How to Install a Fireplace Mantel

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

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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.

Mantel Installation Tools and Materials

Installing your own mantel can save you money, enhance your home's style and give you bragging rights over your friends. You can build one from scratch or buy a prefabricated kit from any number of fireplace and home improvement stores.

If money is a concern, buying a prefab mantel is probably your best bet. You can buy one at a home center or lumberyard for as little as $300 for a simple poplar frame, or up to $2,000 for oak or mahogany with intricate etching and design [source: This Old House]. That's hundreds less than having one custom-made by a carpenter, which will could run you up to $5,000.

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Are you ready to go it on your own? Here's what you'll need:

  • Wood. You'll need 1x12-inch boards to use as backing for attaching the mantel to the studs in the wall. You'll also need 2x4 boards cut into triangles for support [source: DIY Network].
  • Screw gun, screws, screwdrivers, or nails and a nail gun. These are essentials for attaching the mantel to the wall. You might also use a miter saw or drill, and you'll definitely need a level to cut the wood to size and ensure a straight, snug fit.
  • If you're working with stone, you'll also need a mason drill bit, jig saw, angle grinder, mortar and drop cloth.
  • Wood glue
  • Tape measure
  • Paint, stain or varnish. If you're adding color or finishing wood, you'll need paint and varnish along with paintbrushes, rollers, pans, drop cloths and painter's tape.

Depending on whether you're building something from scratch or are installing a prefab mantel, your tools may vary. We've listed some basics here, but don't forget to check with your supplier and read the directions on the kit to make sure you have everything you need before getting started.

In our next section we'll cover the placing the mantel in the wall itself, before moving on the stone walls.

Installing Mantels in Walls

Depending on whether you're adding a ledge above your fireplace or installing an elaborately carved wood kit, your installation steps will vary.

Prefabricated mantel kits typically come in three or four pieces that you will need to attach to each other, then to the wall. Start by removing the fireplace doors and laying down a drop cloth to catch wayward screws, nails, wood shavings and debris. Hold the new mantel against the place in the wall where you want to install it and draw a line across the top with a pencil to mark the height. Then find the studs and mark their location on the line. From here, follow the directions that came with the kit. Most will have you drill bolts or brackets into the studs to attach a backboard, then the mantel façade, along with the legs, lintel and mantel shelf.

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If you're customizing the job, don't forget to install a backboard with wood glue and a drill or a hammer to help secure the mantel against the wall. Ask someone to hold it to make sure it's flush against the wall. As you attach your mantel pieces, use a level to ensure they're even so you don't end up with crooked lines.

When you're done, step back, admire your handiwork and figure out the right spot on the mantel shelf for that picture of Mom.

Hoping to install a mantel on your stone wall? Head on over to the next page.

Installing Mantels in Stone

A stone fireplace is one of the most classic designs, but with the charm comes challenge. Installing a stone fireplace requires more work because you'll need to remove some or all of the existing bricks or stones. But make sure to remove only the bricks and stones you need to remove so you don't threaten the foundation.

Consulting with a home improvement professional can help you gauge the difficulty level of your particular fireplace. It may be best to hire a professional because stoneware can be easily damaged. But if you're determined to tackle it alone, here's what you need to do.

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First, take off all existing trim around the fireplace, as well as the doors. And once you've determined that you have enough stones in the right color, shape and size to complement your existing fireplace, lay them out like a puzzle on the floor. Mix your mortar, making sure it's not too wet or too dry.

Before attaching the stones, apply a weatherproofing layer to protect the wood and wall from moisture. Mantel stones come in 19-inch (48 cm) and 20-inch (51 cm) sizes, so cut them down if necessary, and gently work the stones into place. If your mortar gets to dry, mist it with bit of water and continue layering the mortar and stone until you have the mantel you always wanted.

For some specific tips on installation, check out the next page.

Tips for Installing a Fireplace Mantel

There are numerous helpful tips that will make your fireplace mantel installation easier.

First, marking the wall with a pencil will help you keep your place and keep your boards and mantel straight. Make your notches horizontally, 12 inches (30 cm) apart to show where the top of the shelf meets the wall.

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Be sure to consult a National Fire Protection Association Fire Code guide for up-to-date fire codes and regulations concerning home improvement and fireplaces. To meet your homeowner's insurance policy, you'll probably need to follow all local and national regulations, as well as chimney inspection regulations in some cases. Regardless of code, you'll want to install your mantel high enough above the flames to prevent it from catching fire.

If you're using a kit, take some time before assembly to visualize how the pieces of your mantel will fit together around the firebox, especially if you're using marble. The legs of the mantel will likely need to be cut to fit the height of the fireplace.

When installing a wood mantel on a stone fireplace, make sure to add a scribe, or wooden beam, to the fireplace. This is what you'll attach the wooden mantel to, instead of trying to nail a bunch of wooden boards into stone. Before you consider self-installation, evaluate the amount of time you have and your budget for the project. The more sophisticated the materials you use, the greater the undertaking. Remember, it takes effort to keep the home fires burning.

Be sure to check out the links on the next page for more information.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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