Q&A / 

Fireplace Mantels

DEAR TIM: I need a fireplace mantel for a remodeling project at my home. As I look at different wood fireplace mantels, I get more confused. A trip to a local salvage company allowed me to see antique fireplace mantels, but some required too much work. My husband wants a stone fireplace mantel, but I don't think it will look right. Can you help clear up some of the confusion about different mantels for us? Jill P., Lampe, MO

DEAR JILL: It sure is easy to get overwhelmed when it comes to fireplace mantels. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different styles. When you then factor in the different types of materials used to make the mantels, the permutation possibilities go off the charts. I can see why you might be confused just thinking about wood mantels, especially when you have to consider the different common wood species like cherry, oak, walnut, pine, poplar and hickory.

This fireplace mantel is well over 100 years old. It was salvaged from a house that was about to be torn down. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

This fireplace mantel is well over 100 years old. It was salvaged from a house that was about to be torn down. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

There are any number of things you should consider before you make your final fireplace mantel decision. I am quite sure a professional interior designer would consider the overall theme of the room. It would look more than a little odd, in my opinion, to have a rough-timber beam as a fireplace mantel in a room that oozes French Provincial architecture. Use a rough beam in a log home or rustic-decor room.

You also need to decide if the fireplace mantel will be just the horizontal shelf above the actual fireplace or will it be part of a fireplace surround. Many stunning fireplace mantel designs are actual surrounds where two legs made of any number of materials connect to the horizontal aspect of the fireplace mantel.

Restoring an antique fireplace mantel may be worth it. My wife and I have a gorgeous solid-walnut antique fireplace mantel in our family room. The salvage company we purchased it from had it stripped and refinished for us. The cost of the mantel was far below the cost of a new one that had one quarter of the character.

If you decide to use an antique fireplace mantel, be sure it will pass the modern building codes. The building code usually is concerned with the proximity of combustible material to the left, right and just above the firebox opening.

Depending upon your budget and how urgent the need is for the new mantel, you might explore an option many people fail to consider. If you have a woodcarvers guild in your area, you may be able to get a one-of-a-kind custom fireplace mantel built for you.

A past customer of mine did this on one of my jobs, and the look was stunning. The woodcarver came up with a grapevine design that represented the family trees of my customer and his wife. I have to admit this mantel was the most gorgeous one I have ever installed in all my years of building.

As for your husband's desire for a stone fireplace mantel, it comes back to whether that look will fit in the room or clash with the finished design. There are many different types of stone, and you may find one that has the color range and texture to compliment what you are doing in that room. It may help to have an artist do a watercolor rendering of that wall elevation to help you decide.

Be sure you pay lots of attention to the scale of the new fireplace mantel. They need to match both the fireplace opening and the overall size of the room, including ceiling height. Rooms with tall ceilings may be able to support an overmantel. These were very common in older homes that had ceilings of ten feet or more. An overmantel is basically a mantel set on top of the horizontal shelf of the bottom mantel. The upper mantel often has a mirror or painting in the center area.

As you shop for fireplace mantels, pay attention to the way they are mounted to the wall. You want to make sure you buy one that allows you to hide all fasteners so the finished product looks as if it was glued to the wall. There are any number of ways to secure a fireplace mantel to a wall, but know what you need to do before you buy one and lug it home.

Now is the time to think about electricity above or next to your mantel. Since you are doing a remodel job, you have an opportunity to extend electricity to the mantel area. Installing an electrical outlet that is discreetly hidden, but meets all aspects of the National Electric Code, allows you to have powered holiday decorations on your mantel without a dangerous and dangling extension cord.

If you have sentimental items that will be displayed on your mantel, be sure they will fit on the horizontal mantel shelf. Not all mantel shelves are the same depth. If you know of mantels in other homes that really appeal to you, take photographs of them or measurements so you can get one that matches closely.

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