Tackling a demanding project requires a careful drawing & plenty of wiggle room.
Not long ago, a friend of mine referred one of his coworkers to me who was interested in replacing the fireplace-surround of an old bungalow he and his wife had just purchased. Excited by the opportunity, I set up an appointment to visit the site. What I found was a room in desperate need of a makeover. The phone conversation I had with the clients before the meeting gave me an idea of what they were looking for: something traditional, while keeping with the bungalow theme. Armed with a few books and magazine clippings, I met with the new owners.
Draw it first
One of the books I brought was “Building Fireplace Mantels” by Mario Rodriguez. One project in the book featured a mantelpiece based on the architectural woodwork of The Hill House, designed by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The clients loved it. I, on the other hand, had a few concerns. I wasn’t thrilled about the bevel on the underside of the mantel top, or the curved front of the frieze board—what I call the “four square panel.” I thought it was too busy for this house. I suggested a flat four square panel and a square edged top.
To soften the look a bit, I curved the front edge of the main top. Changing the inlay material of the four square panel added another level of interest to the design.
For material, my first choice was ebony. The deep black of the ebony contrasts well with the grain and stain color, which I custom-mixed to match the existing woodwork. To tie the new into the old, I kept the baseboard flat and was able to reuse the existing shoe mold. This was in an effort to make it appear original to the house.
Building a first-class mantelpiece these days is not a simple task, it’s an ordeal: Tapered pilasters, power supply, TV cable, and data hook-ups complicate the job. I had an instructor in the Carpenters Union when I was an apprentice who used to say, “If you can’t draw it, you can’t expect to build it!” How true that is. He also used to say,”“Beware of drawings with no red ink!”
I made sure not to start the job until my shop drawings were approved and signed.
Ins & “Outs”
I started by ripping four pieces of quarter sawn white oak plywood, along with a 10-in. rip of shop grade ply for the foundation header. I ripped 2 3/4-in. pieces of shop grade ply for the foundation legs. Since only 3 in. of the white oak would be visible I used shop grade as filler. At over $110.00 a sheet for white oak ply in my area, there’s no point in wasting material when it’s not going to be seen. I cut the shop grade 3 in. or so longer than what I needed. Cutting parts oversize means they can be trimmed in the field to an exact fit.
Over-sized parts give me what I call an “out.” Whenever I’m designing or installing a job, especially a tough mind-twister, one of the first questions I ask is “Where are my outs?” In other words: What can I scribe; what can I cut; or where can I add a scribe to make things fit? When I’m working in old homes, “outs” become very important. I’m sure you’ve experienced floors or walls that were 1 in. or more out of whack. On occasion I’ve made custom scribes or fillers for off-the-shelf cabinets. But, in this situation, I was building the mantel from scratch and wanted to plan for every contingency.
Normally, I would pre-assemble the foundation. But certain things beyond my control—like the tile work—made me reconsider. I gave myself an “out” by making the legs and header a few inches longer than what I needed, then I trimmed them to size in the field. That approach proved to be a wise choice, as the tile was set differently than what we had drawn up. I had to adjust the overall size of the opening, but thanks to the out, it wasn’t a big deal.
I made up the tapered pilasters next. They measure to a fixed height of 40 1/4 in.—no need for an out there. My out was with the plinths. If the need arose, I could trim the bottoms of the plinths to correct for an out-of-level floor. The pilasters taper subtly, differing by only 11/16 in. over the total length. They also return back to the wall, so I allowed an inch of extra material for scribing.
I planned to miter the pilaster and the return. I’ve used biscuits in the past and it was always a disaster—the biscuits swell before you get the miter to close. So I decided to use a spline. Cutting the groove for the spline was easy using the table saw. I cut the tapered miters using my Festool TS 55. If you don’t own one, you don’t know what you’re missing. Dust collection is killer and the accuracy is unparalleled. I don’t know how I would have cut the mitered tapers otherwise.
I use a feather board to keep the material tight to the table. One could argue that a second feather board should have been used to keep the work tight to the fence. Either way, relying on hand pressure alone is dangerous. When using a table saw (or any power tool, for that matter) your focus should only be on safely guiding the material through the cut. The moment you lose respect for the machine is when you have an accident. Using feather boards provides better control over the piece and results in a higher quality cut.
For the spline material I used MDF. I ripped a length on the table saw sized a bit smaller than the groove in both width and thickness. A small amount of play with the spline makes the glue up a lot more relaxing. The 3/4-in. pilasters sit on 1-in. thick plinth blocks. The bottoms of the returns needed to be beveled so they would sit tight on the plinths. A few test cuts gave me the proper angle, and again, I used the Festool to make the cuts. I pulled the miter together with Collins spring clamps, masking tape, and a few 23ga. pins.
|Masking tape can be used for a variety of clamping situations. It will stretch a good amount (which makes it great for clamping), plus, it’s cheap.|
The pin nails are added insurance. Any gaps in the miter can be filled with glue, and the edges can be folded close. After the glue dried I removed the tape, taking care to pull it off at a 45-degree angle. If you pull tape off perpendicular to the grain sometimes you can lift the grain right out of the wood, which means filling the defect with putty, which translates into wasting time and, ultimately, wasting money.
One mistake I made on this job—and it wasn’t the only one—was not providing a way to keep the back of the pilaster and the plinth flush. The foundation doesn’t run all the way to the corner, which would have provided bearing, but to do that I would have had to taper the foundation to match the taper of the pilaster, and phooey on that! Instead, I used a Domino tenon to solve the problem. I had to place two dominoes closer together than I wanted, but it still worked.
Homemade Jigs Help
Building custom cabinetry is the part of my business that I enjoy the most. I get a great deal of satisfaction from producing something unique. Of course, building one-of-a-kind casework can also be more stressful. To reduce frustration, and increase speed and accuracy, I rely on shop-made jigs.
I always use a jig for routing shelf supports—we call them “pin rests.” Any scrap of 1/2-in. or 3/4-in. ply or MDF works for this jig—just be careful the stock you use isn’t too thick or you’ll have to trim the length of your guide bushing so that the router will rest fully on the jig. And make sure your jig is wide enough to accommodate the base of the plunge router—plus a little extra room for clamps, too, so you can secure the jig to the work.
In order to make the pin-rest jig you must first make a template—that is, if you want all the holes positioned perfectly every time. Start by ripping a piece of 3/4-in. plywood to 10 in. wide by 48 in. long. Next attach a 2-in.-wide stop to the long edge of the ply. Find the center of the ply and make a mark 1 1/4 in. from the stop (this will be the center line of the pin rest holes). At the 1 1/4-in. mark, drill a 1/2-in. hole 1/4 in. deep using a drill press, and glue in a short length of 1/2-in. dowel. The dowel should project from the surface about 3/8 in. Now you have your template.
I use a 1/2-in. O.D. guide bushing when I rout for the pin holes, so I chuck a 1/2-in. bit in the drill press,
|orient the template so that the center of the bit is 1 1/4 in. from the stop,|
|and the dowel center is 1 in. from the bit center.|
|I clamp the template to the drill press table, then place the jig stock with one end butted to the dowel and drill through with the 1/2-in. bit.|
|Next, I lift the jig and put the dowel through the hole. After that, it’s a simple matter of drilling again and repositioning the jig in the template. The dowel is used as a registration point for the jig.|
You can make the pin rest jig as long as required. I have one that’s 8 ft. and one that’s about 4 ft. In use, the jig is held flush to the edge and top of the work piece. Adding a stop to one end of the jig speeds up the process. To keep from putting a hole where I don’t want one, I tape off the holes I don’t need. While this jig is nowhere near the speed of a line-boring machine, it’s nowhere the cost either. I chuck a 3/16-in. bit in my router for cutting the pin holes.
For a job this size, all of the pin rests were routed in an hour. Once I’d routed the pin rests, I cut a rabbet for the top at the table saw, and a dado for the bottom of the cabinet using a router jig. I then sanded, stained, and lacquered all case parts: sides, top, bottom, and back. I hate to spray lacquer on the inside of an already assembled cabinet—I never get the same level of quality, and pre-finishing all the components is much easier. This method also frees up shop space—I can store the parts until I’m ready to assemble the cases.
Once I’d assembled the bookcases I used them as a jig to glue up their face frames. With stock machined flat and square, I started the face frames by cutting for dominoes in the back of the stiles. I cut corresponding mortises in the cabinet’s edge and temporary-clamped the stiles in place. I marked the rails for length, cut them, and laid out and cut for dominoes in the rails.
Dominoes were also used to join the stiles and rails. First, I dry-fit the face frame, to be sure everything lined up. Then I broke it apart and began gluing dominoes in the ends of the rails. Using wax paper, or something similar, prevents prematurely gluing the face frame to the cabinet. Pipe clamps pull the parts together. If you don’t have clamps long enough, you can use two clamps to span the face frame.
|Glue reacts with the iron in the pipe leaving a black stain on the wood that can be difficult to remove. Apply packing tape to the pipe where it will contact the joint or raise the pipe off the work with a domino or other material.|
After the frames dried I removed them from the bookcases, and sanded, stained, and finished them. Once the lacquer cured I permanently attached the face frames to the cabinets.
Four Square Panel
Finish carpentry requires precision. When I decided to incorporate a true inlay into the design (Mr. Rodriguez’s version used an applied four square), I knew I’d use the inlays to hide fasteners. I also knew those inlays had to be mortised perfectly. So I made a jig.
For the jig, I chose the thinnest material I could, 1/2-in. plywood. Using thinner jig material means you can chuck the router bit farther into the collet. The closer you can get the cutting edge to the collet the better. You’ll get less vibration, which yields a smoother cut. After doing some math I decided to use a 5/16-in. O.D. template guide and a 1/8-in. spiral down-cutting bit, which meant I had to make the openings in the jig 1 3/16 in. square. I laid out lines for the cuts in pencil and headed to the table saw.
Next, I drilled a 1/2-in. through-hole and removed the bulk of the waste. Finally, I cut out the remaining waste in the corners with a jig saw, careful to stay away from the clean shoulders left by the table saw. I cleaned up the rest with a flush trim bit riding on the saw kerf. After cutting all sixteen mortises, I squared up the corners with a chisel. Even though I took my time laying out and cutting the kerfs at the table saw, I still had some variation in the squares. No more than 1/32 in., but it was enough that I had to custom fit each plug. Between the miter saw and the belt sander I got them to fit.
I made sure to number all of the plugs and to mark an arrow indicating the side that faces to the left (an arbitrary direction). This kept me from having to guess which way the plug fit the mortise. I put a piece of PSA 150 grit sandpaper on a scrap piece of plywood and sanded all the faces and bevels of the plugs. I waited to glue in the inlays until after I stained the four square panel. I used epoxy from West System to fasten the inlays to the panel. Since ebony is such a dense wood, I wanted to use an adhesive that I knew would hold. The West System epoxy, while not cheap, is easy to mix. One pump of the resin and one pump of the hardener gives you the correct ratio. I also like it because it has a fairly long open time.
When I’m doing stain grade work I try to keep the nail holes to a minimum. I knew I didn’t want any holes through the face of the four square panel. As I mentioned above, I left out four of the inlays (two on each side, one top, one bottom) for screws. I also used keyhole brackets. They are a little fussy to install but work great.
To locate the screws on the backboard, simply position the frieze on the wall, then tap your hand over each bracket. The marks left by the nails on the wall pinpoint the screw locations. Set the screw depth to pull the panel tight to the backboard. You can fudge the panel’s location by tapping the screw heads a bit.
Installation day can be a two edged sword: it’s exciting to see hard work come together into a completed project; it’s also when you find any egregious errors.
I started the installation by transferring the elevation of the baseboard to the front of the fireplace using a laser. That’s my benchmark.
I fastened the pilaster returns with Liquid Nails and screws, careful to locate the screws where they wouldn’t be visible once the bookcase was installed. I installed the frieze next, running screws through the decorative mortises, and then set the remaining plugs with epoxy.
|Leaving out four plugs (two on each side) allowed for hidden fastening.|
Installing the bookcases was straightforward, with the exception of the tapered stiles. I cut the stiles wider than was necessary, leaving me an out, and then scribed each case to fit tight against the tapered pilasters. Since the cases were pre-finished, I applied blue masking tape to the stiles before scribing them. If you want a good crisp line, use a mechanical pencil in your scribes. Use a pen if you want an even better one. A word of caution on using masking tape or blue painter’s tape: A long time ago, I learned the hard way that if you don’t take some of the stickiness—make that most of the stickiness—from the tape, you’ll risk pulling up the finish when you remove the tape. Imagine pulling away the tape to reveal your tight-fitting scribe only to realize you’ve destroyed the lacquer! If you stick the piece of tape to your t-shirt a few times, that should take care of it.
I cut the scribe lines first with my Festool saw or power plane, being careful not to cut past the scribe line. To get down right to the line I used a 1-in. Makita belt sander. This tool is great for fine-tuning scribes, copes, etc. Once I was happy with the fit, I secured the cabinets with a few counter-sunk screws into the pilaster returns, then covered the screws with pre-finished plugs cut from white oak.
I try to use the minimum amount of nails. To fill the holes I use colored wax sticks, which are available in a wide range of colors. To soften up the wax, I heat the sticks up with a lighter. After filling the holes, I used a shim and squeegeed off the excess, taking care not to gouge the surface. I polished off the excess with a scrap piece of carpet. If you use a rag to remove the excess you end up buffing the lacquer—you’ll have shiny spots around the nail hole.
I made the two bookcase tops by laminating 3/4-in. white oak plywood, using yellow glue and screws hidden on the underside. The front edge of the tops are edge-banded with 1/4-in. solid oak. The main top is made up of three pieces: a 1/2-in. plywood core, and two outer skins of 3/4-in. oak ply. The front edge of the top is curved. The radius was too large to draw with trammel points in my shop, so I plotted a few points on a piece of 1/4-in. Masonite, using my drawings as a guide, then bent a thin batten through the plot points. I cut just beyond the line with a jigsaw, and faired the curve with a belt sander. Then I clamped the Masonite template to the mantel shelf and followed it with the bearing guide on a flush trim router bit. Banding the radius edge was the easy part. That template came in very handy. I used it to fit the top, too, scribing the returns first, then the long edge along the bump out.
After picking up the tarps and moving pads we used to protect the newly refinished floor, I took the following photographs for my portfolio. All in all, I was pleased with the outcome of this project. So was my client!
Brian Cinski Jr. started his career as a carpenter later in life than most people. After graduating from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh at the age of twenty-five he enrolled in a graduate program to get his teaching certificate. But after his first semester he knew he wanted to be working the trade, not teaching it. He took a job with a local cabinetmaker his uncle knew while waiting for a spot in the local apprenticeship program of the Carpenters Union.
“The apprenticeship was a great experience,” he says. “I moved around, working in cabinet shops, residential jobs, and finally settled in doing commercial work.” But finish work was always his first love.
Brian started his own company, Cinski Interiors, Ltd., focusing on finish carpentry and custom cabinetry. He approaches the trade with an old-school attitude. “I can’t dumb my work down. Take a look at homes that were built at the turn of the century. The millwork in some homes I’ve worked in is unreal. I understand that this is a different age, but look at new homes they’re building now. They have no identity. Everything is cookie-cutter. Junk is the new quality. I use traditional and modern woodworking techniques, try to maximize our natural resources, and give clients a great product at a fair price.”
When he’s not working, Brian spends his time remodeling his own home and cleaning up the office, which never seems to stay uncluttered. His portfolio can be seen at www.cinski-interiors.com.
WOW GREAT article. I love how you did your ebony plugs.
Did you get the design out of the book “Bungalow style” by treena crochet? I saw this exact mantel in this book and really captured my attention! Such a cool Design. I really like how you incorporated the cabinetry and the little back band on the casing on those windows makes for a NICE detail.
Oops sorry I see you meantioned where you got the design. I also noticed that sweet emphatic joint there the mantel shelf meets with the legs and foundation. that is a REALLY nice touch!!
Thanks! Happy that you liked the article.
For the reveal under the mantel top I used 1/4″ poplar lacquered black (I think this is what you refer to). The 1/4″ is nailed to the top of the foundation. I couldn’t come up with another way to get the reveal – I would have liked to have had a method that allowed for variations in the mantel top. It worked none the less.
Is this 1/4in strip flush or set back from the edge an 1/8th? It looks like its set back…that Is a really nice detail. I ordered that mantel book as well. Thanks for sharing your project!
The reveal strip is set back 1/4″ from the face of the pilaster. So it’s 3/4″ back from the face of the four square panel.
That’s one thing I’d like to have done differently – I would have kept a 1/4″ reveal all the way around. It would of had to be mitered where the four square meets the pilaster (that inside corner).
Great job! I too enjoyed the plugs and the hidden fasteners.
Great article and great work!
The before pic is HILARIOUS ! It’s ART!
I’m no great designer, but that thing was just awful.
Great project and fantastic writeup. The custom mixed stain looks great.
What did the client do with the wall above the mantle? In your pictures it looks like there is plaster still showing. Did they paint it or cover it with something else. Also, what happened to the electrical box on the right hand side?
They had an electrician cut a channel in the plaster and ran conduit through it to get power, cable, etc. to the TV that they planned on mounting to the wall.
The electrical box was brought through the cabinet side. It provides power for DVD player and the like.
Great article Brian. I like your reference to ‘outs’. I’m with you on that one big time. You can design and build something to exacting standards, but if you are installing in the real world you need to be able to adapt. I also like your thought on visible fasteners. If a nail/screw can be hidden, it should. Beautiful final results too. Looks like it should have been there in the first place.
I like the design and workmanship of the mantle and bookcase very much, but I don’t share the view that the original was awful, especially the surround.
From your picture, I couldn’t get a close look at the condition of the tile, but I’ll bet it was beautiful when new.
Here’s a close up of the tile. The tile hearth is OK, I’ll give you that. But the surround? We’ll have to agree to disagree.
Well, in that picture it looks like stacked
blocks of ground beef. That and the grout’s the wrong color!
Brian; Great job! They didn’t want the stain to match the window trim? And I hope you saved the original surround ’cause it looks to me like it’s Aztec relief and probably of value to someone looking for that stlye. FYI: go to the view icon and enlarge to 400% to get a look at it.
I was suspicious about the tile, too and I think you’re right. In fact, those might be Monravian tiles and of real historic and aesthetic value. During the Arts & Crafts period, a lot of Asian, Latin, and Celtic designs were incorporated into American homes. Even Frank Lloyd Wright used Aztec designs in the block work on some homes, and over mantelpieces, too. The tiles in that old surround look like they might be part of the New World collection made by Monravian. If so, and if they were original to the home, they’d be worth a lot of money. Here’s a website with some images from that collection:
This was the real reason for my comment, but judging from the tenor of the conversation, I guessed that they weren’t saved.
I decided to let sleeping dogs lie, and I didn’t want to detract from Brian’s excellent article, or cause anyone distress.
But since we’re at this point, I’ll make the point I started out to make.
We’re wood craftsmen, but I would hope we are in tune with the work of other craftsmen.
I wasn’t involved in any of the demo work so I can’t say what became of the tile. You raise a good point though. We, as craftsmen, need to be cognizant of other trades and do a little research if we suspect something may be of value. But alas, I’ll be the first to admit I had tunnel vision.
I wanted to thank you and your staff for all the work you put into this article and the website in general. I see a trend starting in F.H. that I hope never happens here. This magazine has been an excellent resource for ADVANCED skills and techniques. Keep it up!!
You’re welcome, Brian. It’s a ton of work, but it’s also a pure pleasure, for all of us…Robert, Tristan, and Todd.
I just wanted you to know that I read this article or reference it about once a month. I am a hobbyist but the detail you explain things, including making that template, is so helpful for my own projects.
You are quite gifted.
Thanks for your kind words. I am, however, a comfortable distance away from being gifted. But I’m happy to hear my article has been a good resource for you.
Phenominal work…provides inspiration for what I might attempt in our 1921 Bungalow.
I know this thread is a few years old, but I wanted to thank you for the guidance/inspiration for creating a similar mantel for a gas fireplace that I installed in the master bedroom. I used a combo of your instructions and the Rodriguez book “Fireplace Mantels”, which featured The Mackintosh Mantel that Jesse mentioned above. I built the whole thing around a cement board clad box that housed the fireplace, which vented through the wall. Authentic brick veneers, ipe inlays and craftsman style sconces added a nice look.
Thanks again and keep up the good work!
The color on the Craftsman Style Mantle and Bookcases is beautiful. Do you mind if I ask how you achieved that color?