Do you want to build and install a floating fireplace mantel shelf on a brick wall? This post will show you how to do it, step by step!
Many older homes (like mine) have fireplaces built into brick walls, or with brick surrounding the fireplace opening. If you want to install or update an existing fireplace mantel, you may think that drilling into a brick wall will be very difficult.
But I’m here to tell you that with the right tools and careful planning, you can create a custom mantel and install it yourself! This is a very doable project for a beginner to intermediate DIY homeowner.
What is a Mantel?
A mantel (in the strictest sense of the word) is the frame around the opening of the fireplace. Many people use the term mantel to refer to the shelf or ledge that juts out over and above the fireplace. When I talk about a mantel in this blog post, I will be referring to the shelf that is installed above the firebox opening.
If you really want to get technical, the shelf that I’m calling the mantel should be called the mantelpiece, because it is only one specific part of a mantel. But generally speaking, most people today use the word mantel in the same sense I will be using it in this post, to refer to the shelf above the fireplace.
Mantel vs. Mantle
OK, now that we all agree on how we are using the term mantel, there is one more confusing tidbit to clarify: you spell it mantel, not mantle.
A mantle is a cloak or blanket you wear.
A mantel is the structure associated with a fireplace, as we previously discussed.
I’ve spelled it the wrong way for many years! It actually helps to know the right spelling if you need to search for the term mantel in Pinterest or Google (though many people spell it both ways). If spelling words correctly interests you (of course it does!), there is actually some controversy on mantel vs. mantle. Enjoy this article from Merriam-Webster Dictionary if you’d like to jump down this particular rabbit hole.
OK, let’s move on to determining the size and placement of your mantel.
How Long Do You Want Your Mantel to Be?
The length of your mantel should extend a minimum of three inches past either side of the fireplace opening.
If you are replacing an existing mantel, some of the logistical work is already done for you. Looking at your current mantel, is the length appropriate? If not, measure the length that you think might work and use painter’s tape to visualize the length you want.
Carefully go through Pinterest or Houzz and note the length of mantels you find visually appealing in comparison to the width of the fireplace opening. You may not know the exact dimensions, but you can get an idea.
My mantel situation is unique because the brick surround of my fireplace runs throughout that entire wall of our living room. After looking at similar brick walls online, I narrowed my decision down to three options:
- Install the mantel only above the fireplace.
- Install the mantel to run from end to end of the brick wall.
- Install the mantel to run above the fireplace and log storage opening, but inset it slightly from both ends of the wall.
With those choices in mind, I perused the internet and my inspiration pictures until I made my decision: Option Number Three!
Here is the picture that was my inspiration for the mantel
I measured the full width of my wall and then measured in eight inches from each edge to determine our mantel length.
How High Do You Want Your Mantel to Be?
When I am talking about height, I am referring to the question of how high you want the bottom of your mantel to be from the floor of your room.
The general rule of thumb is to place the bottom of a mantel 54 inches from the floor.
With that said, the bottom of my mantel is indeed 54 inches from the floor.
According to this article from hunker.com, the National Fire Code from the National Fire Protection Agency states that the mantel should be at least six inches above the top of the firebox (fireplace opening). Parts of the mantel assembly located above and projecting more than 1 1/2 inches (38mm) from the fireplace opening shall not be placed less than 12 inches (305mm) from the top of the fireplace opening, according to designthespace.com.
If you research mantel heights, it can be confusing because:
- some fireplaces have hearths (hearths are the raised seating area under the fireplace usually made of stone or brick) and some do not. My fireplace has a hearth, so I ignored it and used the floor as my starting point in order to measure up according to that 54 inch rule of thumb I referenced above. Measure from the floor up, not from your hearth.
- some fireplaces are heated by gas, some are electric, and some are wood-burning. Remember, the minimum height from the top of any fireplace opening (firebox) to the bottom of the mantel should be at least six inches. In our case, we have a wood-burning fireplace and I knew that I would be hanging stockings from my mantel. I chose to place the bottom of my mantel thirteen inches from the top of the fireplace opening. It’s a little high, but that is a personal preference. I wanted it well away from the fireplace opening.
- ceiling heights vary considerably. If you have a tall ceiling, you may want your mantel placed higher up than 54 inches from the floor. Just don’t go so high that it loses its association with the fireplace below. [insert pictures of mantels at varying heights]. Generally, sixty inches is the maximum recommended height.
Another rule of thumb to consider is that ideally, you will have at least 36 inches from the ceiling to the top of your mantel shelf. If your mantel is any higher than that, it looks odd and you may be very frustrated when trying to decorate your mantel and nothing fits!
How Thick (Or Thin) Do You Want Your Mantel to Be?
Your home decorating style will help guide you in determining how thick your mantel should be. . Most modern, minimal homes tend to have rather thin mantel shelves. If you like a more rustic look, a thicker mantel will fit your style best.
In my home, I took my cues from the wood beams already in our living room. I wanted to match the look of those beams to create a cohesive space, and the mantel I built pulled off the look quite well!
Measure Mantel Wall Space
Now that you have determined the size and placement of your mantel, it is time to have a little fun! Hop onto Houzz, Pinterest, search Google or search the hashtags #mantle and #mantel on Instagram. Save all the pictures you like on a Pinterest board, photo album, or in a Google doc. Just keep them all in one place consistently, because looking through all of those collected images will (usually) reveal what look you’re after.
If you’re planning on building a mantel yourself, you will also want to save some tutorials that explain the process. I found myself using a combination of written blog posts and YouTube tutorials when constructing my mantel shelf.
I have linked to related articles at the bottom of the post that helped me. They may help you also!
Use Mortar Joints in Brick to Help You Decide
One of the things that kept me from tackling the mantel installation was my fear of nailing or screwing into the brick face of our living room wall.
What I discovered is that mortar joints are our friends. The little grey lines in between brick or stone are what you want to drill into, not the actual brick itself.
It wasn’t that bad at all!
With mortar joints in mind, look for the horizontal joint lines (parallel to the floor) that best align with your desired mantel placement on the wall. That horizontal line is what you want to drill your ledger board into.
Keep in mind that 1) you will be drilling into the center of your ledger board (mine was a 2×4) and 2) your mantel box will be attached to the top of that, so the horizontal line you choose to drill into should be three inches-ish down from where you want the actual top of your mantel to be.
Build the Mantel
Gather Needed Supplies
At this point, you can actually buy stuff! Hooray!
I cannot tell you exactly what to buy because I don’t know what type of mantel appeals to you, but I can tell you what I did in case you want to construct and install a mantel similar to mine.
I went to Home Depot and bought three pieces of 1 in. x 6 in. x 10 ft. Premium Kiln-Dried Square Edge Whitewood Common Board. I already knew that the finished length of my project would be 100 inches, so the 10 ft length made sense for me. I used a thin piece of underlayment to cap the ends of my 1x6s that I already had on hand.
There are so many beautiful ways to enhance the look of a wooded mantel piece. I chose a stain that closely matched the look of my existing ceiling beams, but that might not work for you! Look at Pinterest and Instagram again; notice the look you are drawn to, and use that visual cue to help you decide what color stain (or paint) you want for your mantelpiece.
Cut to Size
Once you’ve stained your boards and they are dry, cut them to the desired length. Remember you will be covering the ends of the mantel with a thin piece of wood, so staining the ends of the boards is not necessary. You won’t see them!
In my case, I had decided to make my mantelpiece 84 inches long so I measured 84 inches and laid the boards side by side with edges lined up nice and neat. Then I used my speed square to draw a line across each of the three boards. That line was my cut guide. I cut all three boards to an equal length. I don’t have a miter saw, so I made all of these cuts using my circular saw.
This is a tricky part! Joining two boards exactly at a 90 degree angle can be difficult if you are like me and don’t have a nail gun.
If I were to do this again, I would probably buy some of these L brackets to make sure that I got as close to a true 90 degree angle as possible. At the time I was building my mantel, the L brackets didn’t even occur to me, so I used my work bench to clamp and hold one piece of lumber vertically and then used wood glue to affix the second piece at 90 degrees.
Once the glue was dry, I nailed 2 inch long finish nails into my boards.
I chose to use nails instead of screw because they don’t leave as big of a hole to cover up when you drive them in. You can sink them and then use wood filler to cover up the holes. That is harder to do with screws, though it’s certainly possible.
Remember when you’re building your mantel that you want the front of the mantel to be one finished board, so be sure to affix the other two boards on the inside of that front board so the top and bottom board edges are not exposed when the mantel is in place.
Install Ledger Board
I used this video to walk me through how to install a ledger board. I found a couple of 2x4s in our basement and attached them to our brick wall in the living room using 3 1/4 inch Tapcon screws and my drill. This probably would have been easier with an impact driver since I have the upper body strength of a tiny puppy, but I managed to get the job done.
Mount Directly to Wall
This 2×4 is what you will be attaching your mantel box to, so it’s very important that it is securely mounted to the wall and level.
Make Sure it’s level!
Drill into a mortar line instead of directly into a brick. The mortar lines should be level, but you should double check with your own level. You will be very sad if you get your new mantel up and it’s tilted at an angle and you have to repeat the whole process.
DIY vs. Ready made: the Results
To have a floating mantel shelf custom made in the length I required and installed by a professional handyman would have been probably in the ball park of $400 – $900. I made my own and installed it for less than $50, with most of my money spent on the lumber.
Was it worth it?
I love the mantel and I can’t believe I waited so long to build and install one. While there is a learning curve, I’m pleased with the result and love the way the brick fireplace wall looks now. This long mantel pulls together the wood storage opening and the fireplace opening into one, cohesive theme. This whole wall just makes more sense now.
How to Decorate Your Mantel
I may have mentioned this already, but one of the main reasons I wanted a mantel was to have a place to hang our Christmas stockings. In previous years we hung them in our downstairs family room, but it was important to me to have them on the main floor, in the main living area.
And now that the mantel is up, it creates a lot more opportunity for seasonal decorating! Because it is essentially a shelf, different items can be rotated through and appreciated as the seasons progress. Or if you’re more of a one-and-done person, you can style the mantel and never change a thing! It’s totally up to you. I am a tinkerer, however, and the idea of creating different seasonal tableaux is very appealing. It’s a great way to highlight objects that normally blend into the background.
I’m also so glad we limewashed the brick wall, because it creates such a nice contrast for any items that are displayed on the mantel. If we had left the mantel in the original brick red color, that red would have bossed around any thing that I chose to display. White plays well with any display, bold or neutral, so that brick wall recedes visually and creates a nice blank canvas.
What do you think? Are you convinced that you too can build and install a floating mantel on your brick wall?
It really wasn’t that difficult and I let that brick wall boss me around for too many years! The mantel was not expensive to build or terribly hard to install, and the effort was totally worth it. I hope you try it out for yourself.
Floating Mantel Resource Page
Related Floating Mantel Articles: Here are links to some other blog posts and YouTube videos I found helpful when researching how to build our own mantel:
- Some Like a Project: Howe We Built a Floating Fireplace Mantel
- Video: How to Install a Hollow Mantel With Richard Ourso
- Shanty 2 Chic: DIY Floating Rustic Shelf or Mantel