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How to Install a Wood Fireplace Mantel (Mantle)

The call usually goes like this. A potential new customer calls and says, “I am looking for a mantel. The stone guys are coming tomorrow, and I need something today so they can put it in. Can you cut me a mantel?”

The answer, of course, is yes. However, I spend a little time calming them down and explaining that they are going to mount the mantel after the stone work is done, how it will come out beautifully and how not having a mantel right now won’t slow anything down.

Most people expect that the wood is going to be embedded in the stone, which is the reason for all of the last-minute, frantic calls, but I argue that the wood should not be surrounded by stone, mostly because of wood movement and not because of the fact that they don’t have any wood to surround with stone.

This mantel was milled from a piece of driftwood and the fresh cuts were stained to match the gray exterior.

Install solid wood mantels in front of the stone. Don’t leave a void or do anything different to the stone. 

All wood, dry or wet, moves with seasonal changes and the stone does not. This means cracks will develop around the mantel over time. They will be small, perhaps unnoticeable, around dry wood, but if the wood is newly sawn and installed wet, the cracks will be unsightly after the wood has dried and shrunk. The other possibility is that green wood could bow, twist, or warp in some fashion and blow things apart. If a 8″ x 11″ x 8′ long piece of white oak decides to move aggressively, there may be little that can stop it and the results could be catastrophic. It is definitely possible that any stone or brick veneer could be popped from the wall when the wood starts moving.

So, I say, don’t fight it. Don’t try to put the stone around the wood. Let the stone guys do their thing, step back, take a deep breath and then find a cool piece of wood to install in front of the stone.

The method I recommend works for installing any solid wood mantel above any fireplace, from drywall to stone and anywhere in between, and the process is quite simple.

Besides your tools and the actual piece of wood for the mantel (purchased, of course, from WunderWoods) you will only need 5-minute epoxy and two steel stakes. I get the steel stakes at Home Depot in the concrete supply aisle. They are 5/8″ thick steel stakes used for concrete forms and they are very sturdy. Do not use rebar because it is too flexible.

You might be thinking that just two steel rods aren’t enough and be inclined to use more, but don’t, unless it is absolutely necessary. Two 5/8″ thick stakes can easily hold 200 pounds (which I usually verify with a modified one-handed pinky pull up in which my knees stay on the ground), and I have found that even with more than two stakes, the heavy lifting is usually done with just two, while the others are just along for the ride. And, since the extra stakes just make for more drilling and more chances for things to not line up, I say don’t use them. If you feel that you need to beef things up, just get bigger steel rods.

The basic premise of this method is that you are installing two shelf brackets in the form of steel rods that will support the mantel which will have two holes drilled in the back to accept the rods, all of which will be hidden.

Start by determining the mantel location and then finding suitable places to install the rods. The rods need to be mounted solidly, either through the wood framing or through the stone, or both if possible, and close to each end of the mantel. Usually the exact locations are determined by the stone or framing layout.

Drill the holes in the fireplace surround with a 5/8″ masonry bit and a hammer drill in stone or brick, or a 11/16″ bit and a regular drill in wood. The 5/8″ bit in stone will usually leave a hole with enough room for level adjustment because the hammer drill makes a roomier entrance. Since wood drills easily and with a cleaner hole, the 11/16″ bit is required to allow for level adjustments.

Drilling holes for mantel rods

Drill a hole in the fireplace surround for the metal stakes.

Next, you will need to drill 1″ diameter holes as deep as possible in the back of the mantel that line up with the rods (be careful not to drill all of the way through). I usually just measure for the locations, but if you are worried about messing things up, you can make a drilling template to use on the wall and the back of the mantel. This still doesn’t eliminate screw-ups (nothing does) because it is easy to flip the template when you should have flopped it. Be sure to mark your template with top, bottom, left and right sides, and don’t forget to mark the side that faces the mantel and the one that faces the wall.

Drilling mantel for rods

Drill 1″ holes in the back of the mantel. Use a square to keep the drill bit lined up.

Next insert a steel stake into each hole and secure it with 5-minute epoxy. Be sure to fill in the front and back for full support. While the epoxy is setting check the rods for level and adjust as necessary. I often add some small wedges to help hold things level while the epoxy is setting up. After the epoxy is set up, trim the rods to the final length which is determined by the depth of the holes in the back of the mantel.

Fill the hole and cover the steel stake with epoxy to make sure it is fully supported.

Fill the hole and cover the steel stake with epoxy to make sure it is fully supported.

Site across both stakes to make sure they are parallel with each other.

Site across both stakes to make sure they are parallel with each other.

In a perfect world you would slide on the mantel and be done at this point, but it is rarely the case – often you will need to make some small adjustments to compensate for drilling by hand. If the mantel doesn’t sit level it can be adjusted by adding wraps of tape to the metal stakes, either near the front or back, depending on which needs to be raised.

Use wraps of tape to make level adjustments to steel stakes.

Use wraps of tape to make level adjustments to steel stakes.

Once you have the mantel sitting level you are done. Don’t worry about gluing it on – it isn’t necessary and will only make the mantel more difficult to remove if you need to work on it in the future.

The finished product.

The finished product.


River Logging Begins At WunderWoods

This photo shows the beautiful mix of stained sapwood, bug holes and a little tan-colored heartwood.

“The June rise used to be always luck for me; because as soon as that rise begins, here comes cord-wood floating down, and pieces of log rafts – sometimes a dozen logs together; so all you have to do is catch them and sell them to the wood yards and sawmill.”

–Quote from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain


I am reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn right now (mostly because everyone that considers themselves a fair-bit learned says it’s a proper read) and I came across the above paragraph about wood floating down the river. It struck me for two reasons. First off, I see the river every day and can’t help but be drawn to it for the logs that float past my shop. The second, and most appropriate reason, is that it mentions the “June rise”.

I didn’t know the “June rise” was a thing, even though I knew the river was highest in the spring. Personally, I think of June as the summer, but early June is still spring, and this year the rise was in spring and interestingly enough, in June. As a matter of fact, it was June 1st officially, but started with a vengeance on May 31st.

That night we were at the Ameristar Casino, on the Missouri River, in downtown St. Charles for my dad’s retirement party, planning on an upscale night out with the family. We were going to attend the retirement party, go swimming, watch TV in the bathtub (they have TV’s in the bathrooms), probably go swimming again the next morning and go out to breakfast, and just generally live it up as much as possible with our 7-year-old daughter. I say, “We were going to,” because things didn’t go as planned.

After the party, we went to the pool and were told that we would have to get out because a storm with lightning was headed our way. It wasn’t a big deal because we knew that we could swim the next morning, so we headed up to the room to find something else to do. We ended up watching out from the 22nd floor, with a great view, to see the approaching storm and lightning. It looked rather ominous, so we turned on the news to see that a tornado was headed in our general direction, and so, ended our night of fun.

We sheltered in the basement, hearing second-hand damage reports as we waited for it to pass. We weren’t in the basement long, but the hotel lost power, so we spent the rest of the evening in the lobby until the power came back on. When we finally got up to our room, we, of course, looked out the window and could see vast areas of darkness where there should be light, punctuated by areas of bright flashing lights. The tornado had come very close to the hotel and the lights were from emergency response teams. It looked like the tornado might have went close to our house as well, but there was nothing to do that night. All of the power was out and traffic was all locked up because the highway was closed, so we just hung out in our room, watched the news, watched the rain, and went to bed.

When the sun came up, there was some evident damage from high winds, but the most obvious outcome from the storm was the rising river. It was already a little high before this latest storm, and the all-night rain pushed it to flood levels. The water from the river was starting to fill the lower parking lot, making the hotel an island.

As I looked out from the 22nd floor, I could easily see a large segment of the Missouri River, and guess what I saw. Logs, logs and more logs. Huge ones floating right on by, and in good numbers. In just one minute, easily three to four giant trees would go by, along with all the smaller pieces. The “June rise” was on.

As much as I wanted to get all of those logs, it was obviously too dangerous. The water was high and swift, and as far as I could tell, only an idiot would get on the river in those conditions. It didn’t matter right then anyway, because I had to focus on the ramifications of the tornado.

A few days later, as I was looking at some downed trees from the tornado, one of the guys in the conversation mentioned how fast the river can drop in just a day, “like someone pulled the drain plug,” he said. Near the river, he had a house that was flooded the day before and was now on dry land. He also mentioned that he had a lot of trees just float onto his land, as well as some that were knocked over by the tornado.

This got me thinking more about the logs on the river, and that it would be a good time to look for logs or driftwood. But, I didn’t do much about it. I had a never-ending supply of logs right around my shop from the tornado and didn’t need to go looking for trees in the river. Plus, the river was still high, even though it had dropped a lot.

As much as I tried to avoid them, I couldn’t. Within just a couple of days, I was headed across the Missouri River on the Blanchette Bridge back into St. Charles, when I noticed the mother lode. Off to the right, near a parking lot for downtown St. Charles and Frontier Park was the biggest log jam I have ever seen. It was as big as a football field full of logs and driftwood, all piled in tight and screaming my name. It was huge, and I expected that I could pick logs from this pile for a long time. All I had to do was wait for the ground to dry a bit, and I could move in (with the proper clearance, of course). I knew that the logs would be there awhile because every person working for St. Charles was cleaning up the tornado debris and none of them were going to worry about this pile of logs, no matter how big it was, on the banks of the river. Heck, another good rain would take it down river anyway. So, I waited – but not long.

Only two days later, I was headed across the bridge in the same direction and looked down at the giant log jam to see only dirt. A football field-sized piece of real estate that used to be covered in logs, was now just dirt. It was incredible that they could have cleaned up that many logs that fast, but somehow they did. I thought I had plenty of time, but I still missed them, just like the great walnut log I let go downstream at the end of winter.

I told myself it was for the best, and that I didn’t need to chase river logs, but I was sure that the “June rise” had left something for me. It is a big river, and I knew that there were treasures to be found. I held out as long as I could, but then finally, I took the official “plunge”.

It happened a couple of weeks ago and knowing that summer was coming to an end, I went out and picked up five river logs, figuring that I better do it now before the water gets cold. I didn’t find any walnuts this time, but I did find one, in particular, that makes me want to go back. It is a silver maple, like the others that I picked up, but it must have spent more time in the water because the sapwood was very dark, almost black. At the same time, the heartwood looked almost new, making the boards with both sapwood and heartwood have amazing contrast. I was especially excited at how the dark sapwood looks like marble or some other stone. I always say, the less it looks like wood, the better it is.

Here are some photos of my prized log. Click on any of the photos for a closer look and to view the slide show.

The entire log was solid, including the sapwood and produced six slabs up to 22″ wide and 2-3/8″ thick, and in case you were wondering, all of them smell like the bottom of a river. Other than that, milling this log was a completely enjoyable experience. And, even though I can find plenty of logs on land, this one log will have me going back to the river again, especially around June.

Ax Men’s Shelby Stanga Gets An Early Birthday Present

After the drought last summer all of the local rivers were very low. The Missouri River, right across the street from my shop, was lower than I had ever seen it. It was a trickle compared to its normal self. This big and forbidding river had become almost friendly with giant sandbars and never-ending chances to explore.

This is a photo of the Missouri River when it was low and we were exploring with Grandma and Grandpa.

This is a photo of the Missouri River when it was low and we were exploring with Grandma and Grandpa Wunder. Usually it is all water from just beyond the bench to the far tree line. My 40lb. bow couldn’t even make it to the water from here.

The more I explored, the more I found. I found a lot of cool driftwood pieces and lots of logs. At first, I blew of the logs that I saw, assuming that they were probably cottonwood or some other quick-to-rot species. But, then I thought a little more and wondered, “What if they aren’t all cottonwood or rotten?” So, I started taking a little closer look.

It didn’t take long to find a walnut that was solid and then a nice maple, but both of those were in Frontier Park in downtown St. Charles and there was no real way to get to them, so I let them go. Besides the fact that I couldn’t get to them, I didn’t need to get to them. I had a big supply of logs and plenty of paying jobs to do otherwise. I didn’t need to chase river logs. But, as you might have guessed, logic doesn’t rule in my world.

I began small and started bringing back driftwood pieces to the shop. I looked at the bigger logs, most of which were cottonwood, but didn’t pursue them. I didn’t see any that were easy to get out. Nothing was sitting right next to a boat ramp, and I wasn’t in a hurry to go out on the river in the middle of winter. I can swim, but that doesn’t make a difference if the water is freezing cold. I kept bringing back pieces I could carry, and I was fine… until I found one particular walnut log.

This log sucked me in. It was literally right across the street from the shop, big, and walnut, with the coolest exterior. The outside was so cool that, no matter what wood it was, I would have made it into mantels or something else that I could leave unpeeled. I had to have it, or at least cut into it, and then decide if I had to have it.

The main thing that had kept me from doing this sooner was getting the log. None of the others I found were easy to get to or get out, and this one was no different. It was far from the road and, at this point, far from the river. I decided I was going to go old school on this one and mill it in place with my chainsaw. If anything good came out of it I was sure I could find someone or several someones to help me carry it out (I have a lot of wood-loving friends that I can pay in wood).

The plan I hatched was military inspired. I went in quick and light with only my chainsaw, a few wedges, a hammer, and extra gas and oil. I didn’t plan to stay long. After all, this wasn’t making me any money, and I had other paying jobs to do. In and out was the mantra. I limited my stay to one sharp chain and only one sharp chain – the one on the saw. I knew it wouldn’t last too long since I was going to cut dirty roots from a muddy tree at the bottom of a sandy river. I would’ve been happy with the chain staying sharp for just one full tank of gas. I figured by that time I would know if I wanted to come back. And, if I did, I could make more formal plans.

I picked a nice sunny, slightly warm morning and launched my attack. I sharpened the chain on my saw, packed my saw bag, checked the battery on my camera and headed in. I started with the root section and made a couple of small cuts, just to make sure it was walnut and see how things looked. I worked my way back and forth and up and down the tree making cuts to assess the situation and try not to screw things up.

The entire tree, including the root section, was pretty accessible even though it was wedged between two piles. Even so, in order to get to the main root section, I had to cut off the tap root. I wouldn’t normally do anything with the tap root, but this tree was big and so was the tap root. This seemed like a fine place to start milling and finish off my chain.

After it was all said and done I ended up with six chunks from the tap root that we hauled back. You can tell from the video commentary that I wasn’t too impressed with them, but the rest of the log looked great. I left the tree in three sections (two nine-foot long logs and the root section) and packed out.

Click the photo above to see a video of the Missouri River walnut milling.

Click the photo above to see a video of the Missouri
River walnut milling.

I spent the next few days working on my paying jobs, telling friends about the log and planning the next big milling session. Then it began to precipitate, and precipitate, and you guessed it, snow. I kept thinking that we should have tied up the logs, but we didn’t. I knew the river would eventually go back to normal levels, I just didn’t think it would all happen in a few days. Now the river is back to its normal width, and it just snowed another foot.

Needless to say, that log is gone. It is somewhere downstream for someone else to find. I was telling a friend of mine about it and how the log was in New Orleans now and how someone was just going find an awesome piece of ready-to-go walnut, when he mentioned Shelby Stanga. We both watch Ax Men and love Shelby Stanga. I think Shelby should have his own show, so I can see more of him and the logs that he pulls out of the Louisiana swamps and Lake Pontchartrain. Anyway, we both laughed and thought about how funny it would be if Shelby found that walnut and it ended up on our favorite show with our favorite logger. Well, if I can’t have it, I would want Shelby to have it. Happy Birthday Shelby!

Driftwood Fireplace Mantel And Other River Treasures

This railroad tie has transformed nicely into a driftwood fireplace mantel. I wish I knew how long it had been in the river.

Earlier this year, I was reintroduced to the Missouri River when my daughter, Mira and I were almost blown off of this planet by a group of reenactors. We were cruising the river bank and wandered in to a not-so-secure, secure area right before the big moment. Luckily, we escaped with our lives and have been able to go back to look for more treasures. (click here for the full story)

Mira with her collection of glass and mussel shells in her ring of rocks.

A few weeks ago, after Mira’s girl scout outing to learn about the river, we ventured out on our own. Mira found pieces of colored glass, mussel shells and special rocks, while I, of course, looked for wood. I found some cool pieces that weren’t too big to take back and was especially intrigued by long slender pieces of wood that were debarked. I don’t know what did it, but I assume it was a small rodent. I don’t think it was a beaver because the teeth marks are small, so I am calling them “Muskrat Sticks” until I learn something different. Every stem was chewed like corn on the cob (the way I do it with all of the corn gone, not like the girls do it with sporadic bites between kernels). I was drawn to them because they were so uniform in size and texture, and all of them were recently chewed down, so the color was consistent too. I don’t know that anyone will use them, but I grabbed them anyway.

The consistency of the chew pattern caught my eye on these “Muskrat Sticks”.

After that, I got thinking even more about wood (I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but I did). Specifically, I was thinking about that giant river running right by my shop and all of the other treasures that it might be dropping in my lap. Since then, I have had two occasions to cruise the river and look for more goodies, and I must admit, I am pretty proud of myself. My biggest/best find was an old railroad tie. It was just floating right next to the bank, and I grabbed it. I almost walked right by it because I was focused on logs and branches. If you look really close, you can see where the spikes went through it originally. Now, the holes merge into the hollowness created by the years of bobbing in the river. Amazingly, it is completely solid, except for all of the wood that is missing. It will make a great rustic fireplace mantel for the right person in the right house.

This railroad tie has transformed nicely into a driftwood fireplace mantel. I wish I knew how long it had been in the river.

While I was searching, I also found a couple of other pieces that stood out in the crowd. One looked like a rock or something unwood (I can sell any wood that doesn’t look like wood – weird, I know), while the other was chewed by a very cooperative beaver. He left just enough for it to be useable and picked the perfect diameter log to make a table leg. I have always thought that it would help to have a well-trained beaver, and he couldn’t have done a better job. Thank you, beaver.

There was a good range of wood on the river bank along with a lot of nuts. Mira even found one delicious pecan (I was the only one that would eat it).


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