How to Make an Oak Mantelpiece Look Old

Finishers kick around ideas for distressing a new oak mantel to match some old oak furniture (the catch: the finish has to resist heat). December 8, 2006

I need some help with this one. I need to finish a red oak fireplace mantel so that it comes close to the image below. The picture is of a 100+ year table. The wood is actually quarter sawn so that at least the grain pattern is close. I'm totally stumped on how to create the dark pores, dark edges (the legs are even deeper), and even the aged finish look. To make matters worse, the piece will be used on a wood burning fireplace so that this piece needs to standup to some heat (like a real old mantel would.)

My preferred finishing methods have included stain, 3-4 coats layers of tung oil followed by either several coats of thinned hand-rubbed poly, sprayed varnish or shellac. I've seen some references to mission style using Aniline Dyes but I've not had much luck comparing the dyes to what I need to achieve. Also, the mantel isn't really mission style, although I suppose it would be of similar age.

I've also seen a recent recommendation by Alan Noel to use asphaltum/roofing-tar as a glaze. I've not tried this yet but I was thinking that this project would be a good candidate (after testing of course.) I can't convince myself to stain (or dye) the piece first and then try to address the grain. Can anyone recommend a procedure?

Are there any ideas on how to address the heat issue? It's not that the mantel has to be protected from burning so much as I'd prefer the finish not to fail because of the heat.

Click here for full size image

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor S:
Do you intend to strip the table? It looks like it needs it. The brown mahogany color looks like you may find it as a stock color. Have you looked at any color chips from your salesmen, or the local stores?

From contributor K:
I'm not to sure about the heat resistant part and how heat resistant you really need it. The attached color sample is Oxford #WR409 from target coatings. Apply 2 coats with a gently sand in between and you should get that color. Another way is to stain it and then sand it more aggressively to open the wood back up and then use a toner.

Click here for full size image

From the original questioner:
Yes, the mantel is virgin quarter sawn red oak. The table is the sample. The idea is to get somewhat close in color and appearance. The table won't be stripped. I think that the general color matching for the main body color will be straight forward. My concern lays in the pores and aged finish look (and the impact of heat.)

From contributor D:
I would distress the wood first (some dings and dents). Then I would apply a dye stain - yellow/orange tint - this should be dilute and apply until the color is right. Next I would wash coat followed by an application of dark brown stain (walnut?). Then I would do another wash coat and then apply a dark glaze to bring up the grain and distress marks than top coat. Do this on a sample first of course.

From contributor E:
I think that I would find an oil-base stain like Minwax that matches on a sample; red oak or mahogany, or a mixture of the two might be close. After letting the first coat of stain dry, get some paste filler in a dark brown shade and sand it into the pores with Minwax and wet or dry sandpaper (fine).

When this is dry, use an orange shellac finish - the shellac will tend to darken with age and soot from the fireplace and match the table. You could add a little dark brown glaze between shellac coats to match the existing dark areas in the table finish. I would test the table finish in an inconspicuous spot with some alcohol and lacquer thinner to determine what is on it; if it is an old finish, it is probably shellac. This takes a little practice, but you should be able to get an old looking finish pretty close to the table.

As far as the heat is concerned, it depends on how close this is to the firebox. If the mantle is far enough away for the wood itself to be safe, any heat distressing to the finish will probably be isolated to the bottom of the mantle, and will add to the authentic look.

From contributor M:
Personally I would not use shellac on a mantel, it's not heat resistant at all. I'd only spray this with pre-cat lacquer or conversion varnish, they are hard to beat in heat resistance. My kitchen table is sprayed with CV and I routinely lay hot pans of my Fajita stir-fry on it, no problem.
Here is the schedule I would use - first on some quarter sawn samples to get close.

1. Dark grain filler – water-based or use Famowood Wood Putty thinned with lacquer thinner (walnut putty will get you real close to the look). You can dye the putty with extra dyes (aniline). Wipe on with putty knife, allow to dry, and sand it flat. The final sanding should be no more than 150 grit to get the rich color from the stain.

2. Stain with choice of stain color that brings out the red.

3. Two coats of conversion varnish (sanded in between).

4. Scuff sand entire area, but scuff the areas you want "antiqued" with a coarser grit. I would use a scotch-bright type abrasive (Mirka's Mirlon pads are great). The coarser the scratch, the darker the glaze will take.

5. Glaze with ML Campbell's Amazing Glaze, which is an instant drying glaze that can be wiped away with the Mirlon/scotchbright pads.

6. Final topcoat of CV.

From the original questioner:
As I understand it, most have suggested some type of finish before using the grain filler. I suspect this is to prevent the filler from impacting the adherence/penetration of dye, stain etc. Can anybody give any insight? As you have suggested, I was thinking that addressing the grain was important to do before a finish. Another person sent me an idea directly about fuming which would seem to offer another alternative. He mentioned that fuming may be what I'm looking for and pointed me to the WOODWEB Knowledge Base article below.

What Is Fuming

From contributor S:
If you’re looking to match the color of the table, ammonia fuming is not the way to go. Wash coating the woods before coloring, in some cases allows better transparency in the finish. You can add color to the "open grains" with a stain or by glazing.

From contributor M:
You are right about the use of a washcoat of finish prior to grain filling, it is common. On darker mahoganies and such I don't bother since the filler is close to the color of the wood - and the wood/filler will be heavily sanded with 120 and 150 which should remove any colorant in the wood, leaving only natural wood and filler in the pores.

If you are using a dark filler on a light wood (like, say, walnut colored filler on ash) a washcoat is advisable. But the problem is that a washcoat of finish will significantly reduce stain penetration/color.

Most washcoats, whether plain varnish, lacquer, or conversion varnishes vary from 10% topcoat/90% thinner to 50/50. I typically use a 25/75 of topcoat/thinner if I'm washcoating anything. I always play with samples to get the feel of what will happen.

From contributor R:
The reason to use a washcoat prior to paste filler is to prevent a condition known as "grey pore" where the resins in the filler get absorbed by the wood and the filler turns grey. A washcoat prevents this and also makes it easier to remove the filler from the surface. On flat surfaces I use a screen printer’s squeegee. Also you can spray on a dye stain first then a washcoat and your filler so dark colors are not a problem. As to the heat problem I would think if the mantle is installed according to code heat should not be an issue. You wouldn't want a wood mantle catching fire.

From contributor T:
I agree with Contributor S. The color and color quality of fumed oak is unique and very difficult to reproduce with dyes or stains. It's nowhere near your photo.

A washcoat (which to me means a finish coat thinned to less than 10% solids) prevents the colorant from bleeding out if the colorant is a dye. It also prevents the filler (or glaze) from coloring the smaller pores and results in a brighter, less cloudy look when the filler is a contrasting color. The table doesn't appear to be a full fill finish. If it is not, you can get a good, contrasting partial fill with a heavy body glaze or with a gel stain and they're easier to work with.

Everybody has their druthers and I'm not here to say they're wrong but this is where I would start:
1. Dye a pale yellow.
2. Stain with a red mahogany wiping stain.
3. Wash coat (maybe x 2.
4. Glaze with a dark gel stain to highlight the earlywood pores. You'll have to pick a color based on where you want to be and what you see after 3.
5. Seal.
6. Topcoat. If you're worried about heat, shellac and lacquer are thermoplastic and I believe most epoxy and polyester finishes are too. Better to steer clear of them.