One of the DIY projects we tackled much earlier than expected was our fireplace mantel. After we gray-washed the walls we knew we wouldn’t be able to live with waiting on lime-washing the bricks, but we thought we could handle the dated mantel for a while. Well, that didn’t happen.
The more I looked at it, the more the white mantel with the white fireplace and the nearby white bookcases made the room look very twee. I don’t do twee, which sounds odd considering my favorite color to decorate with is blush – followed closely by a deep, dark navy – and my library has blush (Ralph Lauren’s Tea Rose, to be specific and gag-named) walls. However, because I do love blush, I knew I needed some balance or we’d be in dollhouse territory.
The mantel had to go. Immediately.
I’d envisioned a thick railroad tie for a mantelpiece for a few reasons: first, it’s heavy and the room is light; second, the wall needed something to stand out; and third, I just really love the look of rugged old wood as a counterbalance to the frothiness of all the white and pale gray. When it comes down to it, my third reason was really the only one that mattered.
The downside was that old railroad ties are both expensive and quite heavy. Heavy, heavy. So, we went for the look without breaking the bank or our backs by adapting the workings of a floating shelf to a mantel. We then went ahead and distressed and stained it to make it look like it wasn’t brand new.
Read on to see how we ditched the traditional, outdated mantel and replaced it with the mantel of our – er, my – dreams (J doesn’t dream about mantels like I do; he dreams about normal things like puppies and getting chased by the mob (this may or may not be true)).
– 1x6x8 (sides and front)
– (2) 1x8x6 (top and bottom)
– 2x4x8 (support the “shelf”)
– miter saw
– Kreg jig
– sandpaper (60, 80, 120, 240)
1. Tear out whatever mantel you’ve got. We used a chisel and a hammer to detach ours from the wall.
2. Prep the wall for the new mantel. This might mean yanking out old nails or touching up brick that had been buried under the old one.
3. Measure how large you want your mantel and purchase the wood accordingly. Our measurements for the mantel were easy because a simple six-foot board was the perfect size to go across the front. I’d decided I wanted a little more room to set things on top of it so we went with an eight-inch depth for the top while the sides and front were 6-inches tall.
4. Cut the boards to size with a miter saw. Because our top and bottom six-foot boards were already the perfect size we only had to angle its edges for where it would meet the side boards. Then we cut the 1x6x8 to take it down to 6-feet. The extra 2 feet we cut to size for the sides of the mantelpiece.
5. Drill two holes in the side pieces where they will meet the front board using a Kreg jig. Do the same for the top board (two holes on each end and three evenly spaced along the front) for where it will meet the top of the side pieces and the front piece. Repeat this for the bottom board.
6. Before we attached the pieces to each other, I beat them up. I used a hammer, the end of a screw, steel wool, a pliers, and a bunch of other random things we had sitting around to create a more weathered look. We’d used wood we already had so it wasn’t as though it came from the store undamaged, but they still needed a little roughhousing to make them look rugged and not accidentally dinged up. There’s a fine line between it looking right and looking like someone walked into it with a bag of nails. Anyway, smash, scratch, and claw at that board until it looks like it’s been run over by trains for the last sixty years. Note: the scratches and dings will be more noticeable when stained, so keep that in mind. Sand the whole project, working your way up to a 320-grit paper so that it is smooth to the touch – in other words, no splinters will be had.
7. Once you’re satisfied, shove screws into the angled holes you made and drill them into the opposite board. This is easiest with clamps or two people holding the boards in place.
8. While I stained the boards (rags and stain, paying particular attention to the grooves I’d created), J went about attaching the 2x4s to the wall for the mantel’s support (two every 12-14inches – one that will attach to the top and one that will attach to the bottom – making sure there is a set along each side). They must be level and line up so the mantel slides on. (I forgot to take a photo, but it basically will look like a bunch of arms reaching out from the wall onto which your open-backed mantel will slide).
9. After the stain (two coats for us) and poly (two coats) are dry, slide that baby onto the 2×4 supports and attach it to the top and bottom with nails. You won’t be able to see these (small dark nails), but if you’re worried about them then you can pre-drill indentations for them to sit down in so you can fill over them with stainable wood putty and stain each little section once hung.
10. Step back and admire your new not-quite-railroad-tie mantel.
The most difficult part of this project is easily waiting for the stain and poly to be dry enough so you can put it up on the wall. I would say this is a beginner to intermediate level project, if only because of the number of tools you need to do it seamlessly. That said, it can be adapted to use less of them – this was just the easiest and fastest way for us since we already owned them.
– M. Ray Hall