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Fireplace Mantel Surrounds Buyer's Guide

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds Buyer's Guide

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds

Mantels and fireplace surrounds are classic for a reason. They anchor a fireplace in the room and provide a shelf for decor and meaningful items. But they are more than just a place to hang your Christmas stockings. Fireplace mantel surrounds play a major role in protecting walls and other items around the fireplace.

Sure, a mantel is a relatively simple structure. But it's important to choose the right one for your fireplace. Here's a guide on how to choose fireplace mantels and surrounds for your home. We'll cover all the basics, like measuring for the mantel and choosing the best material for your fireplace and budget. We'll also include installation tips and brand recommendations for mantel shelves or fireplace surround kits.

What is a Fireplace Mantel?

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Marble fireplace with mantel shelf

A fireplace mantel is a decorative piece that mounts above or encases a fireplace. Mantel shelves mount above the fireplace opening. Full mantels include both the top shelf and legs that frame the top and sides of the fireplaces. Cabinet mantels are more of a cabinet than a shelf (hence the name).

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Buck Stove Prestige Bookcase Mantel

Examples of cabinet mantels include corner fireplace cabinets or mantels with built-in bookshelves. These mantels may come with or without an attached hearth. (The hearth is the section that extends from directly beneath the fireplace.)

Why Consider a Fireplace Mantel Surround ?

A mantel gives your fireplace that "finished" look. Whether your style is modern or contemporary, refined or edgy, a mantel is a key design element. It's also great for displaying art, photos, heirlooms, etc. (Some even come with extra storage.) They also play a functional role. They serve as a heat shield to protect walls, televisions, and other valuables.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Empire full fireplace mantel surround

The heat-shielding properties are worth highlighting since most people think of mantels as purely decorative. Mantels establish a boundary that keeps combustible material from getting too close. Mantels also act as a barrier between the heat of the fire and walls or other items around it. The amount of protection depends on the size of your mantel and the material it is made with.

What to Know Before You Buy a Mantel

Selecting the right size is important for maintaining proper clearances. These clearances will vary depending on the type of fireplace you have and the material the mantle is made from. Make sure you understand and follow any building codes or manufacturer's guidelines.

There are two main types of fireplaces: masonry fireplaces and manufactured (prefabricated fireplaces). Masonry fireplaces are built on site. They are the traditional open-faced fireplaces built with brick, stone, or some other non-combustible material.

Manufactured fireplaces are factory built and often come with their own set of clearance requirements set by each manufacturer. So, for the purposes of this article, we will provide some guidelines on how to ensure you find a mantel that will meet current building codes and clearance requirements for masonry fireplaces.

Clearances For a Masonry Fireplace

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Fireplace with full mantel and fireplace screen

If your mantel is made from combustible material like wood or MDF, you will need to follow building codes and any manufacturer clearance requirements. Typically, this means clearance of 12 inches above the top of the fireplace opening and 6 inches on either side of the fireplace opening. Non-combustible materials like real stone do not require the same clearances.

How to Measure a Mantel for a Masonry Fireplace

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Tape measurer

Most fireplaces have some sort of facing or finish on the front of the fireplace in between the fireplace opening and the mantel. Facings can come in a variety of materials but are often made with tile, brick, or stone. It's important to measure carefully in order to make sure the mantel will fit properly around the facing.

Note that the following measurement instructions assume that you already have a facing in place. If you are ordering a mantel before installing facing, you can focus on making sure you have the proper clearances and then build the facing to the dimensions that will compensate for the size of mantel you select.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
How to Measure a Fireplace Mantel

To start, measure the depth of the veneer facing. This is a measurement of how far the facing extends out from the exposed wall. (For example, a facing made with large stone pieces will extend further than one made with slim tile.) Measure the depth from the wall to the front edge of the facing. If the facing is uneven, use the largest measurement. You want to make sure the mantel will enclose the facing. Add 1/2 inch to the depth measurement.

We'll break this down a bit further for clarification.

Next, measure for the finished inside width of the mantel surround. This is the distance between the two legs or sides of the mantel. Measure the distance between the inside edge of one leg to the inside edge of the other. This measurement is important in that your mantel will need to fit around or slightly overlap the veneer facing.

Start by measuring the overall width of your facing from left to right or from right to left. Don't worry, your fireplace opening will be included in this measurement, too.

For instance, if your veneer facing is 78" wide from left to right, this measurement will include the measurement of the fireplace opening, even though the fireplace opening will not be covered by the mantel.

This measurement is strictly designed to indicate the required inside width of your mantel legs. In other words, the width of the entire veneer facing will tell you the width that the inside of your mantel legs will need to be in order to encase your fireplace veneer properly.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Back view of Pearl Mantels installation drill holes

Next, identify the finished inside height of the mantel surround. Measure from the bottom edge of the mantel shelf to the floor or hearth. If the mantel legs will rest completely on the hearth surface, measure to the top edge of the hearth. Subtract 1 inch from this measurement if the mantel legs will rest on brick since brick tends to be thicker than most hearth surfaces. This will ensure your mantel legs will not be too long. For other standard surfaces, you will subtract 1/2" from the length measurement if the legs will rest on marble, slate, or tile to ensure the proper height of your mantel legs.

Finally, take note of any nearby structures such as windows, light switches, doors, outlets, or raised hearths. The mantel will need to be able to fit around the facing without extending so far that it blocks a window or outlet. Find the ideal shelf length at the top of the mantel. These can be customized to a desired length to account for nearby structures. You will also need the overall height of the mantel to the floor and the actual width of the mantel legs.

All this might seem like a lot of measurements, so here is a quick summary. Start by making sure you have room to meet the minimum clearances required by code. This includes the distance between the fireplace opening and how far the mantelpieces are allowed to protrude out. Once you know you have the proper clearances, follow the instructions for measuring to fit around an existing facing. The size of the mantel will also be restricted by any nearby structures.

You will need to know the depth of the return of the veneer you have selected as measured from the drywall to the tip of the veneer. For instance, if you select a stacked stone veneer facing to cover the fireplace opening to the required clearances (i.e. 12" from the top opening of fireplace and 6" from side opening of fireplace), you will need to measure the depth of that material from the base of the drywall to the furthest protruding part of the veneer.

Let's look at two separate examples:

Example 1: Stacked Stone Veneer Facing

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Stone tile fireplace veneer

Say, for instance, you select a stacked stone veneer as the preferred facing for your fireplace surround. The stacked stone veneer has a thickness of 1.5." In order to fit a custom-sized mantel to fit your preferred veneer, you will need to add 1/2" to that measurement of 1.5" (a total of 2") to ensure your fireplace mantel properly encases the veneer and rests flush against the drywall surface for a polished, professional look. This will ensure no gaps or unwanted spaces remain behind the fireplace mantel.

Example 2: Ceramic Tile Veneer Facing

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Square tile fireplace veneer

In this case, you select to use a ceramic tile veneer as the preferred facing for your fireplace surround. The ceramic tile veneer has a thickness of 5/16". In order to fit a custom-sized mantel to fit your preferred veneer, you will need to add 1/2" to that measurement of 5/16" (a total of 13/16") to ensure your fireplace mantel properly encases the veneer and rests flush against the drywall surface for a polished, professional look. This will prevent gaps or unwanted spaces from appearing behind the fireplace mantel.

General Clearance Rule

The rule is that no combustible material may be within 6 inches of the opening of the fireplace. This includes the trim often placed within the opening interior of fireplace mantels at the end of the installation. However, if the mantel trim extends several inches out from the face of the fireplace opening and falls within the 12-inch clearance requirement specified, additional clearances are needed.

Here are the specifics:

If you place combustible material (hence the standard installation trim that surrounds the interior of the fireplace mantel) less than 12 inches above the fireplace opening, you must have an inch of clearance for every 1/8th inch that your trim projects out from the fireplace opening.

So for example, if your mantle trim extends out 7/8ths of an inch, you will need 7 inches of clearance above the fireplace opening. (An inch of clearance for every 1/8th inch that it sticks out.) Note that 6 inches is still the minimum clearance required for the side mantel legs. Even if the mantle legs only projects 1/8th of an inch, the mantel legs must still be at least 6 inches away from the opening of the fireplace.

There are rules and requirements for the clearances needed from combustible material on the sides of the fireplace, too. Any side piece that projects more than 1.5 inches out from the face of the fireplace must have additional clearance equal to the projection. So if your side mantel legs project 4 inches, you must have 10 inches of total clearance (6 inches plus 4 inches.)

These clearances are taken from the 2018 International Building Code section 2111.12.

Types of Fireplace Mantels

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Pearl Mantels Classique 56 Full Mantel Surround

Fireplace mantels may be standard, model-specific, or fully custom. The materials used to make them fall into two main categories: combustible and non-combustible. There is a wide range of style and size options within these categories to suit your needs.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Three categories of fireplace mantels

The standard mantels come in basic finishes and are built in a range of common sizes. Some are offered as unfinished models so you can paint or stain them to match your decor. The standard models are usually in stock, so order processing and shipping is relatively speedy.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Empire corner fireplace mantel

Model-specific mantels are manufactured to fit a particular model of prefabricated fireplace. They come in various styles (i.e. cabinet, bookshelf, with or without an attached hearth, etc.) and are typically manufactured from wood. The model-specific mantels automatically match the clearance requirements of the models they were designed for. They are an excellent option if you have a prefabricated fireplace.

Fully custom fireplaces allow you to choose the exact dimensions, finishes, and design of your mantel. These mantels take longer to make and are more costly, but the result is a custom piece built just for you. Note that the design process can be complex and often requires professional support and guidance to make sure all of the building codes are met.

Combustible Materials

Combustible fireplace mantels are made with either natural wood or Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF). MDF is 82% wood fiber, 9% resin glue, 8% water, and 1% paraffin wax. It is usually cheaper than natural wood and the hard, flat surface resists splitting and takes paint well. In humid environments, it is prone to warping if improperly sealed.

The natural wood mantels include options like pine, reclaimed wood, cedar, and acacia. Both natural wood and MDF mantels come in a range of finishes and styles. Keep in mind that you will need to pay close attention to the necessary clearances for combustible mantels.

Non-Combustible Materials

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Dimplex stone-look electric fireplace enclosure

Non-combustible mantels are made from fireproof material like marble, granite, sandstone, etc. Another popular choice is cast stone, a non-combustible faux stone that has a natural look and texture but is cheaper than real stone. Many natural non-combustible mantels are made to order and can be expensive compared to combustible mantels. Man-made non-combustible mantels offer a more cost-effective solution.

Non-combustible mantels do not have to follow the clearance requirements of combustible mantels. This makes them much more flexible because they have fewer restrictions. There is a variety of beautiful options available in a range of price points.

On one end of the price spectrum are custom mantels made from luxury materials like marble or granite. On the other end are man-made materials like fiberglass reinforced supercast concrete. The man-made options are growing in popularity because they offer a non-combustible option that is more affordable.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Stone fireplace mantel surround

Also, unlike combustible mantels that are limited to indoor use, most non-combustible mantels are weather-resistant and can be used both indoors and outdoors.

Common Mantel Styles

Mantels help bring out the character and personality of the room. Traditional, contemporary, rustic, or antique, you can find a whole selection of styles and finishes to choose from. Corner mantels and bookcase mantels are another way to add a built-in, finished touch.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Pearl Mantels installed full mantel surround

If you're going for a classic look, this Pearl Mantels model comes unfinished so that you can choose your own paint or stain color.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Pearl Mantels Deauville Full Mantel Surround

The intricate woodwork on this Pearl Mantels Deauville model is carved from Asian hardwood and has a charming antique look. It and comes either finished or unfinished.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Buck Stove Dark Oak Full Mantel Enclosure

A more rustic option is this solid oak Buck Stove Prestige Mantel. This particular model is designed for a specific gas stove fireplace.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Dimplex Wedgewood Grey Electric Fireplace Mantel Surround

Modern styles include this Simplifire model in white floating design.

Top Manufacturers

We know narrowing down the wide range of mantel options isn't easy. Here are some recommendations for top manufacturers of fireplace mantels. These companies have a reputation for quality and offer a selection of mantels in various styles and materials.

  • Pearl Mantels has been manufacturing mantels for over two decades. The Founder, Jim Pearl, recognized that fireplace mantels were the heart of the room and successfully built a company dedicated to quality and craftsmanship. They offer several styles of mantels in a variety of materials from wood to MDF to non-combustibles.
  • Omega Stone Mantels - Omega mantels specialize in pre-cast and custom made cast stone. Their artisans use a hundred-year-old technique to handcraft the mantels with exceptional quality and attention to detail.
  • Dimplex - Dimplex is the leading manufacturer of electric heating and they offer a wide range of mantels for electric fireplaces. We recommend buying Dimplex products from an authorized dealer to get the full benefit of the customer support and warranties.
  • Napoleon - Napoleon is a well-respected name in the fireplace industry. They offer several mantel kits and surrounds designed to complement their fireplace models.

How to Install a Fireplace Mantel

Installing a fireplace mantel requires at least two people. We recommend hiring a professional to install stone mantels. Wood and MDF mantel surrounds are relatively straightforward to assemble and install. Start by reading the instructions and check that you have all the necessary components.

Installation may vary depending on your mantel.

Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Installing your fireplace mantel in 5 easy steps

How Will My Mantel Ship?

Basic wooden mantels often ship via parcel post since they can be disassembled and shipped flat. Larger wood cabinet models or stone models will ship via LTL freight due to the extra size and weight. Always inspect the mantel for any damages before signing off on a delivery.


Fireplace Mantel Surrounds
Pearl Mantels shelf on stone fireplace

Mantels should be much more than just an afterthought for your fireplace. They act as a key feature in the room and highlight the fireplace and hearth as the focal point and anchor. Mantels are also a fun way to express your personal style and add a custom touch.

The main thing to keep in mind is to measure carefully and follow all of the guidelines for maintaining proper clearances. After you know the size and restrictions you are dealing with, you are free to explore the vast selection of style and finish options.

About the Author

Collin Champagne

With over 13 years in the industry, Collin is a National Fireplace Institute (NFI) certified technician and managed content for the eFireplacestore and eCanopy brands. He has achieved the highest NFI certification possible as a Master Hearth Professional and is certified in all three hearth appliance fields: wood, gas, and pellet. With experience with sales and in-field installations, his expertise shines through his technical knowledge and way with words.

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