Traditional fireplace mantels are mounted on two square pillars, one being on either side of the fireplace. This was so commonplace at one time, that many people consider the pillars as part of the mantel. But in more recent times, the design of fireplace mantels has changed, becoming modernized. This has included the elimination of the pillars, using a much simpler “floating” fireplace mantel.
Obviously the mantel isn’t actually floating, although that’s what it is called. Much like a floating shelf, the mantle is attached to the wall, above the fireplace. The term “floating” comes from the fact that what’s holding the mantle in place isn’t visible. This is accomplished by hiding the mounting bracket inside the mantle, rather than using columns or corbels underneath it. The overall appearance, besides appearing to float, is a very modern, clean look, while still providing the accustomed space to display family mementoes above the fireplace.
The two real differences between a mantel and a shelf are dimensions and mounting, so it really doesn’t work out to replace one with the other. A fireplace mantel, even a floating one, is generally much thicker than a shelf and is only about seven inches deep. Using a two inch thick shelf in place of a mantel would look thin and cheap. The other big difference is that the fireplace mantel is generally mounted into brick or stone, whereas a shelf will typically be mounted into a drywall wall, with the bracket being attached to the studs in that wall.
There are several ways of going about the project of installing a floating fireplace mantel. While they all share things in common, we’ll explore the various options.
Commercial Fireplace Mantels
A quick search online will result in a large variety of commercially manufactured floating fireplace mantels in a variety of styles, ranging from life edge, to sleek and modern, with rustic and reclaimed wood somewhere in the middle. I’ve found both walnut and maple live edge mantels and I’m sure they’re available in a variety of other types of hardwoods.
All of these use pretty much the same kind of bracket, which consists of a metal plate, with fingers sticking out of it. Those fingers are inserted into matching hole in the mantel, holding it in place. Properly mounted, the unit can hold about 75 pounds when installed.
The trickiest part of this is installing hardware for the bracket. There are a variety of different fasteners which can be used, including Tapcon connectors, wedge anchors and lag bolts into sleeves. Regardless of the type of connector that is used, a hammer drill and masonry bit will be needed for drilling holes into the stone or brick to install the concrete. Trying to drill into even brick mortar with standard drill bits or even with masonry drill bits and a regular drill is a waste of time, both the masonry drill bits and the hammer drill are required.
Once the bracket is firmly installed, the shelf fits over the fingers. There’s usually someplace that a small screw is inserted in a hidden location, so as to prevent the shelf from sliding off the bracket.
Using a Commercial Bracket with a Homemade Mantel
The same sort of brackets that are sold with commercially manufactured floating fireplace mantels can be purchased separately, for use in installing homemade mantels. This gives us the opportunity to design and build our own floating fireplace mantels, without the difficulty of having to come up with a bracket for them.
The one challenge in using these brackets for a homemade mantel is the pocket hole for the bracket’s fingers. Those have to be drilled straight into the mantel in order to be able to slip the shelf onto the bracket. If any of them are crooked or worse, they are crooked in different ways, then there’s a good chance that the mantel won’t slip onto the bracket all the way. This is better for a mantel than it is for floating shelves, only because the mantel generally isn’t as deep.
To ensure that the hole are drilled straight and true, it would be best to use a drill press. If one isn’t available, it may be necessary to make the holes slightly oversize, in order to accommodate any deviation from the holes being straight.
Another option is to make the mantle a box design, as I will discuss below. This can then be mounted around the fingers on the bracket, eliminating the risk of drilling hole that don’t line up right.
Making a Homemade Mantel and Bracket
A homemade bracket can be assembled out of boards for a homemade bracket. This can be done out of 2”x 4”s or 2”x 3”s, depending on how high the mantle is going to be. A 2’x 4” bracket would be more stable than a 2”x 3” one would be, assuming there’s enough room to fit it inside the mantel.
The idea is to make the bracket in much the same way that the commercial ones are, with the main difference being that it is made out of wood, rather than metal. It is critical that the pieces are all cut square, especially the ends of the fingers, as they must butt up square against the wall plate. Attach them securely, with at least two screw or nails and attach the bracket to the wall in the same way that the metal bracket is attached. Of course, longer screws or bolts will be necessary.
If there is a problem with getting screw or bolts that are long enough to properly anchor the bracket to the wall, it might be necessary to counterbore the bracket’s wall plate. This means drilling a larger hole partially through the board, for the head of the fastener. For example, a 1” diameter hole might be drilled halfway through the board with a spade bit or forstner bit, for the head of the bolt, with a ¼” clearance hole through the board the rest of the way for the shaft of the bolt to go through and into the anchor in the wall.
With the bracket hung, the rest of the floating fireplace mantel is nothing more than a box, made to fit snugly over the bracket. It is usually made of 1”x boards, with the layout of the pieces done in such a way as to hide the end grain of the boards, as shown in the diagram below.
A Word About Style
Since floating fireplace mantels are a modern style, they are usually rather simple, such as a plain box. This is not an absolute requirement though. There is plenty of room for creativity in making a homemade floating fireplace mantel, including relief carving the face of the mantel to match the room’s décor.
Some people even use architectural moldings, attaching combinations of pieces around the basic box to make a more traditional looking floating mantel. Actually, that would be something that’s a crossover between a traditional mantel style and a modern one. In such cases, it’s a good idea, visually, to use corbels under the mantle, in place of the columns that traditional mantels have. finish such a mantel in a “distressed” manner gives a nice mix between the old and modern, fitting in with just about any home.