Updating the Mantle

Blog, Home, Living Room, Woodworking / Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Sometimes projects take a while to complete. Sometimes, the simpler the project the longer it takes because you overthink the solution to the point of freezing on any sort of action. Sometimes, you learn a little bit of something about yourself along the way. 

Want to know what I learned about myself along the way? I’m allergic to Elm. Like, a whole lot of allergies. This project, because the elm dust was so bad in the basement shop, led me to build the box fan air cleaner, and even then it didn’t keep me in good health. If I accidentally inhaled any sort of elm sawdust, without fail I would be in a heavy head cold mode for a day or two following. Good thing I have another slab or two of elm I am planning on using for another project.

When we moved into our house, the fireplace was lacking in care. It wasn’t terrible, but someone decided it didn’t need to be cleaned or taken care of. The mantle in particular has weird stains on it and paint drips from the godawful orange color it was painted when we moved in.

Also, there’s something about the stone mantle with the intentionally chipped away edge that very much does not speak to me. It looks nice and all, with the new paint in the living room, but it isn’t the style I would have chosen. 

Nearly from the moment we moved in, I was plotting an upgrade. What I proposed to Ellie was a simple addition. Make a 4-sided box to place on top. She liked the idea and gave me the go ahead.

The thing about a simple box is that it isn’t so simple. I bought the elmwood nearly a year ago from the Habitat for Humanity Restore and I worked on this project in fits and starts. The dimensions were relatively easy to get. However, I really, really struggled with the how. How would I join four boards together? Do I shoot for simple, clean lines? Do I try some fancy joinery? Do I expose the end-grain and if I do, is it a feature or merely an accent? There were hundreds of questions running through my head as I procrastinated taking the next step and then the next one. I couldn’t make up my mind. The simpler something is, the easier it is to find the imperfections in it.

Mantle Top Fit

At some point, a while ago, I decided to miter the joints. The plan was to miter the joints and then to use dowel joinery to secure them since end-grain glue-ups are not very strong. Ellie did not know why I cared about this so much, “It won’t be supporting weight at the joints,” she objected. Then I thought about the plan and I saw the flaws in my thinking. Dowel joining two miters would be difficult, and run the risk of blowing through to the side of the wood people would see. One accident would ruin the piece. 

Since I wasn’t comfortable using dowels to join the miters, I needed to find a different solution. I thought about using splines to reinforce the joint, but I talked myself out of that because I had no safe way to make the cuts for the splines. 

For a brief moment, I toyed with the idea of using a brass rod to reinforce the joints. Having little dots of brass along the face or the top would be a nice accent, but Ellie didn’t think it was the look for the room, so I scrapped that idea. 

After fretting over what I would do for several months, I finally just decided to finish the project and figure it out as I went. Even after deciding to finish, I still found ways to procrastinate. I sanded, and sanded until everything was as smooth as I could get it. That led to the Elm allergy discovery which led to the air cleaner build. The build really did take the dust out of the air like I had hoped, but it was still a dangerous place for me to be unprotected.

Once I was entirely out of procrastination projects, I decided to do what Ellie said and just glue the damn thing together, not worrying about the strength of the joint. The reason for this was because I had worked with the wood long enough that I realized no matter what I did, the glue up wasn’t going to be what I wanted it to be, perfect. The wood I had was bowed and the miter cuts uneven. A glue up would leave one heck of a gap. Screw it, I said, I’ll do it anyway. I taped my top and the skirt together, immediately seeing the bow in the skirt, and filled it with glue and folded it up. I clamped the pieces to my workbench while I waited for the glue to dry.

The next day after work, I ran down to the shop to peel the tape away, to see what damage had been done. As expected, it wasn’t pretty but it was better than I expected. The pieces were nearly square, but there was a gap exposed along the top and the skirt came up higher than the top in some places. Discouraged, I left it to finish drying until the next night.

Mantle Wood Filler

In that time, I had a small stroke of genius. I would fill the gap with sawdust and glue, a homemade wood filler. It’s not like it could make it look worse than it did. Before filling the gap, I used my hand plane to flush up the joint. Doing so accentuated the gap and made it appear to wander throughout the top, but it also cleaned up some of the mistakes. I scraped the wood filler smooth and left it to dry overnight. It did the trick.

Having glued the top to the skirt, I could then trim the side pieces to their final size. To do so, I held them in place and marked the edge to be flush with the top. Then, I took the two pieces over to the disk sander and ground them down to the line. This created a whole ton of sawdust. I glued these in place and filled the gap using the same process as before.

After the glue up was complete, I realized my top extended back further than the two side pieces. I flipped the mantle up on it’s front and used my electric hand planer to shave it flush with the two side pieces. After many passes with a shallow cut, I upped the aggressiveness of the cut and it made quick work of the task.

Mantle Test Fit

At this point, I snuck the mantle upstairs for a test fit while Ellie was busy. Doing so made my heart drop again. When I looked at it, it looked too big and too wide. I chalked it up to the angle I was looking at it from and brought it back to the shop (Ellie later confirmed this hunch).

Before applying the finish, I had to sand off the grit of the glue and sawdust wood filler, as well as remove any glue residue so it doesn’t stand out once the finish is applied. I did a heavy bit of sanding at 220 grit to take it all back down to wood. I also hit the corners lightly with the random orbit sander just to take the edge off them.

For the finish, I applied three coats of Danish oil. We had used this on the back of stove shelf and loved how it brought out the grain of the wood. The first time the finish goes on really is the most satisfying part of the process. Everything comes together all at once.

Because I couldn’t live with myself thinking the glued miter joint could fail at any moment, I ran to the hardware store to get some L-brackets to reinforce the joint. These were an easy install and they gave me peace of mind.

Mantle Finished Installed

All that was left was to put it in place. For now, it’s just sitting on the old mantle but I have plans to use construction adhesive to hold it in place. I’ll wait until we are certain we like the look and are comfortable with it as is before making it permanent. 

What do you think? Is this a project that would have taken you nearly a year to complete too?

2 Replies to “Updating the Mantle”

  1. Thanks for these notes Danny,
    It’s good to see you are settled into your home and your marriage.
    It also looks like this mantle project, while long in the making was quite successful.
    I hope that this Christmas, you will be able to hang great stockings and possibly a garland for the season …. I presume there will be NO NAILS going into this beautiful piece of art.
    Take care and give my best to Ellie.
    Love, Uncle Andy

    1. Thanks, Uncle Andy! We already talked about hanging stockings come Christmas and we’ve decided on putting hooks on the back of the front piece. That way, we can leave them there from year to year and they do not mar the wood.

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