Our Fireplace Makeover: Building A New Mantel

Ready for more progress on the fireplace? Good, ’cause there’s been lots. Last you saw, we had tiled the hearth and part of the surround with marble subway tile.

That was the easy step. Well, at least the more straightforward step. Because our next assignment – building out the rest of the frame – involved the addition of a lot more materials.

Let’s start with the MDF frame. We decided to work with MDF for the first time since it’s lighter, cheaper, and smoother than wood would be (plus it’s now sold without formaldehyde and it’s FSC certified). A 4ft x 8ft panel cost nearly $35, but the good news is that we only needed one sheet to get all of our pieces.

The first two parts of our frame were the two sides which sat on the floor and extended all the way to the mantel.

I built them by cutting the two pieces of MDF to size and then attaching them at a right angle using the ol’ Kreg Jig and some wood glue (just to be safe).

My bottle of wood glue and I actually become good friends during this project. I started to favor my nail gun over Kreg Jig-ing many of the pieces because it’s much much faster (one shot with the gun versus drilling a pilot hole and then screwing pieces together). But since nails don’t hold as tight as screws in the long run, wood glue is nice extra insurance.

To connect the two side pieces, I cut a middle span (using my table saw) and then attached the three pieces together with a couple pieces of scrap 1 x 2″ whitewood.

I realize the picture above is a bit confusing, so here’s a photo of the frame in place so you can understand how it’s coming together.

As you can see from the view from above, the MDF frame fits snugly right around the original brick fireplace (which turned out to be pretty gross-looking under the old mantel that we tore off – surprise!).

Oh and we had to add some thin pieces of MDF right where it sat against the tile because there was a small gap (see arrow below). That’s because the brick fireplace flared out right under the mantel and got thinner towards the floor (from the side it was actually pretty top-heavy). So even though the MDF sat right against the brick at the top, it floated a couple of inches away from the brick (and tile) at the bottom. It’s nice that from the side it’ll be nice and balanced now.

Here’s the MDF frame from the front. Hopefully this whole thing is starting to make more sense to you all.

It was actually pretty steady already, but we weren’t about to rely on good balance to keep it in place. So a few masonry screws through the top and along the sides (as well as a line of construction adhesive where the MDF met the brick at the top) made sure this thing wasn’t going anywhere.

Next up was adding the mantel. The old mantel piece was too small to put back in place and my original plan to secure the new mantel directly to the brick (like the old one had been) failed upon realizing that the brick wasn’t level (it sloped away from the wall slightly). So after some trial and error, we cut some more MDF (still from the same sheet) and added a flat top to the frame with some glue and nails. Look at wifey go.

Then we constructed a new mantel top by taking a 1 x 10″ and framing it out on three sides with 1 x 2″ pine strips (so that no raw wood edges were exposed). It’s kind of the same technique we used for our floating shelves in the kitchen. Oh, and we added a few strips of lattice leftover from the board & batten project to raise the mantel a smidge so that it matched the old height (and thus covered all of the unpainted paneling behind it). When finished, this mantel will be exactly the same height as the old one, which is nice because we liked that about the last one (mostly we just wanted to fix the smashed tile hearth, and the side proportions since it got skinny and sloped into the wall from the side).

Once we nailed the mantel in place, we wanted to add some crown molding beneath it to give it more presence. But we couldn’t put the crown right against the MDF because we wanted it to sit flush with the rest of the decorative boxes (made from 1 x 2’s) that we’d be adding later. So we had to attached a piece of wood to bump the crown molding out to the right spot:

We chose 1 x 3″ boards so that we could use 1 inch of it as a base for the crown to rest against, while the remaining inches could act as the top piece of some of our 1 x 2″ boxes. Look it’s wifey with the nail gun again. Sorry, I’m still getting used to how good she looks while shooting nails into things. Update: Here’s an affiliate link to the nail gun that we bought, for anyone interested in grabbing one for themselves. 

So here we are with the mantel added. It’s starting to look a bit more finished, eh? But we thought this flat-fronted look was a bit too modern for the rest of our kitchen (our cabinets on the other side of the room have more of a traditional shape), so adding baseboard and some framing/details to the wood surround was next on the agenda.

When it came to the baseboard, we had to add some scrap 1 x 2″ boards behind it so that the baseboard didn’t sit flush to the MDF (again, I promise this will make more sense once you see the finished piece).

From there we could start adding the 1 x 2″ boxes that we thought would give the piece a nice, simple detail. So first we added a few vertical strips of 1 x 2s.

And then we added some of the horizontal pieces between them. Are you starting to see the boxes?

We also added another piece of decorative trim right where the vertical “posts” of the fireplace frame seemed to support the middle “span” that stretched across the whole fireplace. It helped to break up the boxes a bit more so we didn’t have these long, skinny boxes on either side. Oh yeah, and this is what it looks like when you’re not aware that your wife is cropping you out of the photo. Smile!

The whole trim process actually went pretty quickly, so we even had time to start caulking some of the seams before the bean woke up from her nap and asked us what we were building now (true story).

Of course, we still have to prime and paint. And we’ve gotta finish trimming out the bottom – especially where the tile meets the cork floor, and add some quarter round where the baseboard meets the floor. So it’ll look a lot more polished when we tie up those loose ends.

Even though it’s not sporting a fresh coat of paint yet, we’re crazy about how this fireplace makeover is shaping up. Because, as a reminder, here’s where we started:

Give us another day or two (Wednesday maybe?) to get all of those finishing touches wrapped up and we’ll hopefully be back with the fully finished product, a complete budget breakdown, and a junkload of photos.


    • says

      While i’m a brick preference lady in my own home, I think this new style definitely fits your home, and you two, more. I personally love seeing other styles that aren’t totally my own because it makes everyones home unique and interesting. It’s fun getting ideas from different styles and seeing how people make changes. I for one know that our new living room/staircase flooring isn’t for everyone (not everyone likes the reclaimed flooring barn look) but for us it’s the bees knees (…or the cows hoof?). So good for you guys for changing it up! It’s going to look great when complete!

    • says

      I have no idea why my comment posted as a reply under here – not my intention. Mrs. McClickerson moused to fast apparently on a Monday morning.

  1. says

    Wow! You guys make it look so easy with this post. Like you just slapped it all together magically. How much time was spent actually planning the cuts & design of how you wanted it? Did you ever look into pre bulit mantle pieces also?

    • says

      We didn’t look into pre-built because our mantel is pretty unusual (higher than most, has an electric outlet in the top that we had to work around, etc) so we just thought “if we can build things like a console table for behind the sofa or a deck, we can probably do this- hopefully…” – haha!). As for how long it took to build out, I’d estimate that it was around 6 hours (we usually work for 2 hours while Clara sleeps, so there were 3 solid days of that schedule).


  2. says

    That is so cool. My mother’s fireplace needs to be redone big time and I was thinking we would have to go out and buy a whole mantle piece but this is much better. Can’t wait to see it finished. Thanks for sharing. :-D

  3. Heidi says

    Hi – I’ve never commented before but just wanted to let you know this looks FANTASTIC! And for anyone who has ever complained about small projects as posts, they clearly don’t fully understand all the underlying effort that goes into a project like this – and that it would be IMPOSSIBLE for you guys to do these huge undertakings more frequently. Bravo to you!!

    • Michelle says

      I agree with Heidi! Of course, I love the bigger projects, because who doesn’t love a project? But, the smaller posts are so fantastic because it is those little things that do make a house a home and those smaller things are so much more doable (time and dollar-wise) than the big projects. Your posting reminds me that I can’t have everything at once, but I can make it as good as possible for now while I wait. AND, I should slow down so I can enjoy the process by spacing things out a bit.

    • says

      She’s amazing! We can hammer right next to her room (she does sleep with a sound machine on but hammering is much louder – maybe it blends in like thunder or something?! Haha!)


  4. Lisa L. says

    Seriously? I actually really liked the way it looked before, so I was all “meh” when you guys started this. Now I’m just jealous. It looks great!!

    • says

      Haha, John and I chatted about how the hurdle for this project would be people thinking “it looks fine as-is” so we were hoping folks would hold out for the after since we knew in our weird-DIY-eyes that it would be so much better (but it’s hard to convince everyone, haha!). So glad it’s coming along!


    • Pam the Goatherd says

      Yep! You can put me in the “I thought it was OK as it was” category. That is until I saw today’s post with the new look. Now I definitely agree that it looks so much better with your improvements!!!!
      One thing I wonder about, though, is how well it is going to hold up to the changing temperatures once you start actually using the fireplace, since you used nails and glue instead of screws??? It would be horribly frustrating to have nail-pops messing up all that gorgeousness!

    • says

      Since it’s not a wood-burning fireplace (we’d love to add a gas insert down the line) the glue and nails along with the kreg-jigging (which did use screws) should hold up really well. So here’s hoping!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *