Recently, a builder looking for help with a few projects referred a client to me. One of the projects was a mantel with cabinets on either side. They were unsure exactly what they wanted for the mantel, but the cabinet design would be similar to the kitchen cabinets they already had in their home.
I suggested they take a look through my website for some inspiration, and, if nothing came of that, to look through some magazines for some ideas we could expand upon. Perusing my website, the client’s wife fell in love with a painted mantel I had completed for another couple some time before (see photo, right).
The new clients wanted their mantel to be made from cherry, and stained similar to the island in their kitchen. The kitchen was predominantly white with a stained island.
The mantel I did for that other couple has some Greek attributes to it, and is very detailed. That design wouldn’t work for this project, because the original mantel was too tall to fit this new installation. So I went back to the drawing board and came up with a new design using all the same details (see drawing, left).
After playing the numbers game with the dimensions, I finally had something that looked good and would fit into the designated area. Because there were to be cabinets on either side, I made a rendering of the cabinets with a “Plain Jane” mantel. This rendering was made using eCabinet Systems.
The biggest challenge for me was the rope. On the original mantel the rope was real—I made curved grooves with a 1/2-in. core box bit, then laid in the rope molding and glued it down. A little primer, some paint, and it was a done deal. But with this mantel, I needed it to look like stained cherry. So I went on a quest to find a flexible rope molding that was stainable.
I hit the Internet, and found a company called Zago, out of New Jersey. They make resin moldings that are flexible and stainable—perfect. I ordered 12 feet. When it arrived, the experimenting began. I made some samples and stained them with Traditional Cherry stain. It didn’t take long to get a good sample—first try, actually. This flexible molding was just the ticket I was looking for.
The first thing I needed to make was the base (or “backboard”) that all of the moldings would sit on. I made the base from solid cherry. I designed it so there would be no joints showing. The boards were jointed together using biscuits, pocket screws, and glue. This was the layout I used:
The backboard must be laid out carefully, so that the moldings, which are applied later, will cover every joint, making the backboard appear like a solid substrate. After gluing up the backboard and sanding it down, I started placing the moldings, beginning at the bottom of the pilasters.
The first detail I applied was the plinth blocks. Simple structures—just a board sized to 15/16 x 7 3/8 x 8, glued down and screwed from the rear. The next molding was the plinth block bead—the torus molding. Again, a simple detail: a 1/2-in. bullnose on three sides of a 15/16 x 1/2 x 7 3/8 piece made with a router.
Next, I installed the panel frame. There are four panels: two uppers and two lowers. The lower panels are long, and the uppers are short. The panels are made from 13/16-in. thick strips 1 in. wide. The inside edge has a French Provincial profile on it. The box is made by mitering four corners together and then gluing. After the panels are made, the lower panels are glued and screwed onto the backboard above and resting on top of the 1/2-in. bead.
The Greek Fretwork
Next comes the Greek fretwork molding. This molding looks more complicated than it really is. To make the molding, you just need a table saw dado setup. The molding is 1 1/2 in. wide and 1/2 in. thick. The “teeth” are 1/2-in. x 1/2-in. I setup the dado to be 1/2 in. high and 1/2 in. wide. To speed up the process, I put two pieces of 1/2-in. stock together, face-to-face, and pushed them through using a miter gauge. The actual dimensions were a bit less then 1/2 in.—.480 in. wide, so I moved the fence .960 for each pair of cuts. I flipped the two pieces over, cutting both the top and the bottom teeth, before resetting the fence for the next pair.
Some readers might be thinking: “Wow! That’s a lot of very accurate fence moving. Why didn’t you make an indexing jig on a miter gauge, the way you would for cutting finger joints?” Well, the answer is simple. I needed the teeth to line up perfectly on both sides, which meant the distance between each cut had to be .960, exactly. So I used my Wixey digital fence gauge to move the fence precisely the right amount for each tooth. I have Wixey digital equipment on both my planer and my table saw. I also use their angle finder, calipers, and digital height gauge. Those tools have changed the way I do things in the shop. Most of the time, setups are done perfectly on the first try! No fine-tuning nonsense.
To complete the fretwork, I capped the top and bottom with cove molding. I first set the fretwork on top of a temporary gauge strip, to get the correct height, then mitered the cove molding across the top and bottom, securing everything with glue and nails.
The smaller upper frames that decorate the end block area were placed on top of the cove molding. And above those frames I added backing for the ovolo, dentil, and crown molding. I milled two pieces of 13/16-in. birch, which flushed out perfectly with the panel frames. After that, I was ready to complete the moldings that ran across the face of the mantelpiece.
First, I installed an ovolo molding, which I cut with a router bit. Some people call it a “quarter round,” but it’s really elliptical-shaped and has a lot more beauty than a radius molding.
Next came the dentil molding. To make the dentil molding proud of the ovolo, I first installed a 3/8-in. thick piece of MDF at the same height as the dentil molding. I cut the dentil molding myself, using the dado blade in my table saw, which enabled me to space the dentil blocks so that they fell short of the edge of the backing by 1/16 in.
Above the dentil molding I installed another piece of backing, this time stain-grade because it would be visible beneath the crown. Again, I maintained steps or transitions between each layer by increasing the width of every piece—for this layer I milled flat stock to be 1/16 in. proud of the dentil molding. The ogee molding went on next, and finally another piece of flat stock, which forms the foundation of the reeded corona.
The next set of operations was simple, but daunting—the reeds. There are 218 reeds in this mantel. I made them two-at-a-time with a router table, a 3/8-in. beading bit setup, and a fence using three pieces of wide stock.
I started by routing a profile on the end grain of each piece and on both sides. Next, I ripped off the reeds with a table saw set to 3/8 in. I repeated the same process until the boards were too small to handle, then started in on a new board. I finally ended up with a pile of reeds profiled on three sides—the face and two ends. I milled up about 120 of these. Finally, I cut the reeds to length—getting two pieces out of each reed.
I sized the length of the reeds 1/8 in. longer than the height of the mantel shelf corona, which created a nice shadow effect—the way a corona should be designed. I did several tests to make sure the reeds fit properly inside the space between the two pilaster ends, but in the end, luck was with me. Besides, with that many pieces, a difference of a few thousandths of an inch could add up pretty quick, so why bother with math? I knew I could always shave a few with a hand plane to work out any problems.
The Mantel Shelf
By now, you’re probably noticing the rope molding in the photographs. Yes, I tacked that in place using a few 23ga pins. I needed the rope molding in place in order to see the whole picture and take other measurements. But before I get to the rope molding layout, let’s finish the mantel shelf.
The mantel shelf needed to jog around the pilaster end blocks and follow the line of the corona. But I didn’t want to apply delicate moldings to the nosing of the shelf. Instead, I cut the shelf to size and routed an ovolo profile right on the edge.
I started with a properly sized cherry blank, allowing for a proportionate overhang. I cut the notches for the end blocks on my table saw, then finished the cuts with a jigsaw. After cleaning up the edge, and making sure it was straight and square, I ran the ovolo router bit around the two ends, and then the front, with the router resting on the bottom of the mantel shelf.
Because I used a router bit, the inside corners were rounded (see photo above). I squared up these corners with a 3/4-in. chisel, two different curved gouges, and my trusty utility knife. The two corners took about 25 minutes to clean up. After that, I sanded them and removed all the knife marks.
I attached the mantel shelf with pocket screws fastened through the back of the backboard, and with a good glue line on top of the corona moldings. I used Titebond II and a lot of squeeze clamps to apply good pressure all the way around the shelf.
Reeds, Rope, & Tassels
Now the real excitement began—sort of. It was a Sunday afternoon. I had nothing else to do. I was bored. The perfect time to glue 218 reeds on the mantel, a task I had not been looking forward to for good reason—it took over four hours to do. Each read needed three drops of glue: one drop of 2P-10 and two drops of Titebond! Next, I wiped the 2P-10 accelerator onto the flat stock, and then set each individual reed in place. 218 reeds. 654 drops of glue.
But the end result was definitely worth every drop of glue.
Next, I removed the swagged rope molding and reinstalled it permanently with glue. First, I made a cardboard template, so that each of the swags would be identical, then I wrapped the molding around the template and fastened it with glue and 23ga pins. Because the material was thin, I worried that the wet glue might cause it to warp before the glue set. I didn’t want to fire a hundred pins through the delicate molding, so I set a piece of MDF across the top of the moldings and clamped it down until the glue dried thoroughly. While the glue was drying, I set up to cut the tassels that capped the top and bottom of the rope molding.
Like punctuation in a sentence, the tassels are a necessary element to the overall composition; they do not diminish the design; in fact, they add clarity to the whole mantelpiece. Fortunately, they are deceptively simple to make. Everything is done on the table saw with a dado blade setup.
I took a short length of cherry that was 3/8 in. thick and 9/16 in. wide. I set my dado for a .355-in. wide cut. I set the angle to 14º and raised the blade so the dado took off nothing at the bottom of the cut, but the point of the angle would retain full thickness/width.
I used a miter gauge with a backup board to prevent blowout. I cut the dados in a sequence that would remove the tear-out from previous cuts. The first of three cuts had the piece of cherry with the back facing towards the dado; the second cut was with the back facing up; and the final cut was with the back facing the miter gauge. I flipped my cherry stick over to the other end and then did the three cuts again. I repeated that to about 6 sticks, so I would have plenty of the tassels. Then I moved the fence over .355″ and repeated the process. I did this until I had a dozen tassel layers on each side of each stick, then I cut the sticks in half and worked with those lengths.
|Then I cut pieces from these lengths to fit each of the peaks and low-points of the swagged rope molding.|
Like I said, the rope molding would have been incomplete without the tassels.
The Overmantel Panel
This mantelpiece has two stories, the second story being the overmantel panel. I made a simple flat recessed panel with a quirk-and-bead design. I used solid stock for the stiles and rails, assembled with pocket screws. I routed a rabbet in the back of the stiles and rails for a 1/4 in. flat panel, and then added the bead molding afterward—mitering the inside corners.
Once the panel was completed, everything went into the spray room.
|After a sealer and two top coats of clear finish, the mantel was ready for installation.|
The day finally came and I transported the mantelpiece—in two completed pieces—to the customer’s home.
We prepared the area and set the mantle on sawhorses. We joined the overmantel frame to the mantle by screwing through the bottom of the mantle (on the back side, hidden) into the overmantel, attaching the overmantel panel to the top back edge of the mantle. After the two were joined, we attached a 6-in. wide x 9-ft. tall piece of 1/4-in. solid cherry to the backside of the mantle, from floor to ceiling, using screws, one panel on each side of the mantelpiece. Those 1/4-in. panels covered the bare wall from the mantelpiece to the bookcases.
We had to cut several holes for electrical and the HDTV system. To ensure there were no mistakes, I setup a laser on one electrical box, then took measurements from and to the other boxes. Next, I positioned the mantel on the wall and used the projected laser line to mark exact locations on masking tape for each cut.
To secure the mantel we attached two plywood boards to the wall using screws and adhesive. We ripped the plywood to fit inside the pilasters and spaced them perfectly, so that the mantelpiece would slip right over them. The flanking 1/4-in. pieces of cherry had a good bead of silicone applied to them along with other areas of the mantel. Finally, I placed the mantel back into position and attached it with two nails on either side, through the legs into the plywood backing previously attached to the wall. I also drove three screws through the top of the mantel panel, behind the future line of the crown molding that would be applied after the cabinets were installed.
About two weeks later the cabinets were completed and installed. The molding will be installed along with the entire lower floor, not done at this time.
• • •
Leo Graywacz is the owner of LRG WoodCrafting in Windsor Locks, CT. He started the company in 1997, and has worked by himself, for himself, since that time. Leo’s company specializes in custom woodworking, especially interior architecture and cabinets.
Leo got his start in cabinetry while he was still in his late teens. Getting a job with a house builder, he worked through different jobs until he found himself in the shop, where he flourished. After three years, he was in charge of his own area and had his own helper, making historic windows and sashes.
From that job, he went to other shops and found that he might want to try going out on his own—so he did. For a while, he had a shop in Coventry, CT. It was inexpensive to rent, but was quite a distance from his home. He found a new shop much closer to home, and has been there ever since. He has since doubled the size of the rental area, and handles most of the tasks himself, from ordering materials, to delivery and installation.
Leo likes to dabble in photography, mostly wildlife. When he gets a chance to be in nature with his camera, he can get lost in the art of taking pictures. When he isn’t out in the wild, he is taking photos of work he has completed. He enjoys being on the computer, which makes his work life much easier, and makes time off enjoyable when he isn’t with his family.
He moderates on three forums that deal with construction: Contractor Talk, Remodel Crazy, and Woodworking Talk. He is a member of several others forums, where he tries to help others in the field by talking about his experiences.
Leo has a wife, who has been with him for 25 years, and two boys. The oldest is in college and likes bowling—he enters tournaments, and has an average of 250. The younger son is still in grade school, and, like most young boys, enjoys playing computer games. Leo’s wife is very supportive of his business and is understanding of the time it takes to do it alone. Which is a good thing, because he puts in a lot of hours!
Looks familiar. Nice work Leo. Have to give the rope a try someday. More of an acanthus leaf type of guy.
Lots of little pieces, your shop is a mess……
Good job, like always…
Lovely work Leo, and your excellent documentation and explanation of the process makes it a pleasure to read. It is great to see such craftsmanship being done!
Thanks for sharing, that really looks great!
Awesome work Leo! Seriously. You can’t just grab a router and miter saw and do what you did here. Great article.. and awesome quality as always!
Awesome write up Lee Lee, and as always, great looking project. You’re a true craftsman, a dying breed in today’s construction world and market.
I am sorry I just don’t get it!
No matter how great the craftmanship, all my eye is drawn to is the brick with the light colored mortar.
Sorry, the next owners of the house will either paint it or rip it out.
Gauged veneer stone tiles, or porcelain tile, could be thinsetted over a mortar skimcoat to hide the brick. Granite sheets would also do the trick,though it might end up a bit proud of the mantle…
well done leo, ive seen the pics on ct but now its published. congrats ol buddy and keep er up
Leo has been mentoring me with woodworking techniques and especially the finishes. Someone truly to set your standards to if you want to be outstanding at what you do. The mantle is yet another incredible commissioned project that shows just how much of a professional Leo is. Great job Leo.
Great work Leo. So many little bits! The end result looks very impressive. You must either have the patience of a saint, or love doing jig saw puzzles.
Thank you for sharing and explaining so well. I especially love the rope thing.
As so often in life, the blindingly simple solutions are the ones that escape me.
Your customer is fortunate to have such a beautiful piece of work. Well done! Thank you for the great job of documenting how you did it.
That is beautiful craftsmanship, nice work.
What a beautiful piece and a great article.
Thank you for sharing.
Clever solution! I’d have just carved a half rope and tassles out of cherry.and glued it on the old fashioned way. Beautiful mantel/cabinets. Don’t you love cherry? Great work Leo!
Mike, Some of us can’t carve!
Leo, I loved the solutions and jigs, fixtures, and tools you used. Extremely creative approach to ornamentation.
Very well done and great documentation. Thanks for sharing the craft.
Excellent! Very well done!
The use of flexible resin rope moldings is a good effort but a slight “re-invention of the wheel”. The original methods of applied ornamentation were first developed in France several hundred years ago. The “secret recipe” for composition ornaments ” was invented by a Franciscan Monk (I believe). The process was used to ornament all of the great baroque castles, estates, and furnishing of the period.
Companies today who still specialize in this ancient art form, furnish unimaginable varieties of moldings and applied ornaments (including complete draped and tasseled motifs of every description (my particular reference book has over 300 design plates to choose from)
This whole subject is worthy of an article (or book) but I commend you for your
efforts (and article) as well as fine end-result.
Any aspect of your work Leo is praise worthy but each aspect combined – design, execution, finish, attention to detail, and intelligent process sets you well apart as a “Master”. I write that with respect and humility. So Sensei, I do have some questions about wood movement – would you elaborate on your thinking as regards to applying the panel frames, plinth and moldings to the solid field? I may have missed some info. This is an article that warrants a couple of rereads to get the whole picture. Very nicely done.
The panel frames are small enough width wise so that I don’t even worry about the movement of the backer.
The plinths have the same grain orientation as the backer so they just move with it.
As for the moldings, most of them are orientated with the same grain direction and the ones that aren’t fall under a small enough movement that I don’t worry about it.
The whole pc has a finish on it including the back. So movement is very slow and restricted because the finish minimizes the change of humidity.
I have done some things with wood that shouldn’t work, but do. I have a table at my house that is 22″ wide (soft curly maple) and I biscuited and glued on breadboard ends. I expected it to last about a year. It is going on 8+ years now and the joint is still perfect. The modern glues are pretty amazing is all I can figure. Plus it is sealed on both sides to minimize moisture uptake.
here is that table:
I like the rope and dentil combo.