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Mantel shelves can set the mood in a room

Mary G. Pepitone

A home’s fireplace is a hot spot. A natural focal point of any room, a fireplace is a space around which families can chill out.

“A roaring fire in a room draws people together,” says Chris Muller, senior “fire buyer” of the Omaha, Nebraska-based Hayneedle Inc., an online home store started in 2002. “Instead of having just a hole-in-the-wall for a fireplace, a mantel hung above it completes the picture.”

A mantel is most easily described as the shelf above a fireplace. Muller says there are two types of mantels: a free-hanging shelf and a surround, in which the mantelpiece is attached to vertical pieces that frame the firebox.

“With a design movement toward the more contemporary and clean lines, mantel shelves – without the surrounds – are most popular,” Muller says. “Mantel surrounds require more measurements and tend to be in traditionally decorated homes, which is not the most popular design trend right now.”

If you find your existing fireplace design has fizzled out, the easiest way to reignite it as a focal point is to add or replace the mantel.

A zero-clearance fireplace – made of metal with a masonry lining – is a self-contained fireplace, which allows homeowners to have a gas-burning fireplace that can be directly vented through an outside wall. This option eliminates the need for a chimney and flue, as it is vented through a horizontal pipe that exits an outside wall.

“To install a fireplace in a home isn’t the major construction project it once was,” Muller says. “Also, if people are painting an existing red-bricked fireplace white, it’s time to update the mantel shelf.”

The mantel should complement a home’s design and style – so don’t place a multitiered traditional mantel into a home with a modern, minimalistic vibe.

While mantels can be made of metal and stone, the most popular material is wood. “People are wanting a simple shelf that looks like a rustic piece of pine or barnwood,” Muller says. “A simple wooden mantel is the style that can be at home in a contemporary space or farmhouse, alike.”

After determining the style of mantel, it’s important to select the proper size for the mantel, based on the dimensions of the firebox itself and the hearth room. Mantels are typically a standard 60 to 72 inches wide. The height of the shelf can vary from 5 to 10 inches tall.

“Rooms with large fireplaces and vaulted ceilings can accommodate a bigger mantel,” Muller says. “The mantel is the focal point of the fireplace, and it’s important to get the proportions right, without being too under- or overwhelming.”

Muller suggests making paper templates of mantel shapes, taping them above the fireplace and stepping back to assess different choices before buying.

To install a mantel shelf requires securing a notched hanging board into the studs or masonry above the firebox. After the hanging board is installed, the mantelpiece then snugly fits onto the secured, customized board. If installing a surround-style mantel, the vertical pieces attach to the hung shelf on either side of the firebox and are secured at the bottom.

Some mantels hold secrets and conceal more space than meets the eye. Pearl Mantels’ Abingdon fireplace mantel shelf contains a secret drawer in which a homeowner can stash candles, fire-starters or the television remote.

“Often, people hang their flat-screen television above the mantelpiece, but the decoration of the mantel can be year-round,” Muller says. “Even though the fireplace isn’t in use in July, you can still display a patriotic theme on the mantel. In the winter, the mantel can be covered in pine boughs and is used as a place from which the stockings are hung.”

As families and friends gather around the hearth and home, a warm mood is created with a mantel that matches your house’s design aesthetic.

“Starting around $200, a new mantel shelf is a way to give your fireplace a face-lift,” Muller says. “Add personal touches to the mantel decor, such as photos, candles and small family heirlooms and your fireplace will be glowing, with or without a fire.”

For more mantel ideas, go to or visit YouTube and search “Hayneedle Decorate Mantel.”