Updated: Nov 23
A go-to guide with everything you need to know about how to paint a fireplace mantlepiece
Knowing how to paint a fireplace mantlepiece is handy; it’s a simple but impactful DIY project that can be completed in a day or two and has the power to transform a room. Fireplaces are often the focal point of a room and a fresh coat of paint in a stylish shade can completely change the look and feel of the space.
Repainting a wooden mantlepiece is straightforward and with a bit of care and attention, even a novice DIYer can achieve a great finish. As with most painting projects, there are pitfalls you’ll want to avoid, and the key to success is in the preparation stages. Here are my top tips for how to paint a fireplace mantlepiece.
Preparing to paint a fireplace mantel
I feel like I say this a lot (and not just about how to paint a fireplace but about how to paint anything, really), but the quality of your finished paint job is a culmination of the following factors, the smoothness of the surface you paint it on to, the tools and materials you use and the quality of the application process. The first point is arguably the most important because It doesn't matter how posh your paint and brush are - if you’re slapping paint onto a crappy, uneven surface, you can’t expect a flawless finish. Here are the most common prep questions I hear about how to paint a fireplace and my advice for each.
The prep required will depend on the condition of the fireplace and the surface type. If the wood is damaged with scratches or chips, for example, these will need to be repaired before you paint, or they will bring down the quality of the finish. You can buy wood filler for this job that can be applied with a filling knife, or a furniture repair kit like this one on Amazon might be a useful tool.
Step 1: Cleaning
Do I need to clean before painting a mantelpiece?
Yes! There are a couple of reasons why cleaning a surface before you paint is important. Firstly, any surface residue like dust or dirt will mix into the paint and create a lumpy or grainy texture and secondly, any grease or grime will reduce the surface adhesion causing the paint to be patchy. It's better to clean before you sand to avoid rubbing dirt and grime into the surface.
Sugar soap is great for a pre-painting clean and I keep a spray bottle of it in my DIY kit.
Scrape off any melted wax first if you’ve had candles on the top of the mantlepiece.
Remove dust with a vacuum or hand brush before spraying sugar soap or cleaning solution.
Step 2: Sanding
Do I need to sand before painting a fireplace mantel?
If the mantel has old paint that is peeling or flaking, this will need scraping off with a filling knife and then sanding down before you start painting.
If the mantelpiece is unpainted and instead has a wax or varnish top coat, you’ll need to key the surface by sanding with high-grit sandpaper to ensure the adhesion of your paint.
A painted mantlepiece in good condition will require much less prep work; a thorough clean with sugar soap will likely suffice unless the previous paint finish is gloss or satin, in which case I recommend a light sanding to key the surface.
Remember that you are not aiming to remove all the old paint by sanding, just creating a smooth, even surface that the new paint can easily adhere to.
How do I sand a wooden mantelpiece before painting?
A mouse sander is handy as its pointed end can easily get into the corners and crevices. Sanding sponges are great for sanding moulding or detailing as they adapt to the wood’s profile. Alternatively, as I did here, you can make a handy detail-sanding tool by glueing sandpaper around the end of a wooden paint stirrer.
If you have one, a random orbital sander will make light work of a mantelpiece. Take care not to over-sand areas if you have an electric sander. Make light pencil marks over the surface of the wood to monitor the areas you’ve already covered and ensure an even finish.
Don’t panic if you need to do some sanding but only have loose sandpaper sheets; these will work perfectly well wrapped around a sanding block (or spare piece of wood).
When you've finished sanding, brush off the dust and wipe with a damp cloth.
Which grit sandpaper should I use for sanding a fireplace mantel?
If you need to remove thick layers of poor-quality paint or lacquer, you could opt for a coarse sandpaper of grit 60-80. For peeling paint or keying the surface, I wouldn’t start with a lower grit sandpaper than 120 to 180.
Sanding top tips
Wear a dust mask and consider protective eyewear
Ideally, use a sander with a dust collector; otherwise, things can get messy
If you don’t have a dust collector, ensure the room is well-ventilated & position a hoover attachment close to the sander/sandpaper.
Go with the grain of the wood while sanding, if you can see it, not against
Put dust sheets down before you start.
You will need
Primer / undercoat (depending on your choice of paint)
Before you start painting, you might like to check out these painting hacks. The good news is that there shouldn’t be any hard-to-reach areas, so you can comfortably paint your fireplace without a ladder.
NOTE: If your mantle is easy to remove from the wall by unscrewing at the sides, then it might be a good idea to do this as you can paint it outside or flat on the floor (both have advantages). Don't worry if removal is not an option; as long as you mask off the area well, it's perfectly easy to paint in situ.
Top Tip: Secure your dust sheets in place with masking or painter’s tape protect the floor underneath.
Step 3: Mask off the area you are painting
What type of tape is best for repainting a fireplace mantel?
The type of masking tape you need depends on the surface you’re painting. Freshly painted walls require tape designed for delicate surfaces, whereas walls painted long ago should be fine with multi-use tape. I like this blue one from Amazon as it’s a cheaper alternative to Frog tape; however, Frog tape is excellent if you don’t want to take any chances. I recommend using painter’s tape over standard masking tape as they tend to have a lower tack whilst still sealing tightly to the wall.
How do you seal painter’s tape when repainting a fireplace mantel?
Apply the tape neatly around the fireplace to ensure a clean line after tape removal. Once you are happy with the position of the painter’s tape, press firmly with your finger (or a flat-edged filling knife is useful for this task) to ensure good adhesion to the wall, as this prevents the paint from bleeding through and messing up your lines.
Some people choose to seal the edge of the painter’s tape with a very thin layer of paintable caulk, but this is only really necessary for textured surfaces. For smooth surfaces, I recommend gently applying a very light coat of your base-coat paint with a paintbrush along the edge of the painter’s tape. Ensure the paintbrush you use for this task isn’t overloaded, or this will likely result in paint seeping under the edge of the tape.
Now you’ve prepped the surface and masked around the fireplace mantel…it’s time for the fun bit!
Step 4: Painting a fireplace mantel
Start with your primer to ensure a good base for the paint to adhere to.
Allow adequate drying time.
Sand off any imperfections (eg drips or visible brush strokes) with a high grit sandpaper once the primer has dried then dust off and wipe down.
Follow the same process for your paint. You'll likely need two coats, be sure to allow drying time in between coats.
Roller or paintbrush for painting a mantelpiece?
As usual, the answer to this question is probably both. Rollers and brushes each have their pros and cons. Brushes are great for cutting in and painting over textured mouldings or detailing, but they can leave brush marks if you aren’t careful, as well as leading to drips if overloaded. Rollers are quicker and can result in a more even finish, but they aren’t helpful when cutting in. Foam rollers can cause the paint to bubble and high pile microfibre rollers can leave a slight texture in the paint surface.
A fireplace mantel isn’t a huge area to cover, so you could skip the roller if you don’t have one, but I recommend cutting in around the edges with a brush and then filling in the flat areas with a low pile, microfibre mini roller. Use a tray to hold the paint when using a roller to roll back and forth over the textured part of the tray to remove excess paint.
Which paint to repaint a fireplace mantel?
A lot of this comes down to personal preference and will also depend on your choice of colour and the condition of the mantel. If you love a flat, matt finish, go for chalk paint, whereas an eggshell has a slight sheen and will be more hardwearing. Heatproof paint is advisable for working fireplaces, and you can get this colour-matched by many DIY stores. Let me know in the comments if you'd like some paint recommendations.
And that's all there is to it. An achievable DIY project, no hard-to-reach places so follow the above steps and you'll feel happy every time you look at your beautifully painted mantel! If you have a go at this project, send me some before and after pics, which I'd love to see.
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