The Plywood and Poplar Mantel




Introduction: The Plywood and Poplar Mantel

About: Desktop Support Technician by day ... Occasional hired gun rock drummer by night ... DIY home improvement enthusiast on weekends - maker of whatever I can imagine in between it all. I'm also a professional l...

I own a house. Technically, the bank owns a house, but you get the idea. When one owns a house you have several choices ... which then lead to other choices ... it's like those "pick a path" books from my childhood. One such choice is to leave everything as is ... or ... change it. It doesn't really matter if this is change based on personal preference or a necessary change/repair/improvement. The fact is, the choice to change directly leads to another choice ... pay someone to do it ... or ... do it yourself.

I happen to be somewhat handy. As a kid I enjoyed watching shows like Hometime (why the fake marriage angle?) and This Old House. My Father tricked me into doing all the house maintenance he didn't want to do under the guise we were doing it together ... scraping and painting the house, getting on the roof to clean rain gutters, etc. His job, apparently, was to supervise. In addition to that, my Uncle was a farmer and did carpentry on the side. As you can imagine, things always need on the fly repairs on a farm.

All that being said, I'd never owned a house ... I'd never even lived in a house with a fireplace ... My most substantial tool was a cordless drill and my carpentry skills were in their infancy ... what could possibly go wrong?

Any finish carpenters will have a field day and probably a mild heart attack with this one.

Also, this isn't my "normal" type of small project Instructable, but there is a Before & After contest going on and that just seemed like fun. If you are so inclined ... please vote for this project.

Step 1: Opening a Can of Worms

Let's take a quick trip to backstory land ...

The initial plan: Remove the dark paneling, patch and paint walls, get the chimney swept, reface/redo the mantel ... have some awesome fires!

No fires for me: Turns out the firebox was in miserable shape (cracks in both back corners, loose bricks, failing mortar) and there was/is no liner in the huge three story chimney. I resolved the by rebuilding the firebox with my poor masonry skills and converting to a pellet stove insert. I did pay for that installation to be done.

The unplanned demolition: Removal of the paneling revealed several things, which included, but was not limited to the following:
1. Old wallpaper ... some of which would fall off easily ... some which would bring plaster with it.
2. Huge plaster cracks, loose plaster, plaster that immediately fell off the wall, and missing plaster.
3. Smoke damage
4. Loose bricks and mortar at the top of the fireplace.
5. The fireplace actually looked like it had shifted away from the wall over the past 90+ years.

It was going to be easier to just gut the wall than try to repair and patch this nightmare .. messier, but easier.

My repairs: I'm no DIY pro, but here is a quick list of what I did:
1. Gutted the entire wall and removed all loose bricks/mortar from the mantel/surround.
2. Lagged the fireplace to the framing to keep it from moving any further then filled all the gaps with concrete.
3. Insulated wall cavities, hung sheet rock, plastered, primed, painted.

Step 2: Tile Surround and Hearth

With the demo/rebuild of the structure out of the way, my next task was the new surround. I had a deadline because the pellet stove was scheduled to be delivered and installed, so the surround had to be done before they arrived.

Initially, I wanted one large piece of marble or granite for the hearth and one for the surround, but the cost was shocking. 12" x 12" tiles became the second choice and since the tile place wanted $9 for each tile, I went with the big box store .. because I'm thrifty (cheap).

I started with the hearth. The old terracotta tiles were removed, the resulting cavity filled/leveled with concrete, and the tiles set in place. Full tiles in the front starting in the middle for symmetry and cut tiles in the back and on the sides.

Next was the surround. Again I started in the middle for symmetry. Also, I started at the top so that the cut tiles would be down at floor level. I did use a wooden deadman and tape to keep the tiles from sliding down, but I didn't get pictures.

The pellet stove was installed without issue and I couldn't resist firing it up ... it was February at this point. The project stayed in this state for at least 6 months ... probably closer to a year. I was burned out on this project and switched gears to install crown molding and paint several rooms.

Step 3: Reshaping the Structure

Mantel time could no longer be avoided ... I had to admit to myself that I was avoiding this project due to fear of failure and just give it a try. The worst that would happen is I'd have to try again ... and maybe again after that. On a postive note, by this time I had added a miter saw, table saw, finish nailer/brad nailer/compressor combo, and orbital sander to my tool arsenal.

The first puzzle was the top of the existing brick mantel. It stepped out kind of like a castle in the middle and on the two sides. Since I wanted to create a more modern header with straight lines, I needed to fur out the bottom to be flush with the top. I did this using sections of a 2" x 4" cut to the necessary length and depth for the section in question. I adhered them to the brick using construction adhesive and used tape to keep them in place while that cured.

The second puzzle was to make what I'm calling a "sub-header." I needed more of a visual so I could wrap my head around the construction before cutting into my finish material. For this "subheader," I used 1/4" plywood. I shimmed the top piece level side to side, as well as front to back. Once that construction adhesive cured, I secured the front and side pieces with more adhesive and brad nails.

Step 4: The Faux Columns

With the prep work out of the way, it was finally time to start fabricating the new mantel. I'm using 1/2" poplar plywood (2 sheets) for the bulk of this project because it's affordable and paints well. In addition to the plywood, I'm using solid poplar for molding and a prefabricated dental crown molding. Total material cost was $117 and $50 of that was the crown molding.

I'm starting with the columns since the header will be sized in relation to them. As previously stated, I didn't have a router, let alone a router table at this time. Stick and cope and raised panels were way above my skill set.

All my measurements were decided as parts were made as I was essential wrapping an existing structure. Since I was starting with the column fronts ... height had to be from the floor to at least 1/2" shy of the bottom of my "subheader." The width had to be 1/2" overhang on the outside edge (to accept the side panels) and wide enough to cover the edge of the marble tiles. No major planning ... that's just what it is.

I started with a piece of 1/2" poplar plywood at this determined dimension. On top of this I basically built a picture frame with narrower strips of 1/2" plywood. The sides are 1 3/4" wide, while the top and bottom are 5" wide. Within this frame, I installed some store bought molding. This molding covers the raw edge of the plywood, as well as creates the transition to the bottom panel. What I'm left with is the look of a raised panel. The remaining area at the top and bottom were filled in with 1/2" plywood. The seam doesn't matter as that will be covered by molding in an upcoming step. A 45 degree angle was cut on each long side of the panels and then all nail holes and any gaps were addressed with wood filler.

The external side panels presented their own challenge. The back edge had to be scribed to the contours of the wall and baseboard using a compass or what some call dividers. A jigsaw is used to make the cut and any finessing is done by sanding. The front edge gets a 45 degree cut to mate with the front panel ... I snuck up on this cut until the side panel was at the proper width to meet the front panel at 90 degrees. I took several tries, but that's better than cutting it too short.

The front panels were glued and brad nailed to some furring strips, which were attached to the brick using construction adhesive. The side panels were attached using construction adhesive on the bricks, as well as wood glue on the edge miter with a few brad nails.

Lastly was the internal side panel. The front edge gets a 45 degree cut to mate with the front panel. The back edge is left straight as it sits flush against the marble surround ... again I just snuck up on that cut until I had the proper fit.

Step 5: The Header

I wanted the header to overhang the columns a bit and since the original brick structure didn't have this design, I need to attach a few furring strips to my "subheader." I just cut some scrap pine to my desired length and width ... then attached with wood glue and brad nails.

The front panel was cut to size, which in my case was - and includes the 1/2" overhang on each side. In this case, the 45 degree edges were cut using a speed square and circular saw since I had no safe way to do it using the table saw. This panel was secured to the "subheader" with glue and brad nails.

The side panels get scribed to the wall contours and the front edges get a 45 degree cut to mate with the front panel. More glue and brad nails to attach these panels.

The bottom of the header is filled in with 1/2" plywood strips ... you can see from the chip out that my table saw blade was sub par. It'll be ok ... wood filler and paint will hide that mess.

Step 6: Trim

Trim is the stage of the game where you get to conceal prior mistakes, which in my case was saving grace. Any gaps, seams, and plywood edges were about to be covered and forgotten.

The first offender was the exposed plywood edge from boxing in the bottom of the header. This was easily done with a half round molding. I used a miter saw and snuck up on my cuts to get a nice, tight fit ... wood glue and brads to attach.

For the top and bottoms of the columns, I used solid poplar ... 2" wide at the top and 5 1/2 wide at the bottom. I also used the miter saw and snuck up on my cuts to get the tightest fit I could. Next to the poplar boards, I installed a decorative molding to dress things up. Wood glue and brad nails to attach.

Wood filler for all the brad holes and minimal chip out is all it took to cover up the flaws.

Step 7: The Mantel Shelf

I wanted the mantel to have a two tiered look so that it would match other design elements of the house (two columns that separate the living room from the dining room and the newel post).

I didn't see the point in wasting an entire sheet of plywood for the bottom layer ... aka I'm cheap. My method was to laminate a 4" wide section onto an 8" wide section ... giving me a 1" thickness. Treating the exposed edges with banding wouldn't been the easier method, but I decided to over complicate the process. Before gluing these layers together, I cut the outside facing edges at 45 degrees to end up with a birds mouth or a triangular opening. To fill that space I used another piece of plywood ripped into a triangle with the exposed face being the poplar veneer. I've made a very poor sketch in an attempt to make sense out of my madness.

This over-complicated lamination cantilevers the header -" on all three sides and was secured to the top of the header with glue and brad nails. I ripped some 3-4" strips from the remaining plywood and used them to create some supports in the middle cavity ... basically dividing the space into quarters. This was enough to support the top later of plywood to ensure there was no sagging or flex.

The top layer was made by ripping the second sheet of plywood in half, cutting the three exposed edges at 45 degrees, laminating, and repeating the over-complicated triangle edge process. Final depth was cut on the table saw once the glue dried. It's scribed to the wall, but finished dimensions are roughly 85" x 16". As with everything else, this was attached with glue and brad nails.

Step 8: Crown Molding

The one remaining detail was the dental crown molding. It took some time to layout because I wanted to size of the dental detail to be equal/symmetrical at each corner. With the help of a friend to hold the molding in place, I got the front section marked and attached.

For the sides, I first made my mitered cut at the edge of a dental detail. I would then cut the length a little long and sneak up on the cut until it fit between the miter and the wall. This took extra time, but I think the end result was worth the aggravation.

At this point, any remaining nail holes and gaps were filled with wood filler.

Step 9: Painting

I went into this project knowing it would be painted ... that didn't make it any less painful though. I prefer not to paint wood and I don't really like painting in general. Fact of the matter is, the rest of the trim and doors in the house are painted ... that and I used paint grade plywood for the project.

That being said ... I hand sanded all surfaces ... except the dental crown ... I didn't have 27 years to do that. One coat of primer and two coats of paint with a light sanding in between each to smooth/flatten and little nubs.

I'm happy with the results. If I had to do it again ... having all the tools and experience I have now, I'd either edge band the mantel layers or just glue up a few poplar boards into a solid top.

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    5 Discussions


    4 years ago

    I love the way this turned out!! What a beautiful transformation. I know it can be frustrating when little projects turn into big projects but that's when some of the best work gets done. You have my vote on this one


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the great compliment and thanks for the vote. More often than not my DIY projects turn into larger projects these days. Some of that is due to a previous owner being a flipper and making some really cheap/bad repairs or "improvements."


    4 years ago on Introduction

    This turned out looking sharp. Well done, my friend!

    I want to buy an old house someday. But then again . . . maybe I don't . . .


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! I love old houses ... this one is 92 years old.

    Initially I was very frustrated with my DIY projects because I wanted everything to be perfectly square and all measurements exact, but that just doesn't work with old home (at least in my experience). Nothing is perfectly level or square after that much time. Once I change my mentality to working with the house and building custom to suit its needs, the projects become more enjoyable and just look like they belong.

    That sounds pretty crazy ... I might start talking to my house now.