Rehab Your Fireplace Mantel

A wooden mantel on a brick fireplace.
  • 2-50 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 50-1,500
What You'll Need
Cleaning solution
Pry bar
Drop cloth
Poplar lumber
Circular saw
Wood glue
Construction adhesive
Finish nails
Drill driver
Wood putty
Sand paper
Paintable caulk

If your mantel is out of date or damaged, it may need more than a quick cleanup to rehabilitate. The fireplace mantel is so important, there are entire poems and songs written about it. This is where the holiday stockings are hung, where trophies and family portraits are put on display… where you look in any room that has a fireplace. So what will your guests see when they look at yours? Beautify your fireplace mantel, and make it worthy of being an important focal point.

Step 1 - Clean the Area

Before beginning any DIY mantel project, you need a clean space to work with. Use a gentle cleaning solution that’s safe for wood, stone or ceramic (depending on the mantel) and a scrub brush to remove dirt from nooks and crannies. Rinse away all the soap and allow the mantel to dry.

After a good cleaning, you may find that the mantel needs no additional work. But if you still want to refurbish that mantel, a good scrubbing is the best way to start. Step back and look at your mantel. Does it need to be repainted, refinished? That's a simple process. But what if the shape of it needs to change? You can use the existing mantel as the core of your "new" one.

Step 2 - Prep the Mantel

If the existing mantel is oversized, depending on how it was installed you may be able to disassemble it. With a prybar, move around the mantel and gently pull it apart at the seams. Work slowly and deliberately to keep from tearing the mantel into pieces. What you want to be left with is a skeleton you can build onto.

KC’s extra tip: Lay plastic or newspaper on the hearth and the area immediately around the fireplace. As you remove the mantel, debris is likely to fall around this region.

If it's made of brick or built-in in such a way it can't be taken apart, you can do the work in place.

Step 3 - Measure and Cut

marbled fireplace with mantle surround

Measure the dimensions of the skeleton or the existing mantel. You're going to build a new skin for it. Use poplar lumber. It's easier to work with than harder woods like oak that accepts paint or stain well and maintains straight and sharp lines better than softer woods like pine or fir.

Use one-inch boards. The width depends on the dimensions you want in the end. Either 1x6s, 1x8s or 1x12s should work. If you want to put anything large (like a TV) on the mantel, the top should be a 1x8 or 1x12. Cut the lumber to the length of the top, the front the bottom and the sides.

Step 4 - Rebuild Your Mantel

Instead of wholly replacing your fireplace mantel, reuse it. Build a wood frame that will slide right over the old mantel. Essentially, you need to build a long, thin three-sided box. Either assemble the box with finish nails and slide it over the old mantel, or set the pieces in place one at a time and nail them in place. Either way, use glue on the underside of the boards and on the surface of the old mantel.

If you're rehabing a brick mantel, use construction adhesive and drill pilot holes through the wood and brick, and screw the skin in place with masonry screws.

Countersink the screws or nails, so they're a little below the surface of the wood, and you can hide them with wood putty. With the rebuilt mantel attached to the fireplace, test that it’s set firmly in place.

You can embellish it with molding, or leave it plain for a more spartan look, depending on the surrounding decor.

Step 5 - Finish the Wood

wood mantlepiece above fireplace

Poplar sands completely smooth, so sand down any roughness, and any putty. Before you paint or stain, add a bead of paintable caulk at the joint between the mantel and the wall to ease the transition. Now, paint or stain to your desired color.

Other Options

Wood is a classic mantel choice, but it’s not your only choice. If your existing mantel is brick, consider painting it to give it a whole new look. Painted brick can never go back to being just plain brick, so consider this decision carefully.

If your fireplace is ceramic or tile, consider installing new tiles over it to change the look. You don’t need a lot of tile, so look for deals and discounts on a small amount of tiles to save money. Existing tile can also be painted. You’ll need to prime it well first, but then you can exercise your creativity.

Safety Concerns

If you change the positioning of the mantel, consider national codes. According to these rules, your fireplace requires six inches of clearance between the mantel and the firebox. You’ll need another one inch of clearance for every ½-inch your mantel protrudes from the wall, so consider this if you’re widening your mantel.

A new mantel can make an existing fireplace look completely different, and it makes a huge impact in the room.