With a beautiful mantel, the fireplace can become the focal point of your living room.

­iStockphoto.com/M. Eric Honeycutt

­Before television, fireplaces were the focal point of every home -- the place for cooking, reading and warming chilly fingers and toes. In colonial times, people built fires in stone hearths or metal boxes in the middle of the house, which allowed people to gather around for warmth and let the fire radiate evenly throughout the room.

But as houses grew to two stories, and chimney technology improved, fireplaces were moved to the outer wall. In the beginning, they were little more than brick-lined holes. But in the Victorian era, when parlors came into vogue, separating the kitchen and social areas, the fireplace took on more than a functional role. It became a part of the décor, a place where craftsmen could show off their carving skills with ornate flourishes in marble and stone.

Mantels -- the decorative molding around the firebox -- have five parts:

  • Surround: the flat surface that frames the firebox
  • Legs: the columns on either side
  • Hearth: the stone that juts out from the bottom
  • Lintel: the reinforcement right below the top ledge
  • Mantel shelf: where people put pictures, candles and other knickknacks

­Traditionally, mantels have been made from high-density fiberboard with wood moldings or veneer over sol­id wood. Today mantels come in a wide variety of materials and styles, including, marble, limestone, granite and fine wood. You can choose designs that range from barebones classic to the most ornate baroque.

Now that we have central heating, fireplaces are no longer a necessity in modern homes, but they're a nice added feature. With the right mantel, you can turn your fireplace into a showpiece that adds warmth and style to the room.

Installing a mantel can be as complicated as building one from scratch -- or as easy as buying a kit and attaching the new façade to the surrounding wall. Read on to find out how.