A few months ago I was walking through a rowhome in West Philadelphia that was about to be gutted and rehabbed. A large faux mantel in the corner of the living room caught my eye. I asked the builder if he would be keeping the mantel and he replied that they'd be ripping it out with the rest of the walls, but that I could have it if I wanted it.
I showed up the next day in our pickup truck and brought it back home, not really sure what to do with it, but positive that I couldn't let it get thrown out. And so began a project that took up the better part of three months.
After we brought the mantel inside and upstairs I immediately wondered if I'd bitten off more than I could chew. The mantel looked much bigger in our little rowhome than it did in its previous home, and was caked in layers and layers of white and yellow paint - so built up that you could barely see the details on the columns and trim.
I decided to strip and sand the mantel down to its original wood, hoping that it would be intact. Because of its age, I assumed that at least some of the layers were lead paint, so tried to strip as much of the paint away before wet sanding to minimize getting paint dust in the air.
If you attempt on refinishing any piece of furniture that may contain lead paint always assume the worst and make sure that you exercise extreme caution. Only attempt to remove paint outside or in a very well ventilated room with a respirator as well as a disposable coveralls and gloves, and minimize any dust by keeping the surface damp when removing paint. When in doubt, always contact a professional.
Working only on nights and weekends, it took months for me to finally strip all of the paint off to reveal the wood veneer beneath. I also decided to pull off the top shelf of the mantel so that it didn't look so oversized in the room (I'm saving that piece for another project) and we cut into the baseboards to truly create a built-in mantel.
Unfortunately for me, the wood had a lot of flaws - too many to simply stain the wood - so I decided to patch all of the holes and paint the mantel with a fresh coat of paint to match the baseboards and trim.