Easy, Elegant Mantel
Build a fireplace surround from one sheet of MDF and some stock moldings.
Fireplace surrounds—better known by the more commonly used term mantels—are a finish carpenter’s playground. They’re a relatively small, cleanly contained opportunity to create a centerpiece that shows off our craftsmanship, lets us exercise our eye for proportions and design, and, for better or worse, gives us a chance to pile on the moldings. But not every mantel job has a big budget, and that often leads to unimaginative design and execution, or worse, a cookie-cutter, factory-produced, prefab option. But with a bit of creativity, even a modest-budget living room can be finished with an elegant fireplace surround. All you need to build the mantel shown here is about $125, enough for a sheet of 3⁄4-in. MDF, some 1x poplar, and a couple sticks of stock molding.
As far as trim-carpentry projects go, this one is fairly straightforward. The work can be done in a shop, as it was for this project, or right on site. The tools aren’t specialized, and in most cases can be chosen based on what is already in your arsenal. For instance, I’d be just as comfortable joining boards with floating tenons as I was using biscuits, and even though I used a tracksaw to cut the MDF parts, a well-tuned tablesaw would also work.
The dimensions of the assembly shown here are based on a simple Federal design by woodworker Mario Rodriguez, which appears in his excellent book, Building Fireplace Mantels. I scaled the parts and customized the assembly to fit the room where the mantel was installed, but before you go too far down the path of designing, it’s important to consider the restrictions of the building code.
The code is not difficult to satisfy (see drawing right), but fireplaces in old houses don’t always mesh with modern code standards. The problem is that the masonry around the firebox often isn’t wide enough to accommodate a mantel that’s set far enough away from the firebox to meet code—at least not without cartoonish proportions.
Luckily, the fireplace in this house is nonfunctional, and the homeowners simply wanted a decorative surround as a focal point. But if the fireplace had been operational, I would have scaled up the entire surround to maintain the mantel proportions, and then covered the brickwork with slabs of stone or tile that extend onto the surrounding drywall as far as necessary to cover the gap between the firebox and the mantel foundation boards. Finally, keep in mind that clearance rules for manufactured fireplace inserts and stoves supersede the building codes, and may be stricter.
Check out a video related to this article: Scribing Made Simple
For more info and photos showing every step of the build, click View PDF below.