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Choosing A Fireplace Mantel For Your Home

by Jake Park 

In Latin, the word focus means “fireplace or hearth,” and it’s easy to see how the word evolved 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 - even when the fire is out. Builders and renovators need to pay special attention to this architectural detail and choose the mantel that will best complement and enhance the overall style of the home.

History Of Mantels

Before the 1800s, fireplaces were more functional than decorative, and they were used not just for heating the home, but for baking bread and cooking meals. They were typically recessed deeply into the wall, and residents could walk into the fireplace to tend the fire.

In the 19th century, however, fireplaces began to be designed with more of an eye to aesthetics. Builders began adding decorative panels on either side of the fireplace opening and mantel shelves above. In the Victorian era, known for its highly ornamental style, the mantel shelf became a place to display artwork or other decor, and it is still used in this manner today.

Choosing The Right Style

In past centuries, certain architectural styles dominated building design and interior decor, but nowadays, individuality is valued, and homeowners have a wide variety of styles to choose from. The following are some of the most popular style options for fireplace mantels.

Modern. In general, a modern look in home decor involves clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic. Modern fireplace mantels tend to be simply designed and somewhat understated, often consisting of a simple shelf mounted above a flat fireplace opening. White paint, natural wood, and stone are all popular materials for a contemporary and minimalist fireplace mantel.

Rustic. A rustic style combines traditional and modern elements in eschewing ornamentation for a more rugged and natural look. A rustic-style fireplace mantel is likely to show natural features of the material, such as wormholes, wood knots, and saw markings, like these hand-hewn beams or these reclaimed barn wood saw-cut shelves. A rustic mantel can be stained or simply sealed to preserve its natural appearance.

Victorian. The Victorian era coincided with the Industrial Revolution, a new prosperity for the middle class, and a new capacity to mass-produce furniture. Thus, middle-class people of that time sought out the affordable luxury of furnishings with ornate carvings and embellishments, and such details characterize Victorian-style fireplace mantels today. Both carved wood and cast stone are popular materials for this antique style.

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

Classical. The word “classical” refers to the architectural styles of ancient Greece and Rome. Some elements of those cultures are still visible in modern-day designs for fireplace mantels. They include the use of marble or another stone and a preference for the color white. 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 mahogany or a piece of reclaimed barn wood. Wood is durable and has a warm, natural beauty in any form. It can be stained or painted any color or tone, and it can be designed to complement almost any architectural style.

Other options to consider are metal, marble, granite, cast stone, and other composite materials, like medium-density fiberboard or architectural glass. In most cases, the preferred style of mantel will determine the best material to use, but cost may also be a factor. For the best quality of material, wood is generally going to be a more affordable option than either metal or stone.

Determining The Size You Need

The proper size of a fireplace mantel depends on several measurements. For one thing, 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 certain distance away from the fireplace opening according to how far it protrudes.

In addition, a minimum of six inches of clearance around the whole fireplace opening is required. Builders must also consider local codes that may impose stricter limitations. Thus the depth and height of your fireplace and the position where you want to place the shelf will determine the size of the shelf you need.

It’s also important to consider the dimensions of the room and choose a fireplace mantel that will fit into the space without overpowering the interior design. If you’re building a new home, you have a lot of flexibility in designing a fireplace with a surround and mantel. However, if you’re redesigning an existing fireplace, you’ll need to fit the new mantel around the existing opening. If the firebox is not a standard size or shape, you may need to consider a custom-made mantel.

Managing The Environmental Impact Of Installing A Fireplace Mantel

Building projects use natural resources and create waste, but there are many ways that builders can minimize the negative environmental impact of a home renovation project. One thing to consider is using recycled construction materials, such as reclaimed wood. This type of 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 an attractive piece of furniture 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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