For my basement fireplace project, we were undecided on what to do about the mantel. I always liked the look of those rustic mantels that look like someone chopped a log in half and hung it over the fireplace. My wife likes the look of a stone mantel. After deliberating and doing some research, we quickly ruled out a stone mantel (either made from concrete or an actual stone) because of the weight and no real way to support it. We also ruled out the “cut in half” log after realizing that we (unfortunately) don’t live in a log cabin (it would just look out of place). That left us with a non-log-sawed-in-half wood mantel (no mantel was not an option). After doing more research and figuring out that solid wood mantels run $300 or more, I thought I was going to have to make a box mantel. I was at a local woodworkers store buying wood for a box mantel, and on a whim asked the man behind the counter if they happened to have any solid wood that was thick enough to use for a mantel. Unfortunately they didn’t have anything, but he gave me the number of a saw mill near by (well, 50 miles away… close enough). I called up to Casey’s Lumber and not only did they have tons of lumber to use as a mantel, it was definately not going to cost me $300! I was going to have to finish the lumber, but that is a heck of a lot more fun than buying something off the internet and installing it.
I had a friday off of work and drove the 50 miles up to the saw mill. I have been in and around construction since I was 13, but have never been to a saw mill. It was a very cool experience and it definately got my juices flowing.
It took about an hour to pick out lumber, pet the “yard dog”, get the lumber cut to length, pet the “yard dog”, and pay the $70 for 4 mantel sized pieces of ponderosa pine. I couldn’t help myself… I got 4 pieces of lumber to make solid wood mantels for the other fire places in the house (one fireplace is double sided) as well. I also grabbed some of the scrap from the cuts so that I could test out some different finishes before making the actual mantels.
I had an idea to “fancy” these mantels up a bit and I decided to test it out on my scrap piece. I thought it might look good if the mantels appeared to be attached to the wall with a thick wood post. I got out my router and rounded over the edges of the test mantel and then routered out a square hole to place a 1″ thick “post” into the hole, creating the look that the mantel is installed by driving a big post through it and into the wall. Because I was just testing the look, I did not bother to make a jig for the hole and it is a little sloppy… but good enough to get the idea of what it will look like.
After running the idea by my wife, we decided to go with it. I cut off 1″ from my test mantel and used my table saw to cut them down to size to make my faux posts. Using a 1/4″ round over bit with my router, I rouned over all the edges of the mantel except the back (which was going to sit flush with the wall). I measured out where my “posts” would sit and drilled the pilot hole with a spade bit, the routered out my holes. A small chisel was used to square the holes.
Everything was sanded down smooth, and the faux posts were glued into place… and it was time to distress the mantel! The only distressing I have done in the past was by accident, and I usually had to do something to fix it. We have some distressed furniture in the house so I took a close look at the details. Worm holes, gouges, dents, scratches, corners that looked like someone dragged the furniture along the driveway…. it seemed simple enough. I chose to use a chisel, a poker, 80 grit sandpaper and both ends of my hammer to distress the mantel. You need to be careful not to over-do it with all of these tools or your “distressed” look will end up as a “should be used as firewood” look. I have seen all sorts of medievil looking contraptions to distress wood, but just decided to keep it simple and take my time.
Here is how I did the distressing:
Distressed Corners – I used the 80 grit sandpaper to make those perfectly rounded corners from my router look like someone dragged the wood up the driveway on its corners. I then used my chisel to “tap” the sharp end on the sanded corners.
Worm Holes – Just use the poker to poke random, but closely bunched holes.
Hewing the Edges – For the rounded edges that needed to be made more imperfect, I used my chisel with very little pressure to scrape off some of the rounded edges. I tried not to go overboard here and just did a few spots. Use some sandpaper to sand of any spliters left from the chisel.
Gouges & Dents – I used the claw end of my hammer to randomly tap the wood faces to create small gouges (seen below on the front face of the mantel). The hammer end was used to create dents on the faces and edges (seen below on the corner). Again… I used very light pressure.
Scratches – The chisel was used to drag scratches into the faces where I started with light pressure and slowly increased it before easing off the pressure again. This created some pretty “sharp” looking scratches that I was not happy with, so I used my poker turned on it’s side to drag through the scratches to smooth them out a bit.
To be able to actually hang this mantel, I carefully measured out some pilot holes for the back of the mantel and the wall. I used some 10″ x 1/2″ lag bolts, coated with liquid nails to screw into the header that I had framed in. If I had to do this over (which I will on the upstairs fireplace), I would use rebar and some masonry epoxy. The liquid nails didn’t set very fast and cutting the heads off the lag bolts was a lot more work than I anticipated.
Finally it was time for stain. This turned out to be a lot more difficult task than I planned. Not because staining wood is hard, but because I was a lot more picky with the details. I grabbed 3 different stains to test out. Minwax Red Mahogoney (left), Minwax English Chestnut (middle & top), and Minwax Dark Walnut (right) were tested on my test mantel with two coats each (the stain on the top is English Chestnut with one coat… a second coat made a huge difference). Based on this test piece… we decided to go with the English Chestnut (the darker one).
There were a couple things that didn’t pan out like I wanted them to when it came to staining. First, I should have given more time for the Minwax Pre-Stain Treatment (you NEED to use this on softer wood like pine) to dry. In fact, I didn’t use the pre-stain treatment on my test piece, so the colors came out much darker. My second mistake was to wipe off the first coat too early. I should have given it the full 15 minutes.
As you can see… it was much lighter than what I was going for. The second coat didn’t make it much darker and the third coat was closer but not close enough. You shouldn’t have to use 3 coats, and I ended up adding a 4th coat of the Red Mahogoney to darken it enough to my liking. After 2 coats of Polyeurothane, it came about pretty good though.
All I had to do was put some liquid nails into the pilot holes on the mantel and push it onto the mounting posts. A rubber mallet was needed to bump it into place. Here is how it came out (the stone isn’t grouted yet so the project is not done… but the mantel is!) …
And here are a few detailed close up pictures…