Introduction: Barn Wood Fireplace Mantle
Second Prize in the
Before and After Contest
Sometimes a wood-burning stove or fireplace is just what a living space needs to feel like home. Maybe your master suite has one as well, just to lighten your mood on cold nights. We had a built-in gas powered unit that could warm the whole house but had no unique charm. The fireplace, like the mantle was straight builder-grade without any special accessories. Time to change that.
Rather than attempting a project using faux-finishes, I decided to go with the real thing and use reclaimed barn wood for the walls. Additionally, the surrounding posts were recovered from sheds and still show the marks from the mill along with their age.
There are four main steps to this project:
1. The wall
2. The stone
3. The mantle
The construction isn't too advanced, however, it will be helpful to have a joiner, tablesaw, and some air nailers. I used a fair amount of Liquid Nails as well, so stock up with a good 4-5 tubes for a wall this size.
I said there were four steps, didn't I... that's because before you build, you have to source some materials.
Step 1: Source Your Materials
Let's face it, we want a wall in a modern home to look like it's 100 years old. A trip to Home Depot really isn't going to cut it. In order to make this work, you'll need to find some material on your own. Mine required a trip to my parents' farm and some serious convincing (and a backhoe).
When attempting to explain to your parents why you want to pull down an old dilapidated shed that's half-collapsed in an overgrown field, be prepared for statements like:
"Why would you want any of that for your pretty house?"
"Oh, you young people..."
"Please be careful."
"Want me to call [the neighbor] and see if he would mind bringing the backhoe?" (this is when you know you've made contact :D)
A word of caution, don't climb through any building that is of questionable integrity. Mine had a caved-in roof and I stayed on the outside. Since the outside boards make up the bulk of the project, use some nail pullers and a hammer to remove what you need.
As mentioned, I also had the help of a backhoe. This helped me get to the upper boards and also helped keep the building together. If you don't have one, just stay at the ground floor and work your way around the outside.
Once you find all of the boards you need, lay them out on the ground and mark how much area you'll need to cover. You don't want to make two trips for this.
After recovering the siding, raid some more buildings for posts that you can use to surround the wall and fireplace. I lucked out and found a stash of 3x3" oak posts. Additionally, you'll need something for the mantle. I grabbed a thick chunk of beat-up pine for mine; I'm considering it a temporary solution.
Once the collection is done, pressure wash all of the parts and let them dry in the sun for a week or two to get all of the moisture and bugs out.
Step 2: Demo & the Stone
Okay, that trip was fun. Time to cause some damage. The modern mantle that I'm removing is attached by thick finishing nails from the top shelf into the studs/wall. Additionally, there are two small plywood pads at the bottom that are screwed into the wall and have a finish nail on each side.
Use a small sledge hammer to push the shelf up and out. This pulled the nails out and cracked the crown molding on the front (not a huge mess yet). At this point, the surround is only held on by sealant and those couple nails at the bottom. Pull from the top and the entire thing should give way.
In a similar fashion, trim back the baseboard so that there is nothing above the floor line.
The stone was a gaudy white granite that wasn't going to match the final vision (it hadn't looked right since we put in the floor). Use a dark gray chalk paint to cover the stone so that it resembles a more rustic soapstone or slate. After a few coats, mask the area and apply spray polyurethane to seal it. Once dry, put a rug down so you don't step on it and chip everything up.
Step 3: The Frames
There are two similar frames that need to be made. One will enclose the area on the outsides, the other will surround the stone and hold the mantle.
Cut a post so that it covers the full span across the ceiling and resaw a second post into two supports. This makes the top appear larger than the sides but not so much as to let the sides appear as a veneer. Use the joints of your preference to attach the frame together (I used Dominoes, because I can) and heavy-duty Liquid Nails to attach the assembly to the wall.
Drill pilot holes every foot or two and screw it to the wall. Once the glue dries, retract the screws and replace them with hard-cut masonry nails. These are square and resemble period handmade nails.
On the inner frame, plan for how you want your mantle shelf to rest. I went with a square post and small supports with original ends to resemble barn-style timber framing. The 45 degree supports are glued in place and held with 18 ga nails but the top is glued down with two Dominoes per side.
Before assembling these, mill a small rabbet on the inside of each post so there is room for it to wrap around the stone surround. Test fit the assembly and make sure you account for any hidden hardware, shims, etc.
Step 4: The Wall
Time to get down to business! Lay out the boards in your workspace and plan out how you'd like everything to look. This is crucial, especially if you will have seams like I did.
Since I started with tongue and groove boards, I first wanted to use them as-is, however, this was easier said than done. Being so old, most of the boards were of varying size and few matched at all. Also, most tongues were split from the removal effort. Therefore, it became advantageous to square them up.
I had a straighforward system:
-Going one level at a time, cut each board slightly oversized.
-Use your joiner to mill away the tongues.
-With a tablesaw, cut the boards to the maximum width you are able.
-Go back to the miter saw and trim to exact length.
-Test the fit
Once happy with the look, apply construction adhesive to the back of each piece, stick it up, and add a few nails to hold it in place while the glue dries. I used headless 23 ga nails to tack mine down and tried to hide them in knots and cracks to be less noticeable.
If you have to deal with electrical connections, always turn off the power beforehand. I had to go around a pair of sconces and the igniter switch for the fireplace. Adjust your fit as needed.
After fitting each piece around the lamps, surround and mantle, I was left with smaller 14" pieces all the way to the floor. This is smooth sailing, just plan your finish ahead of time. I used the end of a larger post to resemble a baseboard and cut it to fit around the stone.
With 2-3 rows remaining between your progress and the baseboard, divide the distance by half/thirds and cut the remaining pieces to the same size. This will help avoid having a tiny strip at the bottom that doesn't match.
Step 5: The Mantle
Most of the boards on the wall were gray from weather. The block I picked up for the mantle was painted, so it needed to be stripped. I pulled all the nails from it and ran it through my thickness planer. I was left with a bright pine board... this might be a temporary solution. If you attempt this, look early and often for a board that will match your vision.
Mine was also too narrow for the support I built. To use the board, I took cutoffs and screwed them to the back to get me another 3" in width. They won't be noticeable but try to make it match.
To knock the color down, I applied several coats of Dark Walnut Danish Oil and let it dry in the sun. This helped bring the mantle to the same coloration as the rest of the project. I also had an edge without paint so I used that as well. Once dry, hang it up! Hardware is up to you, especially if you don't plan to keep it forever.
A final note on wood finishes, I left mine bare since the wood was very dry and didn't accept anything I had on hand; the light stuff turned yellow and the darker stuff was... really, really dark. If you want to experiment, use a small piece that is plenty damaged, sand it down and see how it looks with finishes applied. I tried spray poly, a few varieties of Danish Oil, shellac, and a few stains.
Step 6: Big Finish! Accessorize!
And that's it for construction! Sit back and relax or look for some new/old accessories to bring everything to life. I went back to the farm and picked up some other old tools that looked right at home.
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