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Installing mantelshelf for existing stone fireplace

QuestionI have a stone front fireplace that, I believe, is a veneer put on top of brick (last homeowner appeared to have done this). It has fairly large stones (12" x 6") that are irregular in size/shape and mortar that allows for spacing between stones of about 1" or so. My question is how I would install a mantelshelf above my fireplace. I am afraid that if we drill into the mortar the mortar will crack and then we will have a huge mess and lots of repair to do. My second fear is that the stone surface is uneven and the back of the mantel will not be flush. What do most folks do in this situation? Any help you might have would be appreciated.

AnswerIf you want to add a mantelshelf to your fireplace, keep in mind that you may be opening a can of worms, especially if it's a stone veneer over brick. You may want to contact a professional mason to handle your project. Also mortar doesn't have any structural strength—so, no, you can't fasten to this area unless you are able to hit the brick behind the stone to which you can install lead anchors. However, when completed, your mantel will look like an afterthought.

For a professional looking finished product, consider the following details. Before you begin, check to see if the same kind of stone is available—just in case stones are damaged during removal. Also, you might want to take a wide-angle photo of the area where you will need to remove stones. Then you can number the individual stones (on the backside) to correspond to the stones shown in the photo to help during their reinstallation. I suggest that you try to remove the stone above the general area where you want to install the mantel, and twice that amount below it. The goal here is to find studs, support posts, or solid surface to which you can attach "L" shaped iron brackets to support the mantel, especially if you have selected a solid mantel. You will need two to three iron brackets, depending on the weight of your mantel (solid or hollow?), and they will have to be made at an iron works or metal fabrication shop. Have the fabricator punch holes in the brackets, two each at the tops and bottoms. If you find studs behind the stones, you can then use lag screws to fasten the brackets; if you find brick, use lead anchors drilled into the brick. Fasten the irons so the bottom leg of the "L-bracket" faces downward when attaching to the surface. Make sure that you recess each bracket to the surface wall, otherwise the stones that cover the brackets will not fit properly against the wall.

Now you have two options. You can attach the mantel to the brackets and then replace the stones back up to the underside of the mantel as well as on top of the mantel. However, keep in mind that you will have to cut the stones to fit the horizontal plane of the mantel—top and bottom. Or—you can first replace the stones to their original positions, cutting the stones around the tops of the angle irons (when you view the project from the front, the only thing you should be able to see are the tops of the brackets as they stick out from the rocks). Now you can actually install your mantel, scribing it to fit around the rocks. Make sure that your mantel depth is large enough to allow for scribing.

One last thought—if you have a solid mantel and do not want to see the edge of your angle brackets, you will want to recess areas on the underside of the mantel to accommodate the brackets. Be sure to do this before you start scribing. Because of the different textures and shapes of the stones, your scribing pattern will be off if you scribe first and then recess second for the brackets—trust me on this one! You could also completely conceal the bracket by recessing the area deeper and then cutting a plug to cover the underside of the bracket. If you build a hollow mantelshelf, then you should have no problem covering the entire top portion of the bracket.

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Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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