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.
Types of MantelsThere are two mantel configurations:
- The shelf, which is what we usually think of as the mantel.
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.
Mantel MaterialsThe 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 StoneThere’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.
Recycled Wood & StoneWood 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.
Mantel StylesMantels 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 EmbellishmentsBecause stone and wood are natural materials with inherent character, they serve suitably as is. Their appeal, however, is their adaptability to any interior look.
How to Decorate a Fireplace MantelFireplace 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.
Buying a Mantel
Read more from Timber Home Living:
- Stone Fireplaces for Timber Homes
- Where to Place Your Chimney
- 5 Great Fireplace & Hearth Designs
- Guide to Fireplace & Hearth Companies