It was right there in front of me the whole time and I didn't even know it. This mantel, and its sister in the parlor are the only two things in the house not made of redwood. Although I have stripped acres of paint off woodwork in the house, this is the first time I've done this type of work on anything but redwood. I could have finished this evening, but I ran out of paper towels.
I would say I have between 4 and 5 hours of work in to it so far. Relatively speaking, this was effortless. I'm not sure if it had something to do with the way this was finished 120 years ago or if it is because it is oak and not redwood, but the shellac just lifted right off. Stripping shellac off redwood is pretty easy, but not like this.
The original finish was shellac, but it had turned black and was alligatoring in places. It was also filthy and very grungy, and had chips in the finish, along with wax drippings and ciggarett burns. If this were a piece of 18th century American furniture a finish like this would be prized and stripping it off would have destroyed the auction value. In the parlor, though, it just looked like crap. At least that's what I think. I'm sure some will disagree.
I used the same methyl chloride based stripper I used on the stairs, but this just worked much faster. The reaction time for the stripper to do its job is 10 to 15 seconds. I brush it on, wait 10 seconds or so, then wipe it off with a paper towel. That gets 90% of the shellac off. I then apply another thin layer and scrub it with steel wool.
The question now is, what do I do for the new finish. I'm not sure if this was originally a golden oak finish that had just really darkened over the years from the heat of the coal fire, or if the shellac was tinted originally, and then it darkened even more. What I am fairly certain of is, it was not intended to be the black color that it was when I started.
My real concern is getting an uneven finish if I try any type of stain or oil. If I don't clean this very well and very evenly, the oil or stain will penetrate differently and I could have splotches of lighter or darker color. My plan is to tint the new shellac before I apply it. This should give me an even finish.