November 2010: Do It Yourself




Turn a builder’s grade fireplace into a touch of old Virginia style with a reclaimed mantel and surround.

Fire faux

As we begin to prepare for the cool, autumn Virginia nights, many of us embrace the great indoors. If you’re like me, nothing says fall like making a pitcher of Stone Fences (cider from Carter Mountain, of course), and gathering with good friends around a nice fire. Luckily, many renters are fortunate enough to inherit fireplaces in their rentals for those perfect nights inside, plus a picturesque spot to hang their holiday stockings.

Whether it is working or non-working, a great fireplace can add a focal point and raise the charm factor in most rooms. But many fireplaces, especially those in newer rentals and condos, lack charm altogether. It’s one thing if you’re lucky enough to inherit some old Virginia style, with the fireplace wrapped in white moldings and surrounded by built-in bookcases. However, if you’re like many of my friends, you have the builder’s grade “portal” fireplaces. You know, the one without any trim or mantel, adorned simply by an outline of beige tiles.

With a few materials and a few tools, you can take that hole in the wall fireplace from “lukewarm” to “on fire” in several easy steps. 


Getting started


1. A reclaimed mantel and surround. This is a great opportunity to explore all the wonderful consignment shops and antique stores in Charlottesville. I recommend stopping in The Habitat Store (on Harris Road) or the Covesville Store (on Rte. 29S) for a good selection of affordable, charming reclaimed mantels. Keep in mind, you’re looking for the complete surround that can stand, not just a mantel shelf. Look for a surround that is lighter weight. You’ll be glad you did. If you feel compelled to strip or repaint the surround to match your room/décor, feel free to do so. 

2. Four “L” brackets and accompanying screws.

Tools: Electric screwdriver.

Consider this a “Choose Your Own Adventure” project, as there are two quick and easy ways to accomplish your goal, all depending on your comfort level and ability to screw into your rental walls.

Option 1: Place the reclaimed surround and mantel around your fireplace. The surround should stand on its own when propped against the wall, so step back and make sure it is centered on your fireplace. Holding the surround flush against the wall (it may help to have an extra set of hands), place two evenly spaced L brackets along the underside lip of the mantel shelf. Using your electric screwdriver, screw the L brackets up into the underside of the mantel shelf. 

Once those screws are firmly in place, attach the lower half of the L brackets to your wall. Repeat this step on the other side to secure the surround evenly on both sides. The L brackets will barely be noticeable. You can even search for white ones to match your walls or paint them yourself before installing. You will only be creating four even, small holes in the wall that can be patched upon removal. 

Option 2: If the thought of attaching the surround to the wall makes you uncomfortable, consider supporting the surround with two large planters (17.5" height works great). If you buy lightweight planters or faux stone, fill the planters with quick-dry cement, rocks or bricks to create some substantial weight. Top the planters with some moss or the decorative arrangement of your choice to hide your support structure below. While I don’t recommend allowing your guests to dance on your mantel, the simple surround will stay nicely supported, flush between the planters and the wall.  

If there is a substantial gap between your surround and the border of your fireplace, consider attaching some decorative tiles with Command Adhesive tape strips. If you don’t have a fireplace in your rental but desperately seek a good focal point for your room, consider picking up a reclaimed mantel and creating a hearth out of some mirrored tiles and candles, making for a nice focal wall. Reclaimed mantels and fireplace surrounds can also serve as great, unique headboards.—Ed Warwick

Leg up

For the range of home improvement projects you might undertake, you need at least three types of ladders—a step ladder, a folding platform ladder and an extension ladder. Here’s why: If you don’t cover all your bases, a less risk-averse member of your family might try to do something silly, such as rig up his own perilous scaffolding to paint the stairway ceiling. I invested in an extension ladder after watching one such stupid strategy unfold in my own home. Now plenty of fellow risk-averse neighbors regularly enjoy my purchase.

A step ladder, with two or three wide flat steps (rather than rungs) is useful for mundane tasks such as reaching wine glasses on the top kitchen shelf as well as more rugged projects such as hanging artwork or the Christmas tree star. Small step ladders are portable and can be conveniently stored in a pantry closet, but at higher price points you can find wood or metal designs pretty enough to leave on display.

Your basic folding A-frame, platform ladder will be your go-to elevator for reaching an attic space and for painting walls, dusting molding and changing overhead light bulbs. These ladders typically are made of aluminum or steel and can be folded for easy storage in the garage or shed. The fold-out platform at the top can hold a paint can and brushes or a few tools. A 6-10′ version should suit most needs without being unwieldy. 

An extension ladder rests against a work surface and has sliding sections that extend up to 20′ or more. Typically made of aluminum or fiberglass, this is your ladder for cleaning gutters, painting your home’s exterior and not giving your spouse a heart attack when you need to reach something two stories high.—Katherine Ludwig