Greg Alexander

Master the mantel

do! magazine, December 2004

The living room has traditionally been a place to relax, unwind and enjoy conversation with friends and family. Comfortable furniture combined with exquisite furnishings help set the mood, which can be elevated with a roaring fire in the fireplace. While a fireplace’s primary goal is to help shake off winter’s chills and lower heating bills, a tastefully decorated fireplace mantel can transform the fireplace from simply a heating element to a star showpiece.

If you need to replace an existing mantel or need a new one for a fireplace addition, your choice of styles is endless. Marble or wood? Antique or custom? Full or half mantel? Georgian, Federal or Colonial?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and want to see all your options, then a trip to Philadelphia may be the right idea. Located just two blocks off I-95 is Francis J. Purcell Inc., a family-owned business spanning two generations that has been dealing with fine antiques and mantels for over 40 years.

“We always have a minimum of 150 mantels in stock; it’s our specialty,” says Francis Purcell, Sr., owner of the company that has supplied antiques to the White House and various governors’ mansions over the years. The antique dealer now operates out of a four-story historic building in Olde City Philadelphia and says that he has clients from all over the world, including a client in Switzerland. “Most of our clients are from the East Coast — from Connecticut to Florida. Many people are restoring old homes where the fireplaces have been torn out, and they want the mantel to be the focal point,” says Purcell, who notes that most of his mantels are from what he calls the “Golden Age,” 1750 to 1840.

Purcell encourages homeowners to look at different styles and sizes featured on his Web site, “Once you get the measurements for the mantel you need, you can input them, and our Web site will show you what we have in stock that will fit,” he says.

For new homes, many homeowners opt for a custom-made mantel, says interior decorator Randi Prager. “With a custom-built mantel, you can choose any style, size, shape and design that you want, and new ones are usually easier to install than antique ones. In either scenario, make sure you run everything by the builder and include him or her in the decision-making process.” Prager says that she used a cabinetmaker to craft a new mantel for her home but also recommends looking to home furnishing stores for mantel sources.

As with many purchases, the Internet is a valuable resource. Check out for an array of mantels, as well as easy-to-follow installation instructions and helpful hints, such as how to determine the right size mantel for your fireplace. Wood mantels can be ordered in many different wood types, such as cherry, maple, poplar and oak and can be customized with many different finishes, such as red oak, mahogany or natural. The company will stain the mantel before shipping, and most mantels arrive in two to four weeks. In addition to wood mantels, you can also order a new stone, marble or milestone mantel. Milestone, a lightweight concrete ornamental stone that rivals the beauty of natural stone, makes an excellent replacement for brownstone or limestone.

Another source for a new mantel is ReadyBuilt Products’ Web site (, which carries many styles of wood mantels that can be custom-sized to fit an existing fireplace.

If you’re looking to add something old without paying for a fine antique, check out architectural salvage shops. “We know where our mantels come from, so there’s a history behind them, which homeowners enjoy,” says Mark Foster, president of Second Chance Inc., a Baltimore non-profit organization that rescues architectural elements from residential and commercial buildings facing demolition. Second Chance, which also performs job training in carpentry, furniture making and demolition, also accepts architectural elements as tax-deductible donations and, in turn, sells them at their warehouses, which feature everything from old doorknobs to stained glass to plumbing fixtures, and, of course, mantels.

“White marble mantels are very popular,” says Tracey Clark of Second Chance (, “but usually homeowners want to find a mantel that matches their home style.” Clark adds that Second Chance recently sold a mantel that is used in the mayor’s office of the HBO show, “The Wire.” Clark says that she sells many mantels to homeowners who are building an addition to an older home, and they want the newer section to blend with the older one. “Using antique fixtures and hardware can help make that transition seamless, and an antique fireplace mantel is a great way to do that,” she says.

Clark urges homeowners to check with a licensed contractor regarding building codes, especially in regards to the amount of brick, slate or marble buffer you need between the firebox and the mantel. She adds that wood mantels are easy to install; however, slate and marble ones can be difficult.

Once you have the mantel you desire, how best to decorate it?

“The No. 1 thing is to keep everything to scale,” says interior designer Betsy Sheehan of Décor & More Designs. “I also suggest placing items on the sides instead of always starting in the center. Focus on one or two elements, such as a pair of candlesticks or a nice piece of art, sculpture, vase or a traditional mantel clock.” Sheehan also suggests ceramic fruit — freestanding, not in a bowl — but stresses to keep things simple. “Less is more when decorating a mantel. People tend to clutter a mantel. If you have a decorative mantel, consider leaving it bare.” Sheehan adds that when hanging a piece of art above a mantel, be mindful of the distance between the top of the mantel and the ceiling. “If you have a short ceiling, simply lean the artwork on the mantel instead of hanging it,” she says.

Once you have the mantel decorated, Sheehan recommends quality lighting over the mantel to show off your hard work.

Making your new look functional

Also essential when decorating a fireplace are a fireplace screen and fireplace tools. Most home decorating stores carry these items, as do high-end furnishing stores. “There’s much more thought involved when choosing a screen and tools; they can make or break an area,” says Sheehan. “I’ve been in homes that have gorgeous fireplace mantels and expensive tile, marble and stone around the fireplaces but have cheap-looking fireplace accessories. Everything needs to work together, and the accessories need to look as rich as everything else.”

Sheehan recommends a simple black, wrought iron screen, especially if you want the screen to recede and not draw attention away from other elements in the room. “If you are on a limited budget, stay simple and choose designs that are not overpowering. Also, if you have glass doors, make sure that they go with the style of the fireplace; you don’t want a contrast.”

When decorating a non-working fireplace, Sheehan suggest treating it as if it was a working fireplace. “I’m not big into using the space to house plants or other items. Continue to use a fireplace screen and tools around the fireplace.” Sheehan adds that a hand-painted fireplace screen will really show off the space.

DIY Installation

“While installing a slate or marble mantel should probably be left to a professional, installing a wood mantel is simple,” says Second Chance’s Clark. “Installing a wood mantel couldn’t be easier,” she says. “If your home has drywall, simple drywall screws will work. The weight of the mantel is on the floor, so the screws basically just keep the mantel from tipping over.”

For a wood mantel, center it around the firebox opening and mark its position on the wall. You may want to first install mounting boards on the wall, as it may be easier to install the mantel on them instead of the actual wall. Mounting boards can be installed easily with a hammer and nails into the walls’ studs.

Clark adds that if you want to paint or stain the mantel, do so before installing. Then, make pilot holes in the correct position and use either drywall screws or long nails to install the mantel on the mounting boards making sure to keep the mantel positioned flush with the floor and tight against the mounting boards.

Back to top