Oak Mantel Makeover

By Kate Riley May 18, 2010

We have some great friends named Tony and Mia, and our girls go to kindergarten together.  Mia is a busy mother of three who runs her own salon four days a week.   By the time she gets home from work, the last thing she wants to do is start a home improvement project.

What I love about Tony and Mia’s home is that every time you visit, you feel the warmth within, from the spice colors on the walls, to the rich and rustic wood pieces, to their doggie wagging her tail to greet you.  Their house definitely feels like a ‘Home Sweet Home’ and that’s why we love to visit.

So when I was in her family room the other day, Mia asked me what to do with her oak fireplace surround.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to replace it or stain it, but she knew she didn’t care for the natural oak finish.  The wood’s tone clashed with her dark wood floors and furniture, but overall it had really classic lines and was in great shape.

As I leaned in, I could swear I heard the mantel whisper, “Paint me, I beg you.”  So I recommended we paint it white to coordinate with the trim and lighten up the wall.  Plus, a white fireplace mantel is simply timeless.  So in less than four hours, I gave her fireplace wall a fresh new look with just some primer, paint, and accessories.

Here’s Mia’s Before:

salon and hair stylist cooperation

Here’s Mia’s After:

fireplace after from right

Splendid, right ?

The difference is all in the details !

Here were the three areas we needed to address:

problem areas

Transforming Mia’s Fireplace:

zinsser primer I’ve refinished natural oak before – I restained and glazed my oak staircase banister last year to give it an espresso finish, and I’ve also primed and painted oak white.

Modernizing Mia’s mantel required one coat of primer and two coats of paint.

The first thing I did was tape off the mantel surround and then I gave it a coat of oil based primer.

I love Zinsser in the brown can because it coats oak pretty well, and fills in a lot of the grainy texture that’s the nature of this kind of wood.

Next, I tackled the brassy doors with some of Rustoleum’s high heat paint, the same paint I used on my fireplace last year.

high heat paint

Two coats of this formula, applied with a small paintbrush changed the look of the doors completely!

So long shiny brass trim.

mia before up close

Hello seamless black !

mantle up close from right

I primed her mantel on Friday, and then came back on Saturday to lightly sand it, then give the mantel two coats of paint.   The white paint is ‘Swiss Coffee’ in semi-gloss, and her existing wall color is Benjamin Moore’s ‘Butternut Squash’.

I found Mia a new mirror at my latest source for inexpensive home decor, one that pulls in natural light from the opposite wall of windows.

mias before text

fireplace after text

Mia absolutely loves the look of her ‘new’ fireplace !


Don’t you love the spice colors in her home, and the contrast between the white and chocolate ?  Now her granite tiles pull all her colors together, from the gorgeous ‘Butternut Squash’ paint on her walls, to the white fireplace mantle, to the black fireplace box.

fireplace mantle corner

From bland to grand, all with a little paint and accessories !

What about you, what’s on your list to refresh right now ?



  1. What a difference! White was DEFINITELY the right choice so I bet you’re right in that the mantel ‘spoke’ to you! I’m in the middle of a master bedroom makeover and am refreshing EVERYTHING I can get my hands on!

  2. Kate you are a good friend to have!! What a difference a coat of paint makes! Also the brass detail painted black – love it.

  3. Love this. I have lots of rooms on my list, once I finish the great room. Loving that paint color though. Just the right amount of color and depth.

  4. Wow, that turned out beautiful!!! Somehow, it made the tile around the fireplace look more elegant, and you can actually see now that it compliments the wall color. Awesome job! And is that Home Depot’s Swiss Coffee? Because I’m in love!

  5. I love the makeover! Can you come over and help me? ;) I’ve been wanting to paint my mantle, but I didn’t know if I had to sand it down first to paint it, but it sounds like you just used a primer, right? What color paint did you use? Thank you!!


  6. I love the makeover! I am not a fan of the colour of oak. It looks so much better. What a lucky friend. And thanks for posting the rusto-leum high heat paint. I was just telling my husband I want to paint out fire pit, and didn’t know what to use. Now I do!

  7. Great makeover. With the white paint and the brass covered, it looks so fresh.

    I used that tip about the high heat paint on my own surround when you posted it about it several months back. It made all the difference! Thanks!

  8. This great transformation is an excellent example on how you don’t always have to spend a lot of $$ or expend a lot of effort to see a big change! Great job!

  9. We had a brick fireplace in our Georgia home and I hated it. I told my husband that I was going to paint it white and he said no way. He went to Florida for a college football game and when he came home, it was painted white and he loved it. I like the fireplace redo. It looks great!

  10. How could she not love it…looks amazing. Last year, after your brassy fireplace update…I went and took care of mine…then my neighbors…I have 2 more neighbors asking me to do the same thing. Thanks for sharing the easiest update ever…my neighborhood is improving…on totally black fireplace at a time:)

  11. Aren’t you talented!! I so wish you lived closer so you could come over and see if something at my house would whisper to you!!!

  12. Wow, it looks great, we just finished last night turning our brassy fireplace black to match but now our oak mantel stands out like crazy. Thanks for the great tutorial!!

  13. Kate this has given me great tips for my own mantle!!

    Giveaway by Beth Cosner Designs is up on my site. Do come visit and spread the word!

    Art by Karena

  14. I love this before and after! A dramatic change without a lot of money! And yes girl, I love the colors together! They look yummy! Well, maybe I’m just hungry ;-)

    Have a great day!

  15. It is amazing what some paint and accessorizing can do! This looks fantastic! I saw your first entry on updating the brass on the fireplace and we used the technique at our house- so easy and makes a world of difference. I think our paint can is on its 3rd round of neighbors doing the same :) Great job!

  16. Kate, you are a LOVELY friend – what a difference. The Mantle and fireplace look as though they belong now – want to come to my place?

  17. I’ve been looking forward to you sharing this…I live in a home filled with oak everywhere. It was great in 1997 when the house was built, but it will soon have to GO. We are almost done phasing out all the shiny brass finishes, and I think my husband is actually open to painting all the woodwork some day (our windows are completely encased in oak, too). The fireplace will surround will probably be the most difficult for him to “deal” with, but now I’ve got a great example to show him! Great job!! (And I do love Mia’s warm spicy colors).

  18. great transformation! you got the touch:-) hey, will you be posting pics from your son’s room? just wondering since i’m looking for ideas on boy beds. i’ll be moving my son out of the crib and into his own bed soon…thanks!!!

  19. That is a great makeover! Her fireplace looks gorgeous. It is seriously-crazy what a difference paint can make!
    Great job.

  20. FAB.U.LOUS. If anyone ever needed her own column in BH&G or really any magazine, it would be you. :) Mia is lucky to have such a talented friend…her fireplace looks so warm and fresh now!

    My list is about a mile long…I STILL need your input on our nasty ick-o bedroom, but that would require me doing a bit of decluttering work. :s I also need to work on recovering all of the pillows in my Family room.

    Happy Tuesday. :)

  21. Do you have a good advice on how to style a mantle? Mine is about 12′ – 15′ long, and I feel like it either looks too knick-knacky or too empty. What’s the happy medium? :) This looks beautiful BTW. Keep up the great work!

  22. Great new look! It is so much more appealing! I’m also impressed with how spotless her house seems to be (from the little that shows in your pictures.) You said she has three kids and runs a salon? Well, kudos to Mia too!

  23. See, Kate… it’s posts like this that make you about as close to a girl crush as I’ll ever have. I’ve told you about my classy circa 1992 casa before. I have a very similar fireplace insert and wood mantle and was just telling the hubs the other day that we didn’t need to splurge on a new insert because I thought there was special paint you could get to cover up that sexy brass. Of course, here you are with an inexpensive, but high-impact solution. Love it!

  24. I absolutely love it, looks so much better! Now if only a coat of paint were enough to fix my mantle.

  25. That looks 100% better! I have painted my brass already. Just need to paint the mantel! I just love your blog. Why have I not been following you? I don’t know! I’m getting on that right now!

  26. Hi Jenny ! No, I didn’t sand the mantel first, I just primed it with a good bonding primer. I did lightly sand after the primer with a medium grade sanding pad, then finished it off with two coats of paint.

    Katie – that’s Ben Moore’s ‘Swiss Coffee’, but it’s an industry color and most paint companies carry it, or at least have the formula.

    And Laura, I have a great post for your mantel issue – check out this link by Layla:


  27. Fan-freaking-tastic job! Love the transformation. I had a brick mantle in my college house that I rented that I was DYING to paint…but the land lord wouldn’t let me…even though we were dating…some people just don’t get how great a painted mantle can be…

  28. This all turned out great!! Everything looks so beautiful!! It is amazing what a new coat of paint can do to walls/fireplace, etc. Great job! I know she was thrilled. Love & blessings from NC!

  29. So much honey oak and so little time. I need to start doing it now. I’ve been inspired by countless bloggers and seeing the fireplace just did me over. Cover stain here I come! Thanks!

  30. im sure you receive awards daily, but i just gave you another on my blog. thanks for doing such amazing crafts over here!

  31. You don’t mention the type of paint though. It’s got to be an oil-based, right? And you used Penetrol to condition the paint to avoid brush strokes? I’m having trouble finding oil-based paints at the local Lowe’s and Menards. They don’t carry selections because “nobody uses those anymore.” So I’m left with a Rustoleum Gloss White to paint all the trim in my house. Seems generic but I guess it’ll work, right?

  32. Great makeover – if you are interested in mantel/fireplace inspiration I stumbled upon an AMAZING site this week. Check out http://www.standout-fireplace-designs.com There are DOZENS of pages with fireplaces/mantels in all sorts of styles/periods. Some are jaw-dropping, particularly the stone/western designs. I’d love to know what you think of them. Keep up the excellent work!

  33. Brilliant! I LOVE LOVE LOVE your solutions to nagging home decor issues! I ran out after reading this post, bought some of the Rustoleum High Heat paint and painted over the hideous brass bits on our fireplace cover – and it looks amazing! Thank you soooo much for the inspiration! I’ve been hating that brass since the day we moved into our home 4 years ago and now (thanks to you), it looks fabulous. xoxoxo

  34. This turned out absolutely GORGEOUS! I would love to feature it on my Fireplace Decorating blog. I love the color choices and you have such an eye for decor. I am certain that Mia and her husband were overjoyed with the results. You did a fantastic job.

  35. I just found this post and love the transformation. I’d like to paint over oak as well and
    I see Zinsser covers the grain well. Did you have to sand before applying Zinsser?

    • No sanding with Zinsser Mary, but a little scuffing with a sanding wedge helps remove any debris and preps the surface well.

  36. Hello,I have a very similar fire place with built ins around it. I want to paint it all white with maybe brown shelves. The semi gloss white that you used…. Is it the same paint you would used to paint the trim and doors? And what type of paint if I want to paint the shelves brown?

  37. I love this and couldn’t believe I found it as I was looking for inspiration to paint my oak mantle. I have already primed but my question is, I noticed the white mantle matched your friends trim on her staircase ? I have eggshell trim all over that runs up to my mantle along with French doors in eggshell not too far from mantle. Do I have to paint my mantle to match trim or would a bright white such as yours look okay with eggshell trim???? Help please:)

  38. Hi Kate! I have been reading your blog for a few years now! My kitchen & bathroom cabinets, staircase and mantel are the same oak color! That was the only thing my husband and I did not like about our home when we first saw it but after looking the amazing transformation you did to your staircase we got all the paints and stains to follow your ex! That was almost two years ago and I still hate the
    Oak color aroud my whole house! Well I just had my first baby and I am finally a stay home mom!
    And I feel the need to change that wood color!! But because this will be my first time painting something I was wondering if you painted the mantel with a brush or a foam roller? I know it might be a silly question but like I said I am not a pro on this! Thank you for sharing your talents!

    • Hi Ligia, I did it all with a brush, good luck on your transformation too!

  39. This inspired me to makeover an ugly brass and oak fireplace mantle. I’m thrilled with the results!

  40. Hi Kate,
    I just discovered your blog, and I will be a regular viewer. I painted my dark stained mantle a fresh white this year, and it made such a lovely difference in my family room. It was impressive how the room lightened up! I am contemplating painting the brick white also…like the brick on your fireplace with the bell Christmas garland…only concerned with it remaining white. Has yours held up well?

    • Hi Lynn, that’s not my bell garland but there are plenty of tutorials out there for painting brick, a few are in the Best of DIY archives. :)

  41. I have this exact mantle and have wanted to paint it for forever! Do I have sand it first or just go right to the primer? And how much sanding in between primer and paint? Thank you for showing me the way!

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