, I knew it probably wasn't). I ordered a small one and did a test area this time (yay for learning!). Only the stain basically didn't look like anything.

Feeling defeated with gel stains coloring…

Defeated, I sat there wondering what the heck to do. At this point, I decided to ditch the internet searches. They were all very polished tutorials and getting me nowhere other than a trip to crazy town. Instead, I followed my intuition. I mixed all of the entire half pint of honey maple with some of the antique maple until it was a nice consistency. The honey maple was much more liquidy, like a jello, whereas the antique maple was more thick and goopy like a pudding. Maybe there was something wrong with the products? Not totally sure. But by mixing the two I finally got a nice creamy gel and the color was more close to what I wanted. Mixing the two cut down on the red hue in the antique maple, and brought it more to a traditional orange. But it still wasn't my color.

Quick tip on mixing wood stain colors:

Always use a tiny amount of your darker one and test as you go. It's a lot easier to make something darker than it is to make something lighter!

Trying the traditional wood stain

On a whim, I cracked open the original Minwax Hornbeam stain (not a gel) I had gotten from Sherwin Williams. I dipped an old white t-shirt into the canister, and I wiped the mantel. And guess what?! THIS WAS IT!! THIS WAS MY COLOR!! 

Feverishly I dipped and wiped, dipped and wiped the vertical surface. And guess what? It was FAR less scary than everyone had made it out to be. I basically decided to just wipe and reapply as fast as I could and there was barely any dripping other than in the back edges and corners. The dripping was easy enough to wipe up – and since I was working from top to bottom on the fireplace anyway, I wasn't really concerned knowing I still had to finish the lower area that did get some drips.

The key differences between applying a gel stain and regular stain:

The gel stain only needs to sit for a few minutes and then you wipe off excess. If you're using a foam roller, you won't really have any excess to wipe off. After about 5 minutes, it's so tacky you can't really wipe or work the stain.

The traditional stain remains workable for 15 minutes. While it goes on darker, it soaks in and becomes significantly lighter pretty quickly.

Once I got all of the hornbeam on and it looked good. Until about 5 minutes later when it absorbed into the wood and didn't look quite right. One side was blotching, the other was a little too light. I did a second coat and the same thing happened. 

And then the moment when I fully lost my mind and became a mad scientist happened:

I mixed them all. Yep. every single stain I had in my house I mixed. 

Grabbing my foam roller, I dipped it into the gel stain mixture and rolled it on top of the hornbeam let it sit for 3 minutes or so, then grabbed my cotton t-shirt, dipped it into the hornbeam and wiped it all down again. I repeated the process of rolling a layer of the gel stain mixture over the hornbeam and then layering the t-shirt dipped in hornbeam over that a couple of times until I had my color. 

Here's why I love mixing the traditional and gel stain

I'm sure there are a ton of rules I broke in this, but the mixture of the gel and normal stain worked perfectly for what I was trying to accomplish. You see, our raw mantel wood isn't what I'd call “pretty” it has some pretty parts, but it has some discoloration and ugly knots in places that I just don't love. I wanted the stain to be thick to cover those parts, but thin enough to still see the grain. 

The gel stain cured the blotchiness that occured on one side (in the video above!), and covered the knots I didn't like. While the hornbeam made the gel a lot thinner, warmer, and more workable. The combo kept dripping at bay, and gave me more flexibility in color and length of time it remained workable. All in all, if you're nervous about staining your fireplace mantel, I'd highly recommend it!

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Metal scraper:

Microfiber cloth:

Sanding blocks:

Antique Maple gel stain:

Honey maple gel stain:

Foam roller:

Make sure to check out the rest of the posts in my DIY Painted Brick Fireplace Makeover On A Budget series!

How to paint a red brick fireplace white

How to strip and stain fireplace mantel

How To Paint Fireplace Tile With A Stencil: Mistakes To Avoid On Your DIY Fireplace Makeover