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How to Decorate a Fireplace Mantel

The mantel is an underestimated fireplace feature that can set the tone in any living space. Here's how to decorate a fireplace mantel to work with the design in your timber home.

Mantels get no respect. Bad enough the word is often misspelled (it’s -el, not -le like the sleeveless cloak or baseball’s Mickey), but for people planning a fireplace, mantels are a mere afterthought to the big decision about the kind of chimney stone. Yet your mantel can be an engaging focal point that amplifies the look of your fireplace, both in its own right and to display an array of items that set the tone for the entire room. Mantels are the ideal finishing touch--here's how to decorate a fireplace mantel that complements any timber home design. 

how to decorate a fireplace mantel
Photo Credit: James Ray Spahn
When decorating a fireplace mantel, it is important to be visually engaging without overloading. Know when to stop.

Mantels originated as hoods projecting above the fireplace to keep smoke from the grate from escaping into the room. A simple beam above the fireplace also served to hang wet clothes to dry. Today, mantels are decorative. Fortunately, they’re available in a variety of styles to go with or, in some cases, establish every decor.

Types of Mantels

There are two mantel configurations: 

  1. The shelf, which is what we usually think of as the mantel.
  2. The surround, which frames the sides as well as the top of the firebox. 

The shelf mantel is positioned right above the firebox. It’s either attached to the chimney with nails or glue or integrated into the stonework. A common built-in arrangement is for two appropriately spaced projections from the chimney to support the shelf. 

Surrounds generally don’t look right with a towering stone fireplace but are more at home with fireplaces that vent behind the wall. They create a finished look that the chimney otherwise would. The sides of a mantel surround can be decorative, adding curves and fluting, sometimes even high-relief sculpted columns.

Homes can and do have mantel shelves and surrounds without fireplaces. You can further the illusion of a fireplace by placing a decorative screen in front of the wall where a fireplace would be.

Timber homes present an opportunity to handle mantels by incorporating the shelf into a timber frame whose posts flank the fireplace. Don’t overdo it by using the frame to create secondary shelves, or the result may look like scaffolding.
How to Decorate a Fireplace Mantel
Photo Credit: James Ray Spahn
A timber fireplace mantel ties in with the timber frame and provides a shelf for seasonal decor.

Mantel Materials

The two mantel materials are wood and stone. The latter encompasses a broad range, from rough-cut slabs of raw rock stacked post-and-lintel style to polished marble with bullnosed edges and corners. The material and the degree of finishing determine a stone mantel’s price. Mantels cost from a few hundred dollars for a basic wooden shelf to thousands for elegantly carved stone. 

Cast Stone

There’s also such a thing as cast-stone mantels. They’re formed in molds from concrete or other materials. Usually they involve the entire mantel surround rather than just the shelf. 
how to decorate a fireplace mantel
The "Normandy" cast stone mantel from Old World Stoneworks is made
out of man-made limestone. Photo: Old World Stoneworks

Recycled Wood & Stone 

Wood and stone used for mantels are sometimes recycled, occasionally from old-growth trees. Often, you can find already-made mantels in architectural salvage yards. Remember that existing mantels can be reworked and refinished to fit your fireplace.

You can save substantially on the cost of your mantel with materials from your home or property. When you clear your land for your home site, look for tree branches or uncovered rocks that might, with little effort, add character above your fireplace. An end cut off your timber frame also works well.
How to Decorate a Fireplace Mantel
Photo Credit: Hearthstone Inc.
Strategic lighting can emphasize the mantel setting, even if the mantelpiece itself is subdued. Here, a treasured painting commands the attention it deserves.

Mantel Styles

Mantels set the stage for any look you choose for your timber home, from simple to ornate and rustic to sophisticated. Moldings and design details differ considerably, too. The bigger and more intricate your mantel, the more prominent it will appear.

Keep in mind that if, down the road, you decide to redecorate, swapping one style mantel for another isn’t that difficult. In many cases, it’s a do-it-yourself task.

Mantel Embellishments

Because stone and wood are natural materials with inherent character, they serve suitably as is. Their appeal, however, is their adaptability to any interior look.

Carvings are common in mantels. These range from elegant fluting to rustic figures. Some homeowners prefer to carve the date their home was built into a square timber mantel.

How to Decorate a Fireplace Mantel

Fireplace mantels are convenient to display knickknacks, heirlooms and pictures. They’re definitely an excellent place to hang stockings and display cards around Christmas. Because mantels are so visible, decorating them is both tempting and challenging. It’s a rare mantel that doesn’t display something on or above it. The principles at work are balance and proportion.

You can assign a single piece to sit on or just above the mantel, such as an urn, mirror or wreath, but you’ll likely arrange several objects. Start with a prominent centerpiece, then build around it. For a symmetrical arrangement, strive for a mirror image left and right of the centerpiece. For an asymmetrical look, place several smaller, lighter objects on one side and fewer or just one heavy object on the other. Another arrangement is layering, where you place items not just beside each other, but also behind and in front.

The trick is to be visually engaging without overloading. Know when to stop. When you position pieces, examine them from several angles, not just the front.

If you’re decorating a mantel in a tall great room with an exposed chimney all the way to the ceiling, consider a tall mirror or artwork further up the chimney to avoid vertical monotony. In this case, also create a mantel display that focuses attention at eye level to establish varied interest.

All rules fly up the chimney at Christmas. Mantels crowded with cards, candles and stockings are appropriate and desirable. Just be sure to revert to a conventional display when you take down the tree.
How to Decorate a Fireplace Mantel
Photo Credit: Sandy Mackay
Symmetry and simplicity assure successful mantel arrangements. Chimneys that don’t reach from hearth to ceiling allow other elements to fill space above the mantel.

Buying a Mantel

The best time to choose mantels is when you’re planning your fireplace so you can coordinate the look of the mantel with the stone and surrounding wall. You’ll find the greatest variety of quality mantel manufacturers on websites such as Old House Online, or check out Timber Home Living's own Guide to Fireplace and Hearth Companies. Or search using terms such as “rustic mantels,” “elegant mantels” or “custom mantels.” Just about any term will yield a slew, even if you misspell it “mantle.”

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