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Choosing A Fireplace Mantel For Your Home

by Jake Park 

In Latin, the word focus means “fireplace or hearth,” but it's meaning has changed in English to mean “the central point of interest.” A fireplace is still the focal point of any home, drawing the eye to its warmth and beauty. As part of that focal point, the fireplace mantel adds a new wrinkle to this attractive setting.

So, what does it take to choose the right fireplace mantel? Let's look at some considerations. But first, a bit of history.

History Of Fireplace Mantels

Prior to 1800, fireplaces were more functional than decorative. They were used for home heating as well as for baking and cooking food. The look didn't matter as long as it functioned properly.

However, in the 19th century, fireplaces were designed to be more aesthetically pleasing. Builders added decorative panels bordering the opening and mantel shelves installed above. They were further adapted when the Victorian era introduced a more ornamental setting. Mantel shelves were now a place to display artwork or other decor. This has been the preferred style up to present day.

Mantel Styles Through the Ages

Certain architectural styles dominated building design and interior decor for many years. In the modern era, individuality is valued and homeowners have multiple styles they can install. Here are the most common styles.

Modern

A modern look involves clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic. Modern fireplace mantels tend to be simply designed and often understated, consisting of a simple shelf mounted above a flat fireplace opening. Paint, natural wood, and stone are popular materials used in a contemporary, minimalist fireplace setting.

Rustic

A rustic style exhibits traditional elements while ignoring ornamentation. This gives the fireplace a more rugged, natural look. A rustic-style fireplace mantel, often built with reclaimed wood, features natural elements of the wood such as wormholes, wood knots, and saw markings. Installers will use hand-hewn beams or reclaimed barn wood sawn shelves, and to enhance the appearance, a rustic mantel can be stained or sealed.

Victorian

The Victorian era coincided with the Industrial Revolution, bringing new prosperity and creating the middle class. Increased manufacturing introduced mass-produced home artifacts. Consequently, many middle-class people sought the affordable luxury of ornately created fixtures, which included details that characterize Victorian-style fireplace settings today.

Colonial

The Colonial style was influenced by Puritan values and craftsmanship. A Colonial-style mantel is simple and elegant in design, though not purely minimalist. It often features decorative carving and columns on either side of the fireplace opening. Symmetry and formality are two keys to the Colonial aesthetic.

Classical

The term “classical” refers to the architectural styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Elements of those cultures are still visible in today's fireplace mantel designs, which include marble or other stone and white coloring. In addition, classical fireplace mantels are often bordered by Greek-style columns. The overall effect is elegant and austere.

Choosing The Right Material

By far the most common material for a fireplace mantel is wood. Whether it is an ornately carved slab of oak or an unfinished piece of reclaimed barn wood, your mantel will be durable with warm, natural beauty. The wood can be stained or painted any color or tone and can be designed to complement almost any architectural style.

Other material options include metal, marble, granite, cast stone, and composite materials such as medium-density fiberboard or architectural glass. In most cases, your preferred mantel style will determine the best material to use. However, cost may also be a factor.

Wood provides a high-quality, affordable option for your next fireplace mantel.

Determining the Right Size

The proper size of a fireplace mantel depends on several factors. In the U.S., the depth of the mantel shelf must be in compliance with the federal fire safety code, which stipulates that any combustible material must be a specific distance from the fireplace opening.

In addition, U.S. federal building code requires a minimum of six inches of clearance around the whole fireplace opening. You must also consider local codes that may impose stricter limitations. So, the depth and height of your fireplace and the position of your mantel will determine the appropriate mantel size.

You should also consider the dimensions of the room. Choose a fireplace mantel that will fit into the space without overpowering the interior design. If you’re building a new home, you have flexibility to design a fireplace that matches the rest of the home. On the other hand, redesigning an existing fireplace will require you to fit the new mantel around the existing opening. If the firebox is not a standard size or shape, you may need a custom-made mantel.

Environmental Impact Of Installing A Fireplace Mantel

Building projects use natural resources and create waste, but there are many ways builders can minimize the negative environmental impact. To minimize this impact, you can choose reclaimed wood. A reclaimed wood mantel reduces waste and gives new life to an abandoned natural resource. Another environmentally friendly option is green architectural glass, a composite made of recycled glass and other renewable materials.

Once your new mantel is in place, you’ll have a renewed focal point at the heart of your room. Whether you adorn your mantel with a single vase of flowers, an eye-catching piece of art, or a collection of family photos, the right fireplace mantel will enhance the overall appeal of your home and increase your quality of life.

Jake Park
I am a timber expert and serial woodworker dedicated to helping you get educated about the finest woods and materials in the world. Join in my journey on the Modern Timber Craft blog.

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