How to Choose the Right Fireplace Mantel

brown wooden table with white pillar candles

If you have a fireplace, or if you’re planning to get one, you may consider purchasing and installing a fireplace mantel. The mantel of your fireplace is mostly decorative, though it serves a functional purpose as well; in addition to framing the fireplace, highlighting it in the context of your living space, it can provide a layer of protection and additional storage to the area.

So how do you choose the right fireplace mantel?

Fireplace Mantel Goals

Before you start exploring specific fireplace mantel options, you should take a moment to think about your goals for this project. Most people buying a mantel have two main goals in mind: improving the visual appearance of the fireplace and adding a new layer of functionality.

On the design front, your mantel can help to highlight the fireplace and give it an elegant framing. This way, your fireplace can claim its place as the centerpiece of the room – and with the right mantel, you can put artwork, photos, and other items on display.

Practically, fireplace mantels offer storage options and additional protection. The right fireplace mantel can shield your walls (and anything attached to the wall) from potential heat damage from your fireplace when it’s burning.

As a secondary goal, you may be interested in maximizing the boost in value to your home.

You’ll also need to think about your budget. If you had a hypothetically unlimited amount of money to spend, you could get the finest and most appropriate fireplace mantel that money could buy; but if you’re limited on what you can spend, some options may be unavailable.

What You Need to Know

Next, there’s some information you’ll need to gather to make sure your fireplace mantel is appropriately sized and positioned.

  • Fireplace clearance requirements. Depending on the materials you use and the nature of your fireplace, you’ll likely want to calculate fireplace clearance requirements. These measurements will ensure your fireplace doesn’t pose a hazard to your mantel (or anything else in your house).
  • Width requirements. You’ll also need to figure out your width requirements. How wide does your mantel need to be?
  • Room dimensions. Though it’s a bit more subjective, think carefully about the dimensions and overall shape of your room. Ideally, you’ll choose a mantel that fits nicely with the rest of your aesthetic choices.

Materials for Fireplace Mantels

Modern fireplace mantels are most commonly made from two major materials: wood and cast stone.

Wood has several advantages:

  • Variety. Wood mantels can be found in a wide range of shapes and styles.
  • Grades and budget. Because multiple grades are available, you can get a wood mantel with almost any conceivable budget.
  • Paint and staining options. You can paint and/or stain your wood mantel to look just the way you like.

It also has some disadvantages:

  • Flammability. You’ll need to follow clearance requirements very closely.
  • Susceptibility to dents and damage. Wood is less durable than cast stone, making it vulnerable to certain types of damage.
  • Paint/stain deterioration. Over time, your paints and stains can fade.

These are the biggest advantages of cast stone:

  • Durability. Cast stone is an incredibly durable and resilient material.
  • Uniqueness. Some people love the aesthetics of cast stone, making it a unique highlight of your living room.
  • No clearance requirements. Cast stone isn’t flammable, so clearance requirements aren’t as big of a deal.

These are some of the most notable disadvantages of cast stone:

  • Minimal style options. You’re somewhat restricted in terms of options.
  • Installation difficulty. Cast stone is typically custom-made and very heavy, making it difficult (and sometimes expensive) to install.
  • Cleaning difficulties. Cleaning wood is generally easier than cleaning cast stone.

Mantel Shelves vs. Mantel Surrounds

You can also choose between mantel shelves and mantel surrounds; shelves are basic floating shelving units above your fireplace, while surrounds encapsulate the full fireplace.

Shelves are:

  • Easy to install. It’s quick and easy to set up a shelf.
  • Inexpensive. Shelves are generally less expensive than surrounds, for obvious reasons.
  • Easy to move. You can typically move shelves if and when necessary.
  • Subject to fewer clearance requirements. You only need to worry about one dimension.

Surrounds are:

  • More prominently designed. If you want to bring more visual prominence to your fireplace, surrounds are the ideal option.
  • Available in more styles and shapes. There are countless choices to customize your surround.
  • Capable of being raised. Using plinth blocks, you can raise your surround to the perfect height.
  • Subject to more clearance requirements. You’ll need to measure each dimension carefully.

Buying a fireplace mantel isn’t always simple due to the number of styles and options available. But because of this versatile range of products, you can find the perfect fit for your fireplace and your mantel goals.