Canadian Woodworking

Fireplace surrounds

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Lead Photo by © Photographer: John Wollwerth | Agency:
Illustration: James Provost
Published: February March 2008

Enhance the look of your living room with a spectacular fireplace surround. It’s easier to build and install than you might have imagined.


Gas and electric fireplaces are quite popular in new home construction, and in older homes a lot of wood burning fireplaces are upgraded with gas or electric fireplace inserts. Most fireplaces have some kind of mantle (shelf) that sits over the top. Less common are fireplace surrounds – columns on either side of the mantel. However, you can easily create a whole new look to the living room by remodelling, or adding, a fireplace surround. It’s a great way to showcase your woodworking skills, and the added market value on your house isn’t too hard a pill to swallow. Home improvement stores and fireplace equipment outlets will have a variety of pre-fabricated fi replace surrounds available in various sizes and price ranges, and most cabinet shops will custom build them for you. But, building a fireplace surround is well within the scope of any woodworker with intermediate level skills. It’s really no more difficult than building a bookcase.

Measurements you need to know

Fireplace styles

Column style surround

If you have a masonry fireplace there may be a mantle hanging over it. The mantel is either attached to the wall studding (if there is drywall above the fireplace) or on blocking inset into the masonry. A fireplace surround consists of columns attached to either side of the mantle. A ‘flat style’ is set flush to the wall, a ‘column style’ is set out from the wall, and a ‘cabinet style’ is a column surround that serves double duty as a storage unit (think bookcase/display cabinet). Right in front of the fireplace there is usually a hearth, typically made of fire resistant material, such as ceramic tile, stone, brick. If you plan to replace the hearth, or none exists, install it before you install the fireplace surround.

Surrounds come in a myriad of styles and sizes. You’ll need to measure the depth of your fireplace insert or firebox, the width of the facade, and the height of the facade. Use these measurements to size your fireplace surround. Things to keep in mind when designing your surround include the size of your hearth, the heating source (gas, electricity, wood) and safety clearances required (check your local building code for these clearances), the existing woodwork and furniture in your living room, and the room size and configuration.

A surround consists of three basic constructs – two columns (legs or pilasters), a header (breastplate or frieze) and a mantel (shelf). In rooms with very high ceilings you sometimes see a framed panel, the over-mantel, above the mantel.
This is often capped with a crown moulding. Corbels and moulding of all kinds can be used to enhance the look of the surround.

The least expensive, and probably easiest approach to building a surround is to use a frame and panel design with MDF as the core building material. If you want to paint the surround, then this is a good way to go. You’ll find it easiest to build and install the surround in three sections (columns, header and mantel). The columns can be simple hollow boxes, and you can assemble the boxes with glue and nails or screws, pocket hole screws or biscuits. On the front face of the boxes apply ½” or ¾” paint grade hardwood (alder, poplar) or softwood (pine) trim to get the ‘frame and panel’ look. Optionally you can use a router to add a decorative edge treatment to the trim pieces. I like to glue the trim to the box, and use a 23 gauge pin nailer to hold things together. Cover the nail holes with wood filler.

Depending on the depth of the surround (which will be determined by the depth of the fi replace insert), you can use a box for the header, or build it up from one or more layers of MDF. As with the columns, you can apply a frame to the surface of the MDF and a bit of crown moulding above the frame and under the mantel. For a more durable mantel use a paint grade hardwood or softwood. A square edge on the mantel doesn’t look all that great; minimally round over the edges, or better, rout a decorative edge on it. Some baseboard and shoe moulding on the bottom of the columns will give it a more finished look.

As with most woodworking projects it is best to apply as much of the finish as you can before you assemble everything. I like to use a latex semi-gloss enamel paint – it’s easy to apply, looks great and is very durable. First apply a coat of primer on all surfaces. You may have to apply an extra coat or two on edges.

A light sanding will remove any raised grain. Next apply a single coat of paint.

Once the pieces have thoroughly dried install the surround – first the columns, then the header, and finally the mantel. Countersunk screws and construction adhesive will do the trick here. Before you apply the final coat of paint caulk any gaps with a paintable latex caulking. Perhaps MDF isn’t for you. Alternatively you could use an architectural grade hardwood veneer plywood with solid wood trim, or build the surround entirely out of hardwood. Whatever materials you choose or construction techniques you use, installing a new or upgraded fireplace surround is sure to be a satisfying way to enhance your living environment.


‘Building Fireplace Mantels: Distinctive Projects for Any Style Home’,
Mario Rodriguez, ISBN: 1561583855

‘Constructing a Fireplace Mantel: Step-By-Step from Plywood and Stock Moldings’,
Steve Penberthy, ISBN: 0764324578

Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.


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  2. Mr Duguay was there some consideration given to the type of paint you used and the type of wood product since this will obviously be used in a hot zone? I am thinking that some of the wood might be in close proximity to the firebox or insert and that paint or wood type used might pose a problem?

    1. According to the National Fire Code you need to have 6″ of clearance between the firebox and combustible material on either side of the opening and above. If the surround projects more than 1-1/2″ above the opening you need 12″ of clearance. Use a latex paint that’s rated to withstand temperatures in the 250°C range. Adher to the required clearances and you can use any wood (including MDF).

  3. Great article Carl.
    I’m pumped up to modernize our “70’s” “Anglestone” fireplace.
    Thank you !

    1. Glad you like the article Mike – I’d love to see customized fireplace surround when its completed. Carl

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