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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.

 

Walnut Bell Frame

Recently a customer called to talk to me about a woodworking project and asked if I have ever built a bell frame. I told him, “No, but I am pretty sure that no one else you are going to find around here has either.” That may not have instilled much confidence, but I got the job anyway (it may have also helped that he was a friend of a friend).

My customer gave the bell to his wife for their anniversary. It was made in 1908 and weighs about 450 lbs. The bell and the new headstock and wheel all came from Whitechapel bell foundry in England, makers of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.

The frame is made of walnut, which is very durable outside, and is mounted on a slab of granite from New Hampshire. I was able to get all of the major parts from one log that was perfectly suited for the job. It was straight-grained on one end, which I used for the feet and top rails, and it was curved on the other end, which I used for the four legs. I loved using the sawmill to cut the thick lumber and chainsaw to do the rough work.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this job was being able to start with a log, and in a short time end up with a finished piece.

Walnut bell frame

Walnut bell frame 2

 

Factory Cart Bench

I have been through a lot of factory carts in the past couple of years, all of which have been repurposed into coffee tables. Things changed a bit when we built our first factory cart bench. It came about when a customer that wanted to have a bench made sent me some pinterest photos and one happened to have industrial cart wheels on it. That was a gimme for me because I happen to have in my possession about 50 carts that are already bench height.

This is our official, first-ever factory cart bench.

This is our official, first-ever factory cart bench.

We started by trimming the whole thing down from 28″ to 19″ in depth and cleaning all of the hardware. That was followed up by building the back and armrests out of wood we saved from other disassembled carts. After a little distressing around the new cuts and a light sanding overall, we stained all of the hard maple with a medium-dark brown stain before spraying a lacquer finish on the entire cart, including the hardware (I prefer the look of the hardware with a clear coat as opposed to black paint).

When the bench was almost finished, I told Chris (my wife) that I think we might need a factory cart bench in our house. She asked how much I charged for it and she then advised me that it would look much better in someone else’s home. I guess that is how it goes at the cobbler’s house too.

Hickory Wine Cellar & Home Theater

It started out as a simple wine closet, a small room to be built-in the corner of an unfinished basement. My customer has simple tastes and he really just wanted an improvement on his simplified (non) design that had left his wine collection in a closet under the stairs. In it he had a wine room cooler on the floor that was running with the exhaust pointed out the semi-shut door. I don’t think it really helped the quality of the air, but it could still qualify as a wine cellar, at least in very loose terms. No matter what you call it, it needed some sort of upgrade to take its rightful place in this custom Ladue home.

As I mentioned, he has simple tastes, but apparently his wife does not. On my second meeting with him, he pulled out a photo book with a lavish French theater that his wife had found and said that since we were going to build something downstairs and he had the extra room, he would like to add a theater to the mix. It was a giant jump from where we started, but I did not argue.

The theater room quickly took shape with our new directive, and the wine cellar followed, becoming equally involved and in a French country style, which called for the racks to have more of a furniture feel. The nine pieces, the arched entry door, and the two beams in the wine cellar where made from a batch of hickory logs that I recovered from a tree service a year earlier. It turns out that about twelve months is the perfect amount of time for hickory to get very wormy and nicely spalted.

Much of the racking in the wine cellar is traditional, with ladder racks holding the bulk of the collection, but each piece of furniture displays the wine in different ways, from individual bottles to entire cases. One of my favorite little details that I commonly use now in other wine cellars is adjustable shelving. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering, but in a wine cellar the shelves can be used flat for case storage or offset with a tilt for displaying individual bottles. The shelves have a strip across the front which is flush on top and forms a lip on the bottom, which when flipped over keeps the bottles from sliding off and crashing to the floor. The tilted shelves are especially helpful for holding and displaying odd-shaped and larger bottles that don’t fit in the other racks.

Between the theater and the wine cellar is a spot for a poker table and a back bar made from rift sawn white oak cabinets and walnut countertops with art glass windows above. All of the woodwork around the windows is made from poplar that was stained dark brown and glazed with black for an antique appearance. The walnut countertop was built up to 1.5″ thick by laminating two layers of 3/4″ thick stock together. I have done this many times and it works great (click here to see how it’s done).

The theater itself involved a lot of trim details. The ceiling is broken into three sections with painted beams and large crown molding, while the walls feature a hand-crafted plaster finish and picture-frame moldings – all of which add to the French feel of the room.

From humble beginnings to this showcase of a job, things really changed. I would have never guessed that this is how it would turn out when we started.

The French Country style comes to life with big beams and wormy, spalted hickory throughout the wine cellar.

The French Country style comes to life with big beams and wormy, spalted hickory throughout the wine cellar.

The back wall of the wine cellar has leaded-glass windows with dark stained and glazed woodwork.

The back wall of the wine cellar has leaded-glass windows with dark stained and glazed woodwork.

The rear of the home theater has a back bar and an area for playing cards.

The rear of the home theater has a back bar and an area for playing cards.

Looking towards the wine cellar in this home theater shows off the recessed lighting.

Looking towards the wine cellar in this home theater shows off the recessed lighting.

An arched front with powered curtains welcomes movie-goers.

An arched front with powered curtains welcomes movie-goers.

 

2014 Woodworking Projects

I am terrible at remembering to take photos of my projects. I usually tell myself that I will take the  pictures next time since the job isn’t officially done yet, or the background doesn’t look great, or my shop looks like it houses six families of hobos, but when the job is unceremoniously complete, I set off for my next one without even a snapshot.

In an effort to prove that I actually do work every now and then, I have pulled together a quick photographic rundown of 2014. Some of them you may have already seen, some are new, and yes, some are still missing (just imagine all of the other swell things that I did that aren’t included).

This antique reproduction table was a little tricky to make. The smaller legs don't leave much room for joinery.

This antique reproduction table was a little tricky to make. The smaller legs don’t leave much room for joinery.

This nightstand features whitewashed rustic cypress with lots of character.

This nightstand features whitewashed rustic cypress with lots of character.

My customer said to do whatever I wanted on this one, and I did. This spalted maple log wasn't wide enough to make a one-piece top, so I made a three-piece top with the curved slabs. The top is shaped like a football with the ends squared off. A glass insert in the middle will finish off the top.

My customer said to do whatever I wanted on this one, and I did. This spalted maple log wasn’t wide enough to make a one-piece top, so I made a three-piece top with the curved slabs. The top is shaped like a football with the ends squared off. A glass insert in the middle will finish off the top.

A cute little nightstand for a little room.

A cute little nightstand for a little room.

This round dining table is made of American elm (one of my favorites). While a bit cantankerous to work with, it yields beautiful results.

This round dining table is made of American elm (one of my favorites). While a bit cantankerous to work with, it yields beautiful results.

About 150 of these carts have made their way through my shop. Luckily, I didn't have to refinish all of them like I did this one.

About 150 of these carts have made their way through my shop. Luckily, I didn’t have to refinish all of them like I did this one.

I used every durable wood I could think of for this play structure. Osage orange, cedar and white oak all teamed up for this preschoolers playground.

I used every durable wood I could think of for this play structure. Osage orange, cedar and white oak all teamed up for this preschoolers playground.

My daughter inspired my first official driftwood project with her mermaid-themed swimming party.

My daughter inspired my first official driftwood project with her mermaid-themed swimming party.

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

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

Dark-stained cherry and iron (aged like a man) worked together to create a focal point for this new kitchen.

Dark-stained cherry and iron (aged like a man) worked together to create a focal point for this new kitchen.

This contemporary TV wall is a slight departure from my normal projects since I didn't mill any of the lumber. It is built from natural maple plywood and red oak plywood stained black.

This contemporary TV wall is a slight departure from my normal projects since I didn’t mill any of the lumber. It is built from natural maple plywood and red oak plywood stained black.

Here’s to a new year of great projects and remembering to take more photos! Happy New Year!

 

Let It Sit or Use It: Acclimating Wood

“Be sure to let the wood acclimate before you use it.”

That’s what every knowledgable woodworker will tell you about wood. After all, it has to be in equilibrium with its environment to ensure a good, long-lasting result. I personally preach this to everyone I meet, if they are willing to listen (and sometimes when they are not). But, it’s not as simple as just letting the wood sit before you use it. Sometimes letting the wood acclimate to its new environment is actually a bad idea.

The logic behind letting wood acclimate before you use it is to have all of the craziness of wood movement happen before it is installed. If the wood is moved to a dry environment it is going to shrink and if it is moved into a wet environment it is going to expand. This “dry” or “wet” description is relative though – wood moisture in relation to the environmental moisture (humidity).

I often think of wood trim and casework when I think of acclimating wood to its environment, with a close second being hardwood flooring. In a perfect world, I would install both of these items on the 2nd of February after the heat has been running in the house for months and everything is shrunk up as much as possible. In this shrunk up world, I want my flooring or trim to be super dry and super shrunk so everything fits nice and tight and only tightens up as summer rolls around and the humidity rises. However, the opposite is usually true. I seem to only install woodwork around July 20th, when the humidity is a billion percent and everything is fat, which means in the winter everything will shrink and gaps will appear.

“Well pal, if you weren’t such an idiot and you let that wood acclimate before you installed it, everything would be great and the gaps that open in the winter would be a thing of the past.”

Not true, I say. Remember, the dry and wet thing is relative. Letting the wood acclimate in winter to a super dry environment is good. Your wood will most likely be shrinking (it definitely won’t be expanding if the heat is running all day long). You will install everything tight and it will only get tighter as the summer rolls around. This is good – in winter.

In summer, the opposite is true. Say that you take your wood flooring that is dried to 6% to a job site in the summer. Your flooring is shrunk, it is small and ready to be installed. Yes, it will swell up in the humidity of summer, but you want it installed when the wood is shrunk so it will expand and only tighten up. Letting it acclimate in the summer only ensures that you are installing fatter wood, which is guaranteed to open up in the winter. Flooring will show gaps between boards and casework will open up at the seams.

I think the whole acclimation just-do-it, don’t-think-about-it thing started because there are so many chances in life to have wood that is a little too wet going in to an environment that could use drier wood. This, perhaps, isn’t the case in the deep south, but I would say it is the norm for much of the country. Wood has too many opportunities to pick up extraneous moisture before it makes it into its final resting place. From sawmills and distributors to retailers, lumber is stored in environments that are not climate controlled, possibly for quite a while, picking up moisture the entire time. And, even after it makes its way into your hands it may spend time in a garage, shed or job site that isn’t climate controlled.

The default in all of these cases is to get the wood inside, in a climate controlled environment and let it acclimate to the environment, but what we really mean is to let the wood dry. I have never had an issue with interior woodwork being too dry and causing a problem after it swelled up. Again, in the high humidity of the deep south this might be a problem, but for most of us wood can’t be too dry. It is almost always a little wet.

So, what to do in summer. Say you’ve got wood that just came out of the kiln and is dried to a target of 6-8%. Do you take it to the job site and let it acclimate, knowing that it is going to pick up moisture and get fatter before you install it, just to shrink again in the winter? I say, “Heck no!” It makes zero sense to let the wood acclimate in this scenario. If the wood is dry, put it in – and fast.

I have found this Wagner MMC 220 pinless moisture meter to be the most reliable and easiest to use. It gives deeper more rliable readings than a pin-type meter without damaging the wood.

I have found this Wagner MMC 220 pinless moisture meter to be the most reliable and easiest to use. It gives deeper more rliable readings than a pin-type meter without damaging the wood.

The key in any scenario is knowing the moisture level of your wood and what the acclimating environment is going to do to it. A reliable moisture meter is a good place to start. Test your wood, and if it is dry based on your area of the country, start using it. Refer to the chart at the end of this post to see what moisture content your wood should be. If you don’t have a moisture meter, assume that the wood is a little wet (since it usually is).

In the dead of winter letting the wood acclimate is always a good idea because it can’t really cause a problem. It won’t improve your lumber if it is already dry, but it won’t hurt it, and it will only help wet lumber. Winter is by far the best time of the year to install interior woodwork.

In the spring and fall acclimating wood is likely to have little to no effect. Heat and air conditioning will be running less, windows will be open, and humidity levels will be closer to outdoor levels. Only let your wood acclimate during this time of year if you know it is wet and could benefit from some drying. If it reads as dry on a moisture meter and/or hasn’t spent awhile in an environment without any climate control, start using it.

Acclimating your wood in summer only really makes sense if you know that your wood is extra wet, either because your moisture meter told you so or because the lumber was stored in an environment that wasn’t climate controlled. If your lumber is in a condition that acclimating it during the summer makes sense, you may want to reevaluate your situation. In this case, additional drying, not just acclimating, may be necessary. Summer is the worst time to install interior woodwork.

Use common sense when deciding whether or not to acclimate wood. If the environment is extra dry, no matter the time of year, let it acclimate. If humidity levels are extra high, it probably makes sense to start using the lumber right away. Any other times, when the humidity is moderate, you are probably just kissing your sister (getting no benefit) and possibly making the wood worse by letting it acclimate.

This chart shows the high (summer) and low (winter) moisture levels for interior wood throughout the country. In a perfect world, your wood will read at the lower number when installed.

This chart shows the high (summer) and low (winter) moisture levels for interior wood throughout the country. In a perfect world, your wood will read at the lower number when installed.

Flatsawn Lumber Is Not So Flat: How To Fix Cupped Wood

Quartersawn lumber stays flat, but flatsawn lumber does not (ironic, I know). Flatsawn lumber cups during the drying process and it even cups after it’s dry if not cared for properly. Wide boards are especially fussy and panel glue-ups can be a giant pain in the tuchus.

I deal with cupped lumber all of the time, and I was reminded of this common problem when a friend of mine was trying to figure out why his wide panel glue-ups had cupped. Whenever I am asked about this, my first question is always, “How did you store your panels after they were assembled and surfaced?” The answer is usually that they laid the panels flat on a table. A quick bit of logic says that a flat panel on a flat table should stay flat, but that isn’t how it works, at least not with solid wood.

Solid wood needs to expand and contract evenly, on both sides, to stay flat. If the panels are placed flat on a table, they can breathe on one side but not on the other. The bottom side will remain as dry or wet as it started, but the top side will shrink or swell depending on the ambient humidity in the room. Usually, this  problem arises when lumber is moved from a non climate-controlled environment (like a garage or barn) into a dry, climate-controlled shop, so the top of the panels will shrink and the lumber will cup up and away from the table as it dries.

This glued up panel couldn't breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

This glued up panel couldn’t breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

 

In a perfect world, rough lumber would be stored for months in the exact same, hermetically sealed environment where the processing is going to happen, but since we don’t live in a bubble, that’s not really possible. Even if you store the lumber in your climate-controlled shop and build in your climate-controlled shop, the climate still changes – in small increments from day to day and more dramatically from season to season. And, since you know that these changes will make your wood expand or contract, it is even more imperative to store surfaced lumber and panels properly to make sure your flat work stays flat.

Again, storage is the key, and there are two approaches to keep things flat. The most common way is to store the wood so that it can breathe on all sides. This is done by keeping it stacked flat on sticks or by storing it upright at an angle, perhaps leaning against a wall. The other approach is to not let the wood breathe at all and keep it wrapped or covered in plastic. I commonly use both tactics, leaning panels against the wall for short-term storage, usually during a day of processing and then covering them with a sheet of plastic for longer storage. Note that dramatic changes in flatness can happen in just hours if the conditions are right (or wrong, in this case).

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

For short term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

For short-term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

Now, let’s say you didn’t follow this advice and your panels developed a cup in them. They were planed and sanded flat and ready to be put into the door frame before you left the shop, but when you returned the next morning they had a noticeable rock. Since everything was already to final thickness, what options do you have? There is no meat left to machine flat and the wood can’t really be bent back into shape… or can it?

No, it can’t really be bent back, but it can be coerced back by doing the reverse of what caused the cup in the first place. The key is understanding the cause of the problem.

First, you need to identify the wet side and the dry side. If you are looking at a cupped panel from the end and it is shaped like a rainbow with the legs down, then the bottom side is the drier side. It is drier, tighter and smaller, and the outside edges are pulling together. The top side is wetter, looser and bigger, and its outside edges are pushing apart. These two forces, one pushing and one pulling, are working together to make a cupped panel.

After you have identified the problem, the solution is to treat the panel to the opposite conditions. This can be done by drying the wet side or wetting the dry side, but since almost all problems in woodworking are from wood that is too wet (at least around here), you should choose to dry the wet side.

I recommend to use a hairdryer for convenience, but on nice sunny days you can put the sun to work for you too. Both work fine, but the sun can fix a lot of panels at a time, quickly and quietly. The sun works great because it focuses all of the drying energy on just one side, and it focuses it on the entire side, not on just one spot like a hairdryer. (Be aware that some woods, like cherry, change color quickly in the sun and may be a better choice for inside drying).

The process is simple. Put the dry side down on a flat surface, one that restricts air movement across the bottom of the wood. The wide board or panel will be sitting like a rainbow, with the two legs down and the center up. Then just proceed to dry the top side, either with the sun or a hair dryer. If you are not in a hurry, you can simply move the wood to a drier environment, like the inside of your house on a cold winter day and let it dry out on the top side overnight. Any way to dry the top side while the bottom remains as it is should do the trick.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with  the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Keep an eye on the panels and check them regularly. With a hair dryer you will probably end up propping it up in a position to blow on the panel and check it every thirty minutes. In the sun, check the progress every hour. If you just move them to a drier environment, check them once or twice a day. Even with regular checks it is not uncommon to go too far and overcorrect. If you let the wood bake too long on one side and it starts to cup the other way, just flip it and dry the other side. Eventually, you will get a feel for how long it takes and end up with a flat panel, and now a drier panel (both good things).

Follow these guidelines for flat wood:

  1. Build with quartersawn lumber. Quartersawn wood doesn’t cup.
  2. Store lumber in the rough. If the lumber goes wonky you will still have extra thickness to machine flat.
  3. Store lumber and build in an environment similar to where the piece will end up.
  4. Quickly build with lumber after it is machined. Don’t give it a chance to move on you.
  5. If you can’t build immediately, store wide boards and panel glue-ups properly. Give them air on all sides or no air at all.
  6. Make sure assembled furniture stays flat by finishing both sides of solid wood panels the same. This is especially important on wide glue-ups like tabletops.

Remember, wood moves and changes size all of the time. It is your job as a woodworker to understand how these changes happen, how to prepare for them and how to control them. And, luckily, in the case of wide wood, you may even have the chance to correct them.

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