Mantel Makeover

Decorating guru Matt Fox tells how to make a mantel the focal point of a room.

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A mantel is all about style. With or without a fireplace, a mantel creates something interesting to look at.

They don't have to be fancy to become a focal point. In fact, simple mantels work well with most decorating schemes. With appropriate accessories, they can complement contemporary, Victorian or country decor.

There are a few tricks to decorating traditional mantels. But my cohost, Shari Hiller, and I have found that these tips work just as well even if there is no fireplace underneath.

First, a mantel should have its own focal point. Often, a single large painting or mirror is used. If you decide to go this route, be sure the piece in not hung too high. You can also just lean it against the wall. For a different look, use two or more coordinating pieces of art to create a grouping.

It's important to remember basic design principles when you are decorating a mantel, including color, texture, symmetry and size. A vase filled with cattails can provide both color and texture, for example.

Create interest by using a variety of heights and sizes. A tall vase on one end of the can be balanced with a grouping of candles of various sizes on the other.

Simple mantels can also be used to help create a theme within a room. Shells could be used to support a nautical theme, for instance, while fishing lures and equipment might be used for a sports-themed room.

So, if you'd like to have a mantel in your home, even if you don't have a fireplace, here's what you'll need to get started:

Materials and Tools:

tape measure
circular saw or handsaw
router (optional)
3" L-brackets
latex semigloss paint
1" by 6" pine (paint grade)
3/4" decorative molding (optional)
3/4" wire brads
finishing nails
wood glue
tack cloth
safety equipment


1. To begin, determine the length of the mantel. Measure, mark and cut a 1 by 6-inch pine to length using a circular saw or handsaw. Either rout the front edge of the shelf, using a quarter-round router bit, or attach a piece of decorative trim that can be purchased at a lumber dealer. These decorative trims come in many styles and can be attached with wire brads and wood glue.

2. Next, create two wall-support brackets. These brackets will be mounted directly to the wall, acting as a cleat. Sketch an interesting design and transfer the pattern to a block of 1 by 6-inch wood. Cut the pattern with a jigsaw. Repeat this process to create the second wall support. For additional visual interest, rout all but the top edges of the bracket with a quarter-round bit.

3. Next, create two mantel supports. These supports should be 5-1/2 inches wide at the top edge and the same length as the wall supports. Sketch a design and transfer the pattern to a block of 1 by 6-inch wood. Use a jigsaw to cut the pattern. Repeat this process to create the second shelf support.

4. After priming all bare wood surfaces with a primer/sealer, mount the mantel to the wall. Use three-inch L-brackets secured to the wall into wall studs or use self-anchoring wall molleys. Attach shelf from underneath with drywall screws.

5. After the mantel is attached, fill in any nail holes in the wood with spackle. Allow the spackle to dry, then sand with 120-grade sandpaper. Spot-prime all the sanded spackle with the primer and allow to dry.

6. Sand the entire shelf with 220-grade sandpaper. The primer will cause the wood fibers to raise, so to achieve a really smooth surface, sanding is a must. When sanding is complete, wipe down with a tack cloth to remove any dust.

7. To give the mantel e a finished look, caulk all the cracks and gaps where the boards meet with a latex silicone caulking. This step takes time, but is really worth the effort for a great finished look.

8. Allow the caulking to dry, and apply a finish coat of latex semigloss paint. Apply two coats to truly protect the mantel from future wear and tear.

9. Stand back and admire your work. Who says you have to have a fireplace to create a beautiful mantel? Certainly no one who's seen this beauty!

(Matt Fox and Shari Hiller alternate writing this column. They also are authors of Real Decorating for Real People and co-hosts of the Home & Garden Television show Room By Room).

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