Fireplace Mantels Guide

A finely crafted mantel can add both value and exquisiteness to a fireplace. If you’re going to buy and install a new mantel, you’ll need to decide whether to a plain fireplace mantel shelf or full surround mantel is a better choice.


What’s a Mantel, Anyway?

A mantel is simply a decorative piece that accents your main firebox. In its most basic form, it is essentially a ledge or shelf that’s secured to the wall. You might hear people refer to this as a “floating” mantel. Alternately, a mantel can include pillars or legs that extend vertically down from the shelf, creating a box look. This style of mantel often includes filler panels (also called the surround), which fill the open space between the firebox and the legs. The filler panels must be made of a non-combustible material for safety.

How Do I Choose Between a Plain Fireplace Shelf and a Mantel with a Full Surround?

When deciding which type of mantel to install, a few factors come into consideration, the first of which is the amount of space around your firebox. Many fireplaces are within a buildout (an area of the wall that isn’t flush with the rest of the surrounding wall), while others can be in fairly close proximity to structures such as walls, doors or windows. These elements might not leave you a ton of room to work with, making a mantel shelf the better option. It’s very important to consider the current building codes here, as they indicate how close to the firebox mantel pieces can be, how far they may extend and how they have to be secured.

Next, think of your interior design goals. The lack of vertical legs on a plain mantel shelf means that the mantel naturally will draw the eye to either side, giving the impression that your room has more length. This effect gets more dramatic the more the shelf extends past the sides of the firebox. A shelf also has a much more minimal feel. A fireplace mantel with a full surround, by contrast, can draw the gaze up, especially if you choose one with long pillars and substantial undermantel (a panel that sits directly under the main shelf) or overmantel (a panel that sits directly above the main shelf). A surround mantel tends to make the fireplace a true focal point for the room, making it look more substantial and important. Keep in mind that color and materials can influence how much the mantel blends in or commands attention.

Connected with interior design are the materials around your fireplace. The mantel should complement the look of these materials. A full surround mantel of granite or marble, for example, can add some contemporary elegance to a flat drywall, while wood can add warmth to textured stone without ruining the more rustic feel. The materials around the firebox also vary in terms of how easy drilling is and the weight loads they can safely support. Depending on what you have, it can be much simpler and safer to install a mantel shelf that isn’t as heavy.

Lastly, you’ll need to include price into your mantel selection. Generally, a mantel shelf is going to be less expensive than a mantel with a full surround, simply because the shelf does not require as much material to make. This assumes, however, that you’re comparing mantels made from the same substances, and that the mantels are manufactured in a similar way. A mantel shelf can be comparable to or even exceed the price of a surround mantel if is made from something that is more durable or of higher quality, or if it is made by hand.

And When the Decision Making Gets Heated…

Any time you are choosing between a mantel shelf and a full surround, there’s more than one thing to base your purchase decision on. Safety, aesthetics, regulations, materials and price all must be part of the equation. The good news is that there is no shortage of choices in either style, guaranteeing that, with a little research, you’ll find a mantel that works for your fireplace.