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DIY Vintage Mantel

I’m all about re-purposing. For several months I was on the hunt for a vintage mantel, ideally one that wasn’t too fancy (no dental molding please), and was the right size for our master bedroom. You see the master bedroom is the only “new” room in the house, so it felt like it needed some character and a focal point.

We added shiplap to this wall, and the sconces with the intention of adding a mantel down the road

During the whole house renovation, the master bedroom was part of the addition, delivering a fourth bedroom and master bath. In my original plan, I had sketched in a fireplace, but we already have 2 fireplaces in the house, and I realized a) it probably wouldn’t get much use and b) they tend to throw a lot of heat, and I like sleeping in a cold room (it’s an endless debate here as to what is a comfortable sleeping temp – Ha!).

What we did like, was the idea of creating a mantel that would look like an old fireplace that had been closed up. Ideally we would find a vintage mantel to add some character and make the room feel less “new” and more like it was always part of the house. This was my general inspiration.

The inspiration: A vintage mantel closed up with brick.

The challenge was finding something that wasn’t too large, since the room isn’t huge. I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I set up a few searches on Ebay and Facebook Marketplace.

Eventually I found the perfect one! It was even from a house built around the same time! Ours was built in 1835, and this mantel was from a house built in 1840. SCORE! The downside was it had a lot of paint which meant there were probably several layers of lead paint.

Vintage mantel from a house built in 1840.
I love the detailed carvings

Step 1: Removing The Lead Paint

My neighbor recommended a stripper (there’s a phrase you don’t hear everyday 😆) that not only removes the lead paint, but by some magical chemical reaction removes the lead. I’ve used liquid strippers before, and decided to give this a try. NOTE: If are stripping any furniture piece down to the wood, I recommend having it professionally stripped. To completely remove every bit, especially on something with carved wood is VERY time consuming. Since I was planning to paint the mantel, I figured, save a few dollars and strip off as much as I could.

Remember, safety first. While this stripper had a very low odor, I still used a mask when applying as well as gloves. It’s also important to use a drop cloth you can toss since once you begin scraping, you’ll have globs of stripper and the encapsulated old paint.

I applied the stripper with a cheap paint brush and left it overnight. When I returned, a LOT of the paint had dissolved and came off very easily with light scraping. The wood looked to be pine which means it’s a softer wood, and since it was over 180 years old, I used a plastic scraper so as not to damage it. I discovered there were several layers, black, white, yellow and olive green. While it didn’t completely remove all of the paint on the first round, it was enough for the purpose of re-painting.

Lead Out delivered on its promise of rendering the paint “Leadless”, proven by using an at-home lead test kit. I tested a small sample of the paint that was scraped and there was no evidence of lead.

If there was still lead on the surface the tip would be pink.

While there still remained a fair amount of paint, the surface was now much safer and easier to sand. Once again though, safety first. I kept the mantel on the drop cloth so that any dust from sanding could be contained. And once again, wore a mask. Hand sanding was best since again, I wanted it smooth enough to paint but didn’t want to go too hard on the wood.

Step 2: The Brick

I wanted the fireplace opening to look as though it had been bricked up. We headed to Home Depot and purchased one sheet of the faux brick paneling. The sheet was quite long, so we had Home Depot cut it down for us so it would fit in the car. I was surprised how good it looked!

Wallboard from Home Depot

Step 3: German Smear

The German Smear is a mortar wash technique. Instead of paint, you smear mortar mixed with cement over the brick to white it out. Unlike paint or lime, mortar does not penetrate the brick but instead covers it and creates texture. Instead of mortar, I went a simpler route which is to purchase pre-mixed joint compound. Using a trowel or paint scraper, you smear the compound over the brick. In my case, I made sure to fill the space between the bricks so the mortar would appear white.

All Purpose Joint Compound – Pre-mixed

Next, it’s a matter of taste. You can go for a full whitewash effect or allow sections of the brick to show through. I first ran the trowel over the surface to remove any thicker areas. Then, using a large wet sponge, I began removing the compound in some areas to allow some of the red to show. Note the joint compound when dry will look lighter, so any product still on the brick will look more whitewashed.

Wallboard after removing some of the compound.

Step 4: Paint

In a previous post, I talked about how much I loved the Benjamin Moore paint for cabinets. Since I had some left, I used it for the mantel. The soft satin finish was perfect for this old piece.

One coat of primer and 2 two coats of cabinet paint

Step 5: Install!

For the mantel install, we removed one section of the base molding on the wall so the mantel would be flush on the wall. The wallboard was first attached to the back of the mantel – we cut out a section of the wood so the wallboard would sit flush with the back of the mantel.

Note we cut a hole to keep the outlet there, just in case I ever want to put anything in front of it that needs power.

Voila! I love the character this piece adds to the room. To me it looks like an old fireplace that was bricked up. It’s possible to achieve the same effect if you wanted to assemble your own mantel. That was my Plan B until I found this piece. Do I regret not putting in that fireplace during construction? Nope! We have two beautiful fireplaces on the main floor, and with a few hours of sweat and sanding, I got the look I love without the hassle.

Source Guide

Brick Wallboard

Joint Compound

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