As you know, in our neck of the woods of Woodinville, we don’t like to let a job sit. When we first saw our house only ten and a half years ago, one of the first things I noticed (and HATED) inside was the thick, shiny finish on the mantel. (Also all the bathrooms, but that’s another post.) I mean, you spotted it from across the room! I have no idea what the finish was, but it looked like the board had been dipped in plastic. You know, like the weird finish on cheap restaurant bars. So many evenings when we sat by the fire I thought “I have GOT to strip that mantel.” What kept stopping me, however, was that our first house was a 1920’s Spanish bungalow in California, and it had never really been properly maintained since it was built. So, when we bought it, almost every wood surface needed stripping. Doors had their brass and glass door knobs painted over, almost all of the double hung windows were painted shut, they had simply repainted over and over for sixty years and frankly we had had our fill of stripping wood for a lifetime. Even 25 years later we could still smell the stripper and feel it burn our hands right through the rubber gloves. Mr. WoW didn’t hate the finish as much as I did, plus he was pretty sure it was going to be a really ugly job, so he was all for leaving it alone. But I just couldn’t. It is a really cool piece of wood that wasn’t planed on the outer edge but was left raw, you could see where the bugs had left trails under the bark, and I was certain it could be really pretty in a more natural state. So finally, after only a decade, I took advantage of a rainy day to leave the garden and to finally start on the mantel.
I should have listened to Mr. WoW. (But please don’t tell him. Those sorts of things go right to his head!) I emptied the mantel, taped off the wall and stonework, and got to work. I bought the guaranteed-not-to-allow-bleed-through rubber gloves (I live in hope!), and a very attractive helmet to keep spatter from my eyes. Since I was an old pro at this, I figured it might take 2-3 coats of stripper to make it work but hey, it would totally be worth it. I applied the first coat, left it to sit the prescribed time, and came back with my scraper. It didn’t seem like it was bubbling up as I recalled, but I just figured that they had changed the stripper over the years and went to scrape off the ugly finish. Man, I can’t think the last time I was so unpleasantly surprised! (Unless it was this morning, when I heard the dog throwing up. In the house.) It hadn’t seemed to budge the finish at all! By pressing super hard, I could get it to kind-of peel off in very thin layers, like old sticky tape, shriveled and sere like my heart was becoming. A second coat produced about the exact same results. I had TWO spots about the size of a quarter (on a six foot mantel) that appeared to show bare wood. All the rest was still filmy and plasticky. So, I went back to the hardware store and asked if they had anything stronger. I bought another can of stripper, this time for paint and epoxy, and the guy suggested using steel wool to get in the crevices, etc. It didn’t remove the finish as well as the scraper did, but it did budge it a little extra after I had scraped it down and then used it to sand a little extra off before the next coat.
Each coat took a couple of passes with the scraper, and then a robust sanding with the steel wool. I wouldn’t ask me to arm wrestle right now. You might be embarrassed with the outcome! After NINE COATS of stripper over a couple of days, I finally got down to bare wood. Success! Then I needed to scrub the wood clean with mineral spirits. The spirits left the wood dark and just a little shiny, and it looked really good. It finally felt like the hours spent were going to be worth it! By now the gloves were starting to let a little of the chemicals through, so it was just as well I was done. Then I sanded with a coarse sanding block followed by a fine block. The wood color was pretty but just a little light, and the wood looked very dry. I couldn’t decide whether to put another finish on the wood (like Minwax Poly or something), but after all that hard work I just couldn’t see putting something permanent back on so I decided to use a furniture wax. Only decorative items sit up there so it doesn’t really need the protection that say a coffee table might need.
I used Maison Blanche furniture wax with a light antique stain. I probably could have used the dark stain, but I figured it’s easier to go darker later than to try to lighten it if it went on too dark. I gave it two coats, allowing it to dry and then buffed it between them. Part of me wonders if it could use just a little bit more shine, but it may be just the stark difference from the before and after finish, so I’m going to live with it for awhile and see what I think in a month. Of course, I know that once I’ve “finished” a job, I’ll never go back to do it differently. That mantel will look like this when we move, but at least I have that OPTION if it really bugs me down the line.
I LOVE how it turned out. You can see the knots and the splits and the color differences so well. The wood feels smooth and silky, not like laminate, and I think it works so well with the rough stones used on the fireplace. Even Mr. WoW thinks it’s a huge improvement. We use this room the most of all the rooms in the whole house, and I feel so happy when I look up and see the mantel now. Sadly our warm spring has turned cold and we are back in front of the fireplace again. Sigh. I’ve tried restyling the mantel, but I really think that I need a larger painting up there. What do you think?
But I LOVE the one that’s up there. I think it’s very pretty in its own right, very French countryside with all the colors I love, but I especially like it because it reminds me of a painting my parents had in our cabin when I was a little girl. It was of a man raking leaves for burning in what looked like the east coast or mid-west – I’m assuming I thought that because the idea of burning leaves was so completely foreign to my California experience – as was the idea of trees dropping their leaves in fall. That painting came with the cabin, and stayed there when they sold it, and was probably purchased with green stamps or some such thing, but I have such fond memories of going to the cabin and playing in the woods there that this painting always makes me smile. Also, talking about that painting has reminded me that I still want a cabin. Anyway, for now the painting stays where it is.
That’s a project I worked on during the recent rains. It really was very satisfying to check another job off of the list. What have you been up to that’s been nagging at you to finish?
p.s. After I told my folks about the painting, my star of a mom remembered the name of the painter! Robert Wood, an English painter who moved to the United States and became very well-known for his reproductions, which may have numbered in the millions! Here’s the painting, surprisingly like I remembered it. That may have been a long time ago since I saw it last. We don’t need to count the years.