Build a Fireplace Mantel
An easy installation begins with a flat foundation
Synopsis: To truly become the focal point of a room, a fireplace needs a mantel. And whether the end product is simple or elaborate, all of Mario Rodriguez’s mantel installations start with the same foundation—sections of plywood joined to surround a fireplace opening. This foundation serves as the canvas for a multitude of mantel styles, from Arts and Crafts to Victorian. Rodriguez explains the essentials every woodworker should know about building a fireplace mantel, from surveying the site, to cutting and shaping the components in the woodshop, to final assembly.
A fireplace without a mantel looks naked and lacks character. Adding a mantel gives the fireplace an elegant frame, which becomes the room’s focal point. This frame can be as simple as two brackets supporting a shelf or a floor-to-ceiling extravaganza dripping with carved gargoyles and yards of molding.
Whatever the style, I’ve found that the secret to a solid, easy installation is the foundation—sections of 3⁄4-in. plywood joined to surround the fireplace opening. The foundation gives you something firm to anchor to the fireplace masonry, and it serves as a flat, plumb base on which to fasten the decorative elements.
The foundation can be screwed, nailed, bolted, or glued to the existing fireplace; trim will cover the fasteners. You can make and finish individual elements in the shop, then assemble everything at the fireplace, using the trim carpenter’s technique of scribing to fit the mantel snugly against the wall and floor.
Survey the site, and design to fit
Before you start cutting, carefully measure the existing fireplace. Plan your design so that the wood will be at least 6 in. away from the fireplace opening (many building codes specify this distance; check with your building department). The mantel shelf is typically 54 in.…