Mantel Photos

Starting at the end and working backward.  I finished building the majority of our mantel the other day.  I used Google’s free application, SketchUp, to crystallize the final design.  The original mantel looked like this:

Kelly came up with the idea to replace our old oil furnace with a highly efficient Mantis gas fireplace.  When we decided it was the right thing to do, we also rearranged the whole living room.

Once we improved the living room layout, part of which involved purchasing a flat screen, I proceeded to build a structure around the old brick chimney/fireplace. I didn’t mention it when I posted about building the structure how I tied into the wall framing and the mantle top.  I basically screwed 2x4 legs into the wall framing.  The legs each incorporated two 2x4s tied together in an L-shape with some 1/2” plywood to give me enough room to run 2x4 horizontals across the front of the chimney.  Then I built a couple of rectangles out of 2x2s so that any plywood facade could be tied into framing.  Here’s what I started with the other day:

Next, I used 18 gauge 1” nails (as I recall) to attach bead board and some finish grade plywood to the sides and top center of the mantle.  I had a good supply of bead board I had purchased during the summer for prototyping the exterior soffit (but then abandoned using bead board thus leaving me with a surplus of 1 1/2 4x8’ sheets) so I decided it would help distinguish the columns I was envisioning on the right and left.  Here are some links to the soffit project (my post; Kelly’s post) and looking back I see that we need to post the final caulked and painted photos because the finished version looks really good.

Taking down the mounted TV was a definitely a 2-3 person task but I managed to not throw out my back or make a $900 mistake when I brought it back down off the wall.  Ever since I had mounted the TV I had been a bit nervous about it not crashing off the wall so getting it down and knowing I was going to build a much stronger backing was a real motivation for getting this project underway.  Once the TV was down there was no going back because God knows we couldn’t survive another day without watching The Closer :-).

Here I have the 3/4” cabinet grade plywood fastened to the wall with screws and 12 gauge nails.  I’ve started nailing in the MDF 1x6” across the top of the mantle and on the base, 1x4” and 1x3” legs on the left column.

Before I attached the legs, I had to build out from the 2x2 and 2x4 structure at the edges around the fireplace flange so that I would have a single plane to attach the MDF.  When I previously fastened the plywood, I left a buffer of about 1/2” so that I wouldn’t have to cut the plywood perfectly so that it would be flush with the outside of the mantle and the inside (near the flange).  I ripped down (using my table saw setup) some MDF 3/8” strips to get me close to the plane I wanted.  This helped me get flush in three dimensions (with the plywood and into the fireplace opening with the plane of the 2x2s).  It’s hard to see but when your strips are very small, MDF splits pretty easy when you hit it with a nail so I switched over to staples.  One split I had to rip out and put in a small piece (Robert had a name for this practice/piece but I can’t remember it at the moment).  While my work wasn’t perfect, I decided it was good enough and pushed on.

Before remounting the TV I put 1/4” bead board across the breadth of the plywood backer.  I needed to cut one sheet into two 42” tall sections so that the beads would line up vertically and so that I could use the lap edging that adorns the long sides of bead board (the lap edging allows you to butt the long side of the sheets together so that the joint just looks like another bead).

If you made it this far… thanks!  Now go back to the beginning and hopefully you’ll appreciate the final (almost) product.  After I re-attached the TV mount, Kelly helped me get the TV back on the mounting arm.  Fortunately for me, she came home at the perfect time—all of the construction was done and I was starting to sweat bullets that I couldn’t get the weighty TV back on the the mount by myself.

To finish the project I need to run some more MDF vertically toward the ceiling from the top of the mantel.  In my mind this will carry the outside lines of the two columns up toward the ceiling and emphasize the chimney.  We also need to finalize how these legs will someday tie into crown molding: so there is a horizontal detail at the very top of the bead board (where it meets the ceiling) that still needs to be worked out.

Thanks for reading!


I’ve been thinking about how to proceed on building a mantel (almost spelled this wrong!) to go with the beautiful slate hearth Kelly installed for our upgraded living room.  After drawing up a number of sketches over the past couple of months, a few days ago I finally dove into building a base for the facade.  I still have to sell Kelly on the final vision.  In the process of getting full buy-in she and I came up with a great idea to build a removable wood flange around the fireplace removable metal flange.  The purpose being that the wood flange would serve as a transition from the permanent mantle: a transition that won’t impede access to moving the fireplace for servicing.  The basic idea is to make the brick go away.


Living room before and “after”

These photos might be nominally referred to as “before and after,” but “after” is not an accurate description of where we are.  Let’s go with “in progress.”  

Fireplace Before:

Fireplace in progress:

Other living room Before:

Living room in progress:

Apologies for the bad lighting and overall messiness.  If you can overlook those, I think you’ll agree that the new floor plan (which we’ve been anticipating for well over a year) is much more open and makes the new fireplace the focal point of the room.

New features: 

  • Mantis fireplace insert (with new hearth).
  • Wall-mounted TV over the fireplace.  Also got cable after not having it for the past 2.5 years.  Which is proving to be a bit overwhelming for me.
  • New Ikea Manstad corner sofa (yes, both sofas would look better without blankets draped over them, and I have a solution in mind for that, but for now this is how we roll because we enjoy having dogs on the furniture)
  • Rearranged most of the furniture in the room and gave away or sold several items including the TV stand.
  • When guests enter through the front door, they are no longer funneled into an awkward area behind the couch.
  • More room to do workouts in the living room.
  • New yellow shelf above and to the left of the fireplace - our friend and former (sniff!) next door neighbor Robert built this for his house, which is identical to ours, and since it’s a custom shelf for a space that only exists in the houses on our street, he had no use for it when he moved.  It was black until Matt painted it yellow.
  • Dog crates are now under the wood table, where they fit perfectly.  We gave the chairs away, which was a little bit sad for me.  I got the table and set of 4 chairs at the Salvation Army in my hometown almost 10 years ago right before I moved into my first apartment after college.  I’ve used them in every home I’ve lived in as an adult.  The table was my desk for the past two years, but now that’s not possible with the dog crates underneath, so I’m using a folding table which you might catch a glimpse of (see my laptop in the last photo?)  Also note to self: get some folding chairs so people can sit down if we have a dinner party.
  • New Ikea Ektorp Bromma footstool with a tray on top replaced our coffee table.

Many more improvements are still on the To Do list, but we are feeling mighty fine about this batch of changes.  We are ready for fall and winter: we will be so cozy snuggled up on our couches with dogs and our fireplace keeping us warm.


Tiling the hearth: Demolition

As I mentioned in a post about the semi-installation of our new gas fireplace insert (aka our new furnace disguised as a fireplace), we recently realized that if we wanted to re-tile the hearth, it would be best if we did it before the insert gets installed on top of it (duh).  On a recommendation from a friend, we visited a local tile store called Art Tile.  They had a great selection, knowledgeable people to talk with, and let us take home samples to look at in different lights next to our wood floor.  Once we chose the tile we wanted, we decided that before we ordered the tile, it would be a good idea to pull out the old tile and see what was underneath.  We pulled the fireplace insert out of the firebox, slid it (on a dog blanket) to the other side of the living room, and threw a blanket over it. 

The “before” (note the gas line and the in- and out- flexible venting pipes are installed, so the insert can be hooked up when our installers return to do the water heater):

I had done a little internet research, and my go-to source This Old House recommended using a demolition hammer, which is like a small hand-held jackhammer.  Other sites said a hammer and chisel might work.  A demolition hammer is not in our tool arsenal, so I was hoping we would be able to remove the tile with plain old pry bars, hammers, and chisels.  

Matt started by hammering a pry bar into the grout near the center in the back row of tiles.  It took some work to get started, but once he got under the first tile, it was pretty smooth sailing.  The tiles, which were surprisingly thick, came up one after another.  I ran the shop vac (with HEPA filter - a must in our opinion) and tried to capture all the dust as Matt worked.  When he was done, it looked like this:

We were left with the old tile mastic.  We want the new tile to be flush with the level of the floor, and the old mastic was a bit too high to allow that.  I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tile over old mastic anyway.  So we removed that too, and it was even easier than the tile, if a bit dustier (but no worries, I was still hovering over Matt’s every move with the vacuum, except when I took the photo below).  Now we were down to the concrete pad under the hearth.  Success!

There was actually a third reason we wanted to remove the old mastic.  We were hoping that doing so would solve a problem with the adjacent wood floor.  Every day for the last two years, I’ve been looking at these ugly cracks where the wood boards were offset vertically at both front corners of the hearth by over 1/4 inch. 

It had been my suspicion that when the floor was originally installed, it was all good and level, and then over time as the house settled, some layer(s) of the hearth pushed against the wood and jacked it up.  When we pulled the tile out, the first thing I looked at was that front edge where the hearth meets the wood.  And sure enough, the thick layer of mastic was pushed under the edge of the wood.

Now the big question was would the wood go back down after we removed the mastic?  We vacuumed and then made sure there weren’t any little bits of mastic or other debris stuck between the floorboard and the subfloor by running a straightened paperclip along the gap. 

Then we stepped on it and it moved a little.  I was maybe a little too excited about the prospect of the floor finally being level, and Matt had to stop me from jumping on the board like a maniac.  But we did step on it a little, and it did go down some.  The cracks got smaller.

Over the next couple days, the floorboard went down a little more.  I admit I stomped on it a few times, but by then I was confident it wasn’t going to do anything terrible like crack the board.  Now we are very close to level.  On one side, the mitered joint where the two trim pieces meet is level, but the adjacent floorboards are still offset by about a millimeter.  On the other side, the floorboards are flush but the trim pieces are slightly offset.  It is so much better than it was.  Compare this to the before photo above:

We’ll try hitting that corner with a rubber mallet, or maybe place a board covered in some cloth over it and hit that with a hammer.  If that doesn’t work, maybe it will level out completely on its own as the boards expand and contract over time, with the added benefit of being walked on.  And if that doesn’t happen, the difference at this point is so small that it’s not very noticeable, and it could be sanded to make the offset disappear.  Speaking of sanding, check out the thickness of these floorboards - 3/4 inch.  You don’t see that everywhere these days.

This is the first time I can think of that we’ve demoed something in the house and what we found underneath is easier to deal with than we anticipated.  Usually there is an unexpected stud in the wall blocking our way, or difficulty accessing something, or an extra layer of bathroom flooring that I’d rather not disturb without first testing for asbestos.  I’m still pinching myself about the wood floor basically leveling itself.  Here’s hoping the installation of the new tile goes just as well!  I always hope for the best, but expect surprises.  We ordered our tile, we picked it up yesterday, and we’ll be installing it this weekend.  Wish us luck and check back next week for an update.


p.s. Check out the full Hearth tiling project recap.


I am really loving Pinterest.  It’s a set of online bulletin boards.  Any image I find online that I want to save (i.e., things that “interest” me), I “pin” onto one of my boards with a little comment.  It stays linked to the source from which it was pinned, so I can always go back and see the context.  Pinterest users can peruse each others’ boards and re-pin images.  It’s great for collecting little bits of inspiration as I find them, and I think it’s also helping me see what kinds of things I’m drawn to.

The other day, Matt and I were discussing whether to tile our fireplace surround when we re-tile the hearth (more on that soon).  We already knew we wanted to build some kind of facade out of wood to cover most of the brick, but we weren’t envisioning the same dimensions.  So I brought up my Pinterest “house interior” board and we looked at a few photos of fireplaces I collected over the last few weeks.  We talked about which features we each like and don’t like, and we came up with a plan that works for both of us.  You can probably make a good guess about what we’re going to do with the hearth by looking at my pins.  Bonus: we are planning to use the same material by our front door.  What is it?  Stay tuned…


Fireplace installed! Mostly!

Our new Mantis fireplace insert is mostly installed (by pros -see why here) and has passed the mechanical inspection.  They’ll finish it up when they come back to install the tankless water heater.  Next week we’ll have our DIY electrical work for the fireplace and water heater inspected.  Once our water heater is installed, we’ll have to have the plumbing and gas piping inspected (for some reason this is at the county level, while electrical and mechanical are at the city level) and then have the gas company unlock our meter so we can start using our new appliances.  Exciting!

Matt has already given some info on the plumbing updates he’s doing

I will fill in some more info about the electrical work later, but here’s a little preview of the process to put in an electrical outlet in the fireplace:

See that generic tile hearth that so common in houses of the 1950’s?  I really do not care for it.  It’s so blah.  We were planning to replace the hearth someday.  Like, not right now, because there’s a ton of other stuff we’re trying to get done.  Apparently due to our fireplace’s geometry and the shape of the insert, it has to stick out somewhat and sit on the hearth (as seen in the top photo).  That means we either need to replace the hearth now (i.e., before the fireplace installation is finalized), or wait and do it later but pull out the insert which would mean disconnecting the gas and vent pipes and then having to reconnect them (ourselves or bring our installers back?), which would be kind of a pain and just not ideal.  So we need to think about that.  I’ve already mostly settled on using slate tile, but color/pattern/sizing would still need to be picked out not to mention doing the work.  Ack.  These projects are like dominoes.  We start one, and that one forces us to do three related projects… 


p.s. See previous posts in the fireplace saga: I first floated the idea of replacing our furnace with a fireplace almost a year ago, convinced others the idea could work, discovered we’d have to wait out the winter, and finally took the plunge.

Support garnered for the fireplace idea

I can hardly believe it.  When I first came up with the idea to forgo a furnace in favor of a natural gas fireplace to heat our house, I thought no one would let me do it. 

Truthfully, if I hadn’t found this one specific fireplace insert that is much more efficient than all the others, I would have dropped the whole idea by now and we’d be choosing which furnace to have installed in the crawl space under our house. That would have been a pain; when a furnace installer-turned-salesman came to give an estimate on the job, he realized that getting the furnace into the crawl space would require cutting out a piece of the opening to the crawl space and then repairing it afterward.  And that was the better option between that and cutting a hole in the floor somewhere and having to repair joists. 

In general, vented natural gas fireplaces are considered fairly efficient at over 70% AFUE, but this means you’re wasting up to 30% of your fuel!  There are unvented ones that can be almost 100% efficient, but you cannot use them as a primary heat source because they can deplete oxygen in the room and create problems with condensation.  Not many heating companies in our area carry the Mantis, but I found one.  No reports on Angie’s List, but AL customer service looked up their BBB rating - A.  The company says they can install it or they can sell it to us and we install it.  We’ll get estimates and decide how to proceed.  I’ve seen Richard install one on Ask This Old House, and I’ve already read the installation manual for the Mantis, so I think we probably could do it ourselves if we want to.  Some online suppliers are selling it too, but I’d want to make sure it’s all legit with warranties and whatnot.

My confidence is growing: now Matt, Robert, our real estate agent, our home inspector, the furnace salesman (who will be losing some business if we go ahead), and of course the fireplace salesman all think it’s a good idea! 

We have to make sure the heat is distributed evenly throughout the house (a friend mentioned this as a problem, and our real estate agent was also concerned about that).  Not to fear; we have a plan for that too.  The fireplace is located near the center of the house, and the existing furnace is right next to it.  This is excellent because it means we can use the existing ductwork.  When the furnace guy was here, he said if we got a furnace we should put the air intake right next to the fireplace and leave the furnace blower on 24-7 so that the heat from the fireplace would be distributed to every room through the ducts even when the furnace is not firing.  Well, that’s essentially what we’re going to do, but the blower will be stand-alone, not part of a furnace that is rarely used.  We would also like to integrate the air intake into either the hearth or the mantle/surround, instead of just being on the floor near the fireplace.  We need to talk to some HVAC people and see what options we have to do this.


Heating a home with a fireplace

Our house is very small.  Small enough that it could be adequately heated by an efficient natural gas fireplace instead of a furnace.  This is an idea I had a while ago, and at first Matt thought it was another one of my awesome-but-not-practical ideas, but lately he’s warmed to the concept.  I have done a lot of research on this, and I believe that for our situation, it is possible with available models of gas fireplace inserts.  The one pictured above is a rare gem with efficiency of 93% AFUE - as good as the best new furnaces, and it works with a programmable thermostat to automatically maintain the desired temperature by time of day.  Why aren’t there more of these available?  Who wouldn’t want a nice cozy fireplace instead of a big ugly furnace?  For a larger house, there is nothing on the market as far as I can tell.  We’re still researching and thinking about this, and I will provide updates as we figure it out.  Info and advice welcome!