The place where the fire is made has been the central gathering place for people living in all manner of dwellings since man first discovered it was smarter to come in out of the cold and light a fire than to be out in the elements. From Saxon times through Mediaeval times, the most important room was the common room. From a pit dug in the dirt floor of a primitive hut to the grandeur of the French Classical style of chimney piece: the fireplace has been the focal point of the room, the gathering place and probably the warmest place in any hut, home or palace. With folks spending lots of time around the fire cooking and staying warm, the fire place soon became something to enclose with stones and decorate with a shelf or mantel. The fireplace mantel is the central point of this decoration along with the surround and the over-mantel. What mantel you choose for your fireplace is limited only to your imagination and your budget. Here then are some of the incredible variety of mantels styles from which to choose:
Wood mantels have over the centuries ranged from a simple wooden shelf to wood that has been fashioned into the intricate and ornate Georgian style with matching frame for a portrait. Victorian mantels included all sorts of molding and mill work as opposed to the simple clean cut lines of colonial designs. Wood provides a warm and cozy feeling. It can be stained, painted or painted in faux marble to look like real marble. In early fireplaces the mantel was essentially just a shelf on which to store pots and other cooking utensils.
Modernist mantels range from the clean lines of Art Deco through the flamboyance of Art Nouveau. This style could be anything from a simple round brick column supporting a glass mantel to carved stone, from tile framed with wood to exotic inlayed woods. This style lends itself to blending the mantel and surround with elements of the room.
Colonial mantels often feature a heavy wooden beam shelf but may have a smooth wood shelf. With fireplaces made of odd sized rocks taken from local fields, the mantel shelf was often constructed of heavy beam. Local woods were used and varied with the area. Later Colonial styles were made from finished woods shaped into smooth moldings and pilasters. This style has its roots in Europe and Scandinavia having been brought to America by immigrants and modified by the material available locally. They are warm and informal, more often seen in country homes than in city dwellings. The hearth is usually large and may have racks for cooking pots.
Contemporary mantels include a wide variety of colors and textures. They can be used to introduce new colors into a room while displaying the unique taste and personality of the homeowner. Thanks to technical innovations and new materials, these mantels bring fireplace design into the future. Care must be taken to not lose the cozy warming qualities of a radically modern design which goes with the room, but lacks charm.
French mantels are certainly the most elegant style in all of history. Carved in an elaborately ornate style using woods, stone, marbles and metals, they often extend from the floor to the ceiling to form an over-mantel which sometimes is blended with the paneling of the room. It takes a very formal ornate room to handle a French mantel.
Victorian mantels feature ornate carving of stained and varnished woods or polished marble with matching marble framing the fireplace. This style is generally heavily decorated with gilded or wood frame mirrors above, additional shelves above the mantel and highly decorated framing for the fireplace.
The Victoria period includes a wide variety of mantels all of which are generally very ornate. Wood, tile, and marble mantels with massive gilded mirror over- mantels, massive portraits or landscape paintings were the norm.
Rustic mantels are generally made of local stone in its original shape or cut and fitted to form a fireplace. Most often the mantel is a rough cut heavy beam supported by stones. Rustic mantels abound in mountain retreats and are a charming feature of the log cabins built in mountain parks in Virginia by the Roosevelt era WPA’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
Concrete mantels can be formed into many shapes both to resemble traditional materials and to form unique patterns in a variety of colors. They are cool and clean but lack the warmth of other materials. Concrete can be formed into any shape, limited only to the shape of the concrete mold.
Marble mantels convey an air of solidity, formality and often shear opulence. Generally the origin of the marble denotes the color like pink marble from Turkey, whites from Italy and greens from Vermont. There are an infinite variety of colored and mixed color marbles. Marble is sturdy and can be shaped into curves and moldings using computerized cutting and shaping devices.
Antique mantels can be fascinating once they have been expertly restored; a job that is always more involved than it appeared to be at first. Once you find just the right one, stripping the paint and refinishing can be lots of fun. Go on the web to find salvage yards stocking antique stone, marble, metal and wood mantels.
Custom mantels can utilize a variety of styles in one fireplace. Wood can be combined with tile, marble, stone or cement. The one difficulty with these is your ability to visualize what it is actually going to look like when the final product is finished.
The best way to get it right the first time is to consult your contractor and allow him to help you to narrow down the many choices to one that will please you for decades to come. Take the time to visit the suppliers of wood, stone, or perhaps even finished mantels recommend by your contractor to actually experience the texture, color and look of the various mantels available. This will be a great help in guiding your decisions. A cooperative contractor may start by drawing an outline of the proposed mantel right on the wall to give you a better prospective of what the finished fireplace will look. The next step may be a cardboard mockup that will provide you with a three dimensional look at the mantel. Before the mantel is permanently installed, you might want the contractor to temporarily fasten it in place so you can study it for a time.
You may have thought you wanted a mantel that was flat, but once it is in place you might want to consider a rounder front or bevel edges. The time to make those decisions is in the mock up. Once the timber or marble are cut, it is too late to change the shape. You may want a combination of a wood mantel and a stone surround. Woods like hard pine, cherry or chestnut look particularly good provided they are made of seasoned lumber. Be sure to ask your contractor about using aged hard woods. Ideally the wood should have 8 percent moisture content. Discuss the texture too. Wood can be rough cut for one effect, distressed or smooth for yet another look. Stains can bring woods alive in a variety of colors.
The right fireplace mantel is the most important element in a room that will be a gathering place for family and friends, a source of heat, the creator of warming aromas and the setting in which lasting memories are made. Without a fireplace mantel, where in the world would the stockings be hung with the greatest of care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there?
The House and Home Magazine would like to thank Mr. David Terry for his contribution to this article.