Q: We're about to remodel the living room of a typical ranch-style home, built in about 1960. One idea is to add a wooden mantel to the simple slate surrounding the fireplace opening. We're also considering installing crown molding below the ceiling to create more visual interest. Do you think the wood mantel and molding should be painted or left in a natural stain?
A: A lot of factors need to be weighed before you make a decision. I'll assume that you want the room to look lively and not too formal, and that you're willing to introduce a mixture of styles.
The first thing to keep in mind is that most commercially manufactured wood fixtures are produced in what's known as "paint grade." This means that the mantel or molding -- which may actually be made of pressed wood particles -- is of a quality that would benefit from a paint job. In such a case, a well-detailed and properly scaled mantel and molding can be painted in the same color as the rest of the woodwork in the room. Or, if you want to assign more importance to these decorative additions, paint them in a contrasting color. You can go further in that direction by treating the wood in a way that makes it look textured.
Since a mantel usually serves as a focal point, my tendency would be to add a simple but hefty molding. Should you eventually decide that the room requires even more visual drama, you can always paint the molding in a fantasy texture such as faux marble.
A different approach is possible if you can afford a fine vintage mantel. My advice then would be to let it serve as an unchallenged center of attention, with the moldings treated as a decidedly secondary element. In this situation, I would choose a relatively unadorned but good quality molding and leave it in its natural stain.
Most antique mantels, you should know, were made to be painted, unless they were part of a paneled room. They were generally made of inexpensive wood, often pine. The mantels you may find in antique shops have typically been stripped of their paint and then waxed to acquire a honeyed patina. Such pieces can certainly improve a room's appearance, especially one that's been done in a relaxed or countrified style.
The American pine mantel shown in the photo has been treated in just this way. Its golden glow makes it a lovely addition to almost any family room as well as to a contemporary home with white walls and bleached plank flooring. Such a piece can be accompanied either by modern artworks, or, as in the setting shown, by an antique kilim rug and American country antiques.