Creating stylish hearths Home: The fireplace surround plays as important a part as the fire itself in giving a room character.

November 19, 1995|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

A forlorn fireplace is a pathetic sight. Even a crackling fire can't make a fireplace charming if it has a sad-looking surround or a mantel that bears a resemblance to a tight-lipped grimace.

Besides, who has a fire going all day long, let alone all year long? A fireplace is a relentless focal point. If the mantel and surround are substandard, what you're left with when the flames die down and the embers have grown cold amounts to little more than a soot-blackened hole in the wall.

Unfortunately, many a home out there has a fireplace with a surround and mantel combination that is barely there or missing altogether. Blame assembly-line home building for all but extinguishing the architectural value of fireplaces and robbing them of the power to warm a room visually even when the fire is out.

Rekindling the ornamental and visual power of an underdressed fireplace is not difficult. Ready-made surrounds and mantels in a variety of materials are widely available. Custom-made versions are easily accessible alternatives.

JTC If you're a semi-pro carpenter who can handle a power miter saw, you can construct a traditional surround and mantel with lumber and stock wood molding from the local lumberyard. Companies like Georgia-Pacific will even send you a plan, a materials list and directions. Call (800) BUILD GP and ask for the "Dream It and Do It" instruction sheet No. 15.

The newest ready-made surrounds on the market are constructed of environmentally friendly synthetics that mimic the look of sculpted and carved stone. Unlike stone, however, these lightweight alternatives can be installed with glue, screws and nails. They're fire-resistant and come in a variety of colors, shapes and textures.

Though not yet widely available, they should be showing up on the retail fireplace market soon. One manufacturer, Fiber Surfaces, will sell directly to consumers. Order a brochure by writing to P.O. Box 1026, Quincy, Fla. 32351, or call (800) 621-0565.

There are many good sources for mantels and surrounds. Just be sure to take your fireplace dimensions with you. And if you have a picture of what you're looking for, all the better. Try these sources:

* Fireplace dealers: These outlets sell custom-built or pre-fab fireplaces, of course, but they also usually sell stock mantels and surrounds for existing fireplaces. Most will have catalogs from a number of manufacturers, so you can survey the market and order what you want in wood, marble, granite, brass, chrome, laminate or another material. Or the dealer can have something made for you by one of his own carpenters or masons. The advantage of dealing with fireplace specialists is that they can also install what they sell.

* Architectural salvage companies: In addition to claw-footed bath tubs, pedestal sinks and stained-glass windows, such places are likely to have some stunning vintage fireplace surrounds. Much of the inventory will be wood, ornamented with columns, pilasters and applied carved-wood details.

* Antiques shops: Let the dealers know what you are looking for. Their incomes often depend on their their ability to track down sought-after items through each other. So it makes sense to let them do the legwork. It will be helpful if you can give them a price range and, if you're looking for something specific, a period -- Victorian, say, or Arts and Crafts or Art Deco.

* Cabinet or millwork shops: If you can't find what you want in retail outlets or if you have a preference for custom jobs, a woodworking shop can probably make what you want for a competitive price. Visit a couple of shops to get an idea of their work and quality. Such firms rarely have designers on staff, but they are adept at working from pictures.

* Masons: Most are brick masons only. They can build a chimney or even a fireplace. But they may not be able to fabricate a mantel. Still, some can.

* Marble, granite or stone dealers: Check the yellow pages under those headings for an ad or two for dealers offering surrounds and mantels in addition to counter tops and tile. If they are only suppliers, they may be able to lead you to a stone mason. If there are no dealers nearby, you might check with a cemetery-monument company. Someone who can cut and carve stone memorial may be able to fashion a mantel.

* Metal fabricators: If you have contemporary tastes and want a mantel or surround made of steel, stainless steel, polished chrome, brass or copper, find out what a metal fabricator can do for you. The fabricator might have little, if any, experience with fireplaces, but if you find enthusiasm for the project, you can end up with something unusual. Again, your chances for success improve if you can show the fabricator pictures of what you have in mind.

* Artists and muralists: A talented faux finisher can turn your wood surround and mantel into marble, granite, limestone or flagstone with paint. Where no mantel or surround exists, a muralist can paint a fool-the-eye substitute on the wall around the fireplace. Track them down through interior designers, architects and art galleries.

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