What to Look For

Among the most plentiful vintage wood mantels at salvage yards today are the mass-produced ones made after 1860. These were easier to remove than earlier handmade pieces, which were often attached to wall paneling or even built-in seating. Expect to pay between $250 and $400 for a simple, paneled pine farmhouse mantel; Victorian-era, Colonial Revival, and Arts and Crafts models with mirrored overmantels cost between $700 and $3,000, depending on condition, ornamentation, finish, and wood type.

In choosing a mantel, consider the age and style of your house. A mantel with squared-off corners, fluted pilasters, and dentil moldings under the shelf, for instance, would befit an 1840 Greek Revival. If you're not sure of your home's style, try to match details on interior moldings with those on a vintage mantel.

When scouring the salvage yard, bring a tape measure and the dimensions of your existing firebox opening. Most local fire codes require that combustible wooden mantels be installed no less than 6 inches above and to the sides of the opening. And woodwork placed within 12 inches of the firebox cannot project out more than 1/8 inch for each 1-inch increment from the opening. So it may be easiest to limit your search to larger mantels with slim profiles.

Of course, none of these safety issues matter if you don't use the mantel on a working fireplace. "A lot of people want them for headboards," says Andrew Berry, manager of The Brass Knob Back Doors Warehouse in Washington, D.C. "All you do is mount the mantel on the wall and slide the bed into the opening." A twin mattress fits most mantel openings, usually about 40 inches wide. For a full- or queen-size bed, fill the opening with an upholstered panel and position the bed in front of the mantel—often about 60 inches wide from side to side. For a creative twist on the bathroom mirror, Berry suggests putting a beveled mirror in the firebox opening of a shorter mantel, and then mounting the piece over a long vanity. Even without a fireplace, a vintage mantel adds depth and texture to a plain wall, creating a welcome focal point, just as it has for centuries.

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