When you choose materials and a style for your fireplace surround, or facing, you're making a strong design statement in your room. Whether you've selected a traditional masonry fireplace, a prefabricated model, or an insert, what gives it character are the mantel, facing, and hearth. From the simplest option -- a plain mantel -- to a full-blown stone mantel, surround, and hearth combination, you have numerous possibilities from which to make your choice. You'll see all kinds of mantels and facings illustrated in photos throughout this book.
A mantel is actually a decorative frame around the fireplace and its facing. The ledge above the firebox is the mantel shelf; the "legs" are the vertical elements on either side of the firebox. Sometimes an overmantel, a panel above the shelf, is part of the design. The surround (sometimes called the filler panel) is the frame right around the firebox; it must be of noncombustible material.
A mantel made of noncombustible materials can be built right up to the firebox opening without an intervening facing. For a wood mantel, check with your fire department and building code officials to see how close combustible materials can be to the firebox opening and how far a mantel shelf can project.
To explore your options, visit home improvement stores and fireplace and mantel dealers' showrooms. If you're seeking a vintage mantel, you'll want to haunt antique stores and salvage yards. Don't overlook the Internet (search under "Fireplace mantels") as a source of ideas.
The simplest of treatments, these "floating" mantels range from a single rough-hewn beam or a simple shelf on brackets to a fancy prefabricated mantel. You can install a shelf mantel directly on the wall above a firebox opening, whether the wall is constructed of drywall, stone, brick, or another material.
Manufacturers of both prefabricated and made-to-order mantels offer mantel shelves, legs, and overmantels in mix-and-match options in a variety of designs. Legs may be simple, or they may be more elaborate pilasters or columns. You can purchase prefabs to fit around corner fireplaces as well as single-face fireplaces.
Off-the-shelf mantels offer a relatively inexpensive alternative to custom-made designs. Least expensive is unfinished paint-grade fiberboard; the most costly is stainable oak, cherry, or other hardwood or fruitwood. Designs range from plain and simple to intricately routed and trimmed.
Ready-made mantels come in various sizes, often adjustable to fit your particular fireplace and room. Prefab fireplace makers often offer ready-made mantels to fit their products. Some claim that these make it possible to have a new fireplace and mantel delivered and installed in less than a day's time.
If you want a one-of-a-kind mantel and surround tailored to your room and your fireplace, custom-made and site-built is the way to go. You'll have carte blanche in choosing your materials and designs -- for a price.
Under most circumstances, you'll be choosing separate materials for mantel and facing. The latter must be a noncombustible material such as tile, brick, metal, cast concrete, or stone.
For a truly classic-looking mantel, or for some rustic styles, wood is the top choice. The best wood mantels are like pieces of fine heirloom furniture -- made of hardwood or fruitwood, beautifully stained and sealed with hand-rubbed finishes. They can be plain, adorned with simple decorative paneling and molding, or elaborately carved. A mantel of lower-grade hardwood or softwood can also be charming when painted -- either a solid color or antiqued, distressed, or even painted with a faux-marble finish.
Stone and rock
These are timeless, nearly indestructible materials for mantels and facings. A surround of natural rock must be constructed on-site by a mason. One alternative -- cultured stone -- allows you to have a natural rock look (actually a veneer) that weighs only about a quarter as much as natural stone.
If you don't want the rustic or "natural" look, consider a prefabricated or custom stone mantel of marble, granite, limestone, or slate -- elegant if expensive. Among carved styles, the least costly are imported machine-carved marble mantels; hand-carved ones are true luxury items.
Cast stone replicates the look of hand-cut limestone. Cast limestone actually contains crushed limestone; less costly types of cast stone may not. Styles run the gamut from spare, clean-lined looks to mantels that appear ornately carved.
Brick and tile
Brick is the longtime traditional facing for fireplaces, but a wide range of looks can be produced with it depending on what kind and color of bricks you use and what pattern you lay them in. Brick is heavy, so you may need extra structural support if you use a lot of it.
Versatile tile, either stone or ceramic, comes in nearly endless colors, finishes, and styles -- from sleek polished granite squares to pebbly surfaced ceramics or charming blue and white Delft.
For a contemporary look, install tiles as a wide facing only, without the surrounding mantel or even mantel shelf. Or use a tile facing within a full mantel surround. One manufacturer of gas fireplaces lets you change the tile for different looks: 4-by-4 tiles slip into a frame mounted to the drywall.
Mantels and surrounds of metal may be historical reproductions or sleekly contemporary. A cast-bronze mantel in Victorian style may feature a hand-rubbed gold or verdigris finish. Cutting-edge styles -- gleaming surrounds of rolled steel and even stainless steel tiles -- must be custom-designed.
Plaster and gypsum
Poured in molds, plaster mantels tend to have a smooth finish. They can also have more intricate detailing than most carved-wood pieces, and you can paint the plaster to match your decor. Like plaster, glass fiber–reinforced gypsum offers ornate detailing achieved by casting in molds.
Precast concrete mantels are great for achieving interesting custom looks because they may be finished in varied ways -- from sandblasted to smooth to acid-washed -- and come in a broad spectrum of colors. Cast in one piece or in modules, they are lightweight because they're reinforced with glass fiber.
If your heart is set on a vintage mantel and you have the good luck to find an appropriate one of wood or stone, it can usually be adjusted to fit. (You'll probably wind up cutting down one that's too large.) Get professional help to determine how best to adapt your antique mantel according to building and fire codes.
The hearth material usually matches that of the noncombustible fireplace facing -- rock, stone, tile, brick, or concrete. Cast-in-place concrete is an appealing newer choice. Another option is a seamless stone slab installed as a hearth, applied with thinset mortar over a base of concrete.
Depending on the height of the fireplace on the wall, the hearth may be level with the floor or raised. A raised hearth can be extended out to provide seating or a footrest.
Ideas for Great Fireplaces