Guide to Creating Amazing Mantels

Tara Dickinson
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How To Decorate A Mantel

A mantel or mantelpiece is the decorative frame and shelf around and above a fireplace. The “surround” is the material between the fireplace and the mantel, usually composed of heat proof material.


man·tel | man-t•l: the decorative frame around the firebox and the surround. It may be of wood, marble, stone, or metal. The word also may refer to the entire mantelpiece or to the mantel shelf. In the bungalow era, mantels are often one with a brick or tile surround.


The mantel has become a place in the home to use as a focal point for decor style accessories and a way to freshen up design style looks with the seasons and/or holidays. The right balanced mantel decor can ground a space and bring life to a room.



Becoming something of a staple in more wealthy American households during the mid-1700s, elaborately carved decorative mantels were further popularized in London and America after the Revolution.

  • These mantels interpreted neoclassical designs.
  • The neoclassical wave was called the Federal style in this country.
  • They were less ornate than their hardy Georgian predecessors.
  • Samuel McIntire of Salem, Massachusetts was one of the more well-known carvers who designed mantels made of decoratively detailed solid wood.
  • The early 1800s saw a growth of the Greek Revival style which was plainer and more structural in style.
  • The mid-19th century mantel material turned to marble or slate painted to resemble marble.
  • One style that persisted was the Victorian overmantel étagère which was composed of shelves backed by mirrors to better display objects and amplify gaslight. This style appeared in Georgian and Renaissance Revival times and continued into the Arts & Crafts era.
  • Design patterns then altered over the decades and were applied differently in rural homes versus high-style metropolitan locations.

Mantel Styles by Era

The progression of styles is fluid, with overlaps and time delays.

  • AESTHETIC/EASTLAKE- With influences from medieval to Turkish to Japanese, the mantel proper may be flat with minimal decoration, while the overmantel is an elaborate construction of shelves, mirrors, and niches for the display of worldly objects. 


  • ADAM/FEDERAL- Adamesque or Federal-era mantels feature low-relief carved and reeded ornaments such as scrolls, urns, flowers, eagles, and mythological figures. By 1800, the broken pediment had disappeared. Overmantels were scarce. 

  • ARTS & CRAFTS- The quintessential bungalow mantel is brick or local stone, sometimes inset with handmade tiles. But Prairie School mantels are modern, usually constructed all in masonry, with bold designs, such as a semi-circle arch.

  • GEORGIAN- Distinctive of the classically proportioned Georgian fireplace is its overmantel treatment, often topped with a broken pediment. A bed molding with egg-and-dart, dentil, or other detailing supports the mantel shelf.

  • GREEK REVIVAL- These mantels are usually based on the plain, post-and-lintel construction of Greek temples. White marble is the height of Athenian splendor, but most American Greek Revival mantels are of wood, sometimes faux painted with veining.

  • GOTHIC REVIVAL- These mantels accentuate the perpendicular. The firebox opening or overmantel typically features a pointed Gothic or shallow Tudor arch.
  • RENAISSANCE REVIVAL- Formal, delicately carved mantelpieces including an overmantel. 

  • REVIVALS- The most widespread designs of the early 20th century are Colonial Revival. Wood is often painted in an off-white color. Various arch shapes define Tudor Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival mantels.

  • ROCOCO- Many mid-19th-century marble mantels have an arched firebox opening. The spandrels forming the arch often overflow with carved fruits, leaves, flowers, or cherubic figures in three-dimensional relief. Wood mantels are carved.


Proportion Control

A fireplace mantel area is a lovely place that naturally draws the eye thus a wonderful showcase for precious decor objects. As using upcycled and reclaimed salvaged materials is the best for our ecosystem, finding and installing a saved mantel might be a good bargain. Just be sure you won’t need to cut or add too much to the mantel, as the proportions will change.

  • Mantel height with the shelf at about 52 to 58 inches above the floor.
  • In high-ceilinged rooms, the mantel is not necessarily taller or bigger; proportions are enhanced by the treatment of the overmantel area and wall divisions, such as a frieze or cove near the ceiling.
  • Mantels are normally not shorter than the width of the fireplace including the hearth.
  • A mantel looks best with at least six inches above the firebox and extends a minimum of three inches beyond the surround.
  • The head, lintel, or frieze below the shelf and its bed molding should be deeper than each leg is wide.
  • Mantel legs resting on the hearth look better and meet modern fire codes.


If you have a chosen theme or decor style for your home, following that style’s general guidelines will work best when decorating your mantel so it will flow nicely with the overall feeling you want to invoke in your home. Whether that's northeast coast nautical style or a California chalet mountain style, having a theme in mind when beginning your mantel decorating will make the process that much easier.

  • You can also decorate by the current season or the holiday.

Step #1: Start with A Blank Canvass

  • If you have anything on your mantel now, take it all away, give it a good polish and step back and assess.

Step #2: Backdrop Foundation

The goal is to set the stage to act as a foundation that will set off the focal point and ground the space. This could be a larger background that sets the stage for your overall mantel scape. Ideas include:

  • A large mirror; a round shape is a nice alternative to the usual square or rectangle.
  • A large simple canvas painting or other large pieces of art.
  • Some painted palette pieces of reclaimed wood.
  • A large picture frame (you can then add decor pieces layered inside this).
  • You want to add some height to the space.
  • The foundational item can be hung or leaned against the wall.
  • PRO TIP: place this item a bit off-center.

Step #3: Choose A Focal Point

Sometimes a backdrop and a focal piece are one and the same. Some ideas for your mantel focal piece:

  • Art on a scroll
  • Basket
  • Big clock
  • Chalkboard (nice for a rustic or country Americana themed home)
  • Vintage window frame
  • Wreath
  • Wood plank boards (would look great with a whitewash paint for a Shabby Chic home)
  • Woven wall hanging

Step #4: Layout: Create Different Heights

Using accent pieces that have height will create a visually interesting mantel. Take advantage of the area’s height; don’t leave the valuable wall space free.

  • Candlesticks (tall ones add the height you want)
  • Crates
  • Crocks
  • Decorative boxes (creates height and layers)
  • Farmhouse signs
  • Lanterns
  • Pitchers
  • Storage baskets
  • Vases, glass containers, jars
  • Vintage books in stacks

Step #5: Additional Accessories

Here are some of the things you should gather plus this list of essential hearth accessories HERE:

  • Greenery- flowers or plants make any space look beautiful. Fresh or dried arrangements both work on mantel scapes.
  • Also adding a plant with some drapes so the vines hang a bit over the fireplace is a very pretty touch.


There are three basic layout patterns and shapes you can follow when designing your mantel setting.

Half Circle

You’re looking at the shape of the items on the mantel shelf, not the central focal point. The height of the items on the outside is the tallest, then the items next to those are a little shorter followed by the shortest accents in the center.


The layout that uses items at the same or nearly the same height across the mantel is an easy one to decorate especially if you really want the focal point to stand out.


Triangular shapes are pleasing to the eye. With this layout, your focal point is the top point of the triangle while the rest of the items cascade down to form the other two points.

Finding the Mantel Balance

This step is where real interior decor design takes an artistic turn: finding the harmonious balance in a setting.

  • You can balance with symmetry; mirroring looks on each side of the mantel.
  • But asymmetrical with the right balance has a more artistic flair to it.
  • Then there’s the balance of cluttered versus oversimplified.
  • You want a melodic aesthetic that takes advantage of a mantel’s great focal point.
  • If you want to make the architecture of the fireplace and corresponding decorative elements around the area the showcase then keep your decor objects zen in nature.
  • Intentionally choose items to make an impact.
  • To maintain a balanced look it’s about finding the “weight” of the items that all work in tandem.

TIP: Repeat Colors & Components 

Repeating elements and colors is another decorating tip to help balance your mantel decor.

  • The theme of your mantel can help dictate this.
  • Repeat color throughout the mantel accents.
  • Another thing that can be repeated is the elements such as metals, glass, or plant pieces.
  • The end result: a cohesive look.



Garlands. Hanging in front, down one side, or behind other items, garlands add really festive touches to your mantel decoration.

  • Easy to change out with the seasons.
  • Can be made from materials found in nature.
  • Adds warmth and a creative vibe to the room.


Hopefully, the tips outlined above will help you take your mantel to new heights and highlight this attractive spot in your home. Remember these basic tips for an aesthetically pleasing result:

  • Use varying heights.
  • Layer items.
  • Don’t be afraid to use large elements.
  • Find the middle ground of harmonious balance.





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