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Tips for Painting a Fireplace Mantel or Surround

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

An antique fireplace mantel I spray painted white.

An antique fireplace mantel I spray painted white.

DIY Fireplace Surround or Mantel Painting

Decorative fireplace mantels (also called surrounds) are usually stained and varnished, but with the paint-everything-white trend continuing, you might be wondering if it's possible to paint your wood mantel white, too.

You can prep and paint a fireplace mantel the same way you would for stained cabinets, interior trim, or doors. The preparation and painting process is a lot easier for painted mantels. Most of the fireplace mantels I've painted were made of oak, with the exception of the pine mantel featured throughout this article.

Painting Oak Mantels

Painting an oak fireplace mantel white involves a little more work than a closed-grain wood species like pine. Oak is super grainy and often requires a special filler to fill the cracks in the wood before painting. You would follow the same preparation process outlined in this article, followed by one to two coats of grain filler.

A good product I've used many times for filling oak mantels and cabinets is Aqua Coat grain filler. This product is a clear gel that you spread over the surface in thin layers before priming or in-between prime coats. I use an expired credit card to spread it. In thin layers, it sands easily and dries hard.

One of my mantel painting projects. From dark brown to the color Extra White (Sherwin Williams).

One of my mantel painting projects. From dark brown to the color Extra White (Sherwin Williams).

Preparing a Fireplace Mantel for Paint

Changing the color of a painted mantel is a fast and easy process. The only prep work needed is surface cleaning, a good scuff sanding, and your paint. Unpainted mantels take more time to paint. These are typically finished with stain and varnish, and paint alone won't stick to the surface well without sanding and priming. The first step is surface cleaning.

Cleaning Your Surround

Mantels often have candle wax, dirt, and soot on them, all of which can cause adhesion problems without cleaning the surface. The selection of paint prep cleaners can be quite confusing for someone who's never used one.

Some cleaners promise to de-gloss, remove grease, or strip off the existing finish. Many products I've tried, though, have done nothing more than leave a problematic residue on the surface that needed heavy rinsing. TSP is a good example.

I've used lots of different cleaning products for painting, but the one I use a lot is the Dirtex powder cleaner in the red and white box—not the multi-purpose spray can version, which is a different product. The powder version works great for cleaning woodwork you're painting. Dirtex doesn't leave heavy residue behind like TSP does. You should still rinse the surface with clean water.

Sanding vs. De-glosser

I'm not a fan of using chemical de-glosser as a substitute for sanding, and to be honest, I haven't found a product that dulls the surface as good as my electric sander. Nobody likes sanding, but sandpaper creates microscopic crevices in the surface of the wood that primer latches onto for a stronger bond.

Sand your mantel after cleaning, using 220-grit, or 180-grit sandpaper, with a random orbital sander for the top. The sander I use is the Makita random orbit sander. If you have other painting projects in the house, this sander is very useful for sanding cabinets, doors, and shelving too. I like using 220-grit sandpaper because it's less likely to scratch or damage the wood. You can use the same grit between coats of primer.

The purpose of sanding is to dull the varnished surface to give it some tooth, not to grind it down to the bare wood. When using an electric sander, there will be more airborne dust, even if the sander has a dust collector. You should wear a respirator and either cover your furniture with plastic, or move it out of the room.

Caulking and Patching

Gaps in between adjoined pieces and where the mantel meets the wall should be caulked with a flexible and paintable caulk. White acrylic caulk is best. Spend a couple extra dollars and buy good caulk so it lasts longer. Make sure the caulk is totally dry before priming.

Patch holes and wood damage with a quality wood filler. For large holes and surface damage, use Bondo wood filler. This stuff dries harder than concrete with minimal shrinkage. It's a two part filler that dries in minutes. I use this product for repairing cabinets and woodwork. Use a putty knife to apply the filler in a very thin layer for easier sanding.

A fully prepped mantel after I sprayed the final coat of enamel.

A fully prepped mantel after I sprayed the final coat of enamel.

Priming and Painting a Fireplace Surround

After you've sanded and prepped the surface, there will be dust everywhere. Wipe everything down with a tack cloth, or use forced air from a compressor to blow it off the surface.

My preferred method of painting mantels and cabinets is often airless spraying, but you can get beautiful results brushing and rolling too. Setting up the sprayer and the masking involved is sometimes overkill for a small mantel, but when you're painting one with lots of nooks and crannies, like my project pictures featured in this article, spraying is a big time saver. Spraying gives you a smoother finish when done right.

Brushing and Rolling Mantels

For mantel tops, cut in the rear edge where it meets the wall, using a 2 to 2 1/2-inch trim brush. I really like Purdy paint brushes, namely the XL series, but Wooster and Corona have good brushes are too. The best paint brush for mantels is one with soft bristles and angled to make cutting-in easier. Don't use a cheap brush or one that's designed more for cutting in walls. A good brush will lay off the paint smoothly without leaving heavy brush strokes in the finish.

The best paint roller nap to use on a mantel top is 1/4-inch. For a wider mantel, a six-inch or a nine-inch roller will reduce overlapping and visible roller marks in the dried paint. I really like Purdy White Dove rollers, or the Contractor Series, White Soft Woven, from Sherwin Williams. Both rollers are lint-free. When rolling, roll only in one direction, working from one side to the other. Never start rolling in the middle.

Use an Airless Sprayer

I used my Graco GX-19 Finish Pro to spray paint the pine mantel featured in this article. I use this sprayer for most of my fine finishing projects, including cabinets and trim. I use the green Graco fine finishing spray tips. You can even rent a sprayer and practice on some scrap wood before shooting your mantel.

Use the 3M hand masker to mask off the walls around the mantel with masking paper and plastic. I cover the fireplace brick very carefully with the white masking tape from Sherwin Williams and painter's plastic. White masking tape sticks to fireplace brick pretty good. Blue tape will fall off.

The Best Primer and Paint for a Fireplace Mantel

For stained and varnished wood, either oil-based primer, or white shellac primer, are the best choices. Either one creates a bleed-resistant seal and sticks well to prepped wood. If the surface has already been painted, you may or may not have to use primer. When painting over oil paint, you should definitely prime first with a latex bonding primer before applying the new paint.

The best paint to use is acrylic enamel, or oil-based enamel for durability, but the problem with oil is it dries really slow and your white paint will turn yellow over time. Benjamin Moore Advance is a popular water-based product that a lot of people like, but I've used Pro Classic acrylic enamel for over twenty years with good results, including the fireplace in the pictures. Two coats in the semi-gloss finish is very smooth and washable. The paint dries to the touch in a few hours. I recommend two coats of primer and two coats of paint, sanding in between prime coats.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What color did you use to paint the mantel?

Answer: The color is the untinted base color Extra White (Sherwin Williams).

© 2020 Matt G.


Matt G. (author) from United States on August 10, 2020:

This was a project I did a while ago. I don't have any pics from the front right now, but the pics in the article show how it looks painted white.

Christine Wedlock on August 10, 2020:

This is exactly what I'm looking to do! Do you have any before and after pictures from the front?

Matt G. (author) from United States on June 28, 2020:

I don't know. My customer hated the brown wood color and wanted it painted white. It definitely brightens up the room.

lyn francis on June 28, 2020:

did painting it white make it look less intrusive?