Monday, December 18, 2017


Back in my homebuilding days, fireplace mantels got no respect.  By the time we got around to building them, we’d have already run out of money and patience, so we’d slap together any old mantel we could. Maybe we had some scraps of crown molding and a few leftover floor tiles . . . alright, there’s your damned mantelpiece—now shut up. And those were the award-winners. Others were just two-by-fours with mitered corners.

Prefabricated fireplace units such as this one typically have
smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors.
Here, a stone veneer surround helps gives
the small firebox more oomph.

If only I knew then what I know now.  If there’s one place you shouldn’t cut corners, it’s on the mantelpiece—it’s the focal point of any room (and often, the most important room in the house). As penance for the many dreadful mantels I’ve built, I humbly offer these suggestions to keep you from treading the same path. First, though, some fireplace terminology: 

Strictly speaking, the mantel is only the shelf or lintel across the fireplace opening; the mantelpiece is the entire structure including the side elements. The recess in which the actual fire is built is called—surprise—the firebox. The material on the floor in front of the firebox is the hearth, and the facing around the edge of the firebox is the surround.  

Both the hearth and the surround must be of noncombustible materials (such as brick, tile, stone or stone veneer, marble, or cement). Consult your local building department for the exact requirements.  

Now the suggestions:    

A full-width raised hearth makes a small firebox more visible and provides
a lovely place to sit as well. This trick works well in contemporary
home styles, but may look out of place in traditional homes.
•  Use materials in keeping with your home’s style.  In a rustic home, for example, a lustrous marble surround edged by complicated moldings will look too fussy. Likewise, a mantelpiece of massive boulders will run riot over a delicate interior. The choice of surround material is especially crucial, since it must be noncombustible. The safest course is to echo some noncombustible material used elsewhere in the home—perhaps the brick used on the porch, or the tile used in the foyer floor. 

The mantelpiece itself can be of any appropriate material—wood, marble, plaster, vitreous tile, and stainless steel have all been used to good effect. The mantelpiece can be nearly flat against the wall, or it can project from it. The projecting portion can be topped with a mantel shelf or continue up to the ceiling (in which case, the part above the mantel is called the "overmantel"—reasonable enough, no?  

•  Mind your proportions. A common mistake is to design a really wimpy mantelpiece that looks entirely lost in a large room. Because today’s prefabricated fireplaces have smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors, you may need to  use a big, bold surround to bring the mantelpiece into scale with the room.  

You don't need fancy materuaks to create a
perfectly charming fireplace—this one is just plain red brick
with a big slab of lumber for a mantel shelf.
Another trick to make the fireplace look bigger is to raise the firebox off the floor a foot or so; this also makes it easier to view the fire. Think twice about raising the hearth, however—doing so eats up a lot of floor space, and it’s out of character with many traditional home styles. 

•  Finally, if you’re hesitant to design the mantelpiece yourself, you can choose from among a great variety of stock mantelpieces and surrounds. Remember that the same cautions regarding proportion and material still apply.   

And speaking of fireplaces, don’t forget to leave Santa some cookies.  Merry Christmas.    

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