Reflecting an era of log cabin simplicity, rustic fireplace mantels are making a strong return to the mainstream of modern living. With hand-hewn textures, hardy wood and affordability in equal measure, handsome rustic mantels are cozying up fireplaces everywhere—quicker than you can say Abe Lincoln.
Going Back to the Past
Georgia mantel manufacturer Park Pigott says homeowners are specific about styling when it comes to rustic fireplace mantels. Top sellers for Pigott include reproductions of an 1850s Kentucky farmhouse mantel along with Craftsman-style mantels. He also says hand-hewn, crude-looking fireplace mantels from earlier eras are becoming a hit with today’s homeowners.
Popular styles in rustic fireplace mantels include raw, hand-hewn pine planks that can be sanded and stained as a weekend project or bought prefinished ready to install. There are even simpler fixtures consisting of pine logs sawed in half and set into special brackets.
“A lot of people are buying timber frame and log homes today,” Pigott says of the trend to get rustic. “Twenty years ago, most people wouldn’t dream of living in a log house, even if it was brand new. A hundred years ago, you either lived in a log cabin or, if you were wealthy, you lived in a nice house with a nice mantel. If you lived in a log cabin, the mantel was a lot more primitive.”
Creating the Rustic Fireplace Mantel
Even more primitive than the style of rustic fireplace mantels is the tool used to create the look. Called an adz, this is a tool that has been used for centuries in woodworking. It has a blade perpendicular to the handle unlike an axe whose blade is parallel.
“Hand-hewn means shaped with an adz,” Pigott explains. “There are two kinds of adzes: one cuts flat and the other cuts curved.” Pigott says his crew uses the curved variety, which he likens to a hoe with a curved blade. “We start off with a beam that’s been planed down and then do the hewing.”
The process, which creates a dappled look in the rustic fireplace mantel—as if someone repeatedly dipped at it with an especially sharp ice cream scoop—is an arduous one. Centuries ago, a woodsman would stand astride the plank of wood, take a downward swipe with the blade, and then walk backwards, repeating the motion. Today’s process isn’t much different. “It’s a lot of work,” Pigott says.
The Right Wood for the Job
The work doesn’t stop there; once the wood is shaped, it has to be dried in giant kilns, a process that can take up to a month. To help cut down on the drying time, Pigott uses white pine because of its porous quality.
“White pine is softer and dries faster than green wood,” Pigott says, adding oak and cherry woods aren’t suitable for rustic fireplace mantels because they take so long to dry out. “Anything you build out of wood will buckle, warp, split or shrink if it’s not dried properly. Even construction-grade lumber is dried to some degree.”
Pigott says many people who want a rustic beam mantel make the mistake of just cutting down a tree, sawing it up and hanging it. “But once they burn a fire or two, it will buckle and warp.”
Another attractive feature of kiln-dried white pine is the price. “People who buy rustic fireplace shelves typically want something inexpensive,” Pigott says. “A full fireplace mantel can cost from $2,000 to $2,500, but a rustic fireplace mantel beam sells for as little as $250 upwards to $1,000.”