How to Finish a Wood Mantel Shelf

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What You'll Need
Fine and medium grit sandpaper
Wood stain
Clean brushes
Clean rags
Latex gloves
Wood putty
Putty knife
Safety mask
Clear protective varnish/lacquer

A wood mantel shelf is ideal to cap your fireplace mantel, adorning it with a decorative fixture, as well as providing a practical space for candelabras, books, photographs, or other keepsakes. Once you choose the style of mantel shelf you wish to install, it needs to be finished to both protect the wood from overexposure to air and moisture, as well as to decorate it. Opting for paint is one way to coat and adorn it. Depending on the decor of the room and the mantel itself, staining it may be a better choice of finishes. Natural wood stain comes in numerous colors, shades, and types. Glazing is another option: the process of combining stain or paint with a solvent to create a rustic look. Ultimately, though, how you finish the mantel shelf is a matter of personal taste and style coordination.

Step 1 - Inspect and Fill in Blemishes

Look over the wood mantel shelf thoroughly and keep an eye out for any inconsistencies or blemishes. Any cracks, gaps, or holes in the shelf need to be filled in with wood putty. Put a small amount on the putty knife and scrape it over the holes or gaps, working it in first with the knife. Use your finger to smooth out the fill-in.

Step 2 - Sand

Especially at the places where you applied putty, sand the shelf with medium-grit sandpaper, and then with a fine-grit sandpaper. Make sure all the edges are smooth and that there are no splinters or rough patches. Where you applied putty, sand those areas until you can feel little difference between the wood and the putty.

Step 3 - Wipe Down

With a clean, lint-free rag, wipe the entire shelf down to get all dust and debris off before you stain it. Anything left on will end up disrupting the application of the stain.

Step 4 - Stain

Because there are so many types of stain, it is hard to account for the differences in application instructions. There are, however, some general application guidelines. You should always go with the grain when applying stain, whether by brush, sponge, or rag. Any runs in the stain wipe away immediately. Hold a clean rag in one hand. As you apply stain with a brush or sponge, use the rag to rub it into the wood. Penetrate the wood grain thoroughly. Depending on the type of stain, brand, and how dark you want the shelf, you may have to apply more than one coat.

Step 5 - Finish

On top of the stain you will apply a clear finish that will seal and protect the wood from corrosion. Because it’s near the fireplace, you should choose a finish that can withstand higher temperatures. It may not get that hot, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Apply the clear coat with a clean brush in even strokes. Again, you do not want to end up with any runs. Ideally, no evidence of the finish will be visible. A sponge may work better to achieve the right effect.

After staining your wood mantel shelf you will finish it with a clear protective coating. It helps to have the room ventilated, as the finish can be quite pungent. Before applying either a second coat of stain or the finish, let the entire shelf dry thoroughly.