I didn't have much money to spend, so I started thinking of something easy to do. I knew I wanted the mantel top to go from wall to wall, a span of 12 feet. I also knew that, as much as I like the look of shelves on either side, I didn't have an inch to spare in my tiny bungalow living room. The mantel shelf would only be 6 inches deep and a friend suggested treating the lower half differently from the top, maybe using bead board. That sounded like a winning idea. Then I decided I would pay someone to do the work as the very hard lath and plaster made me pretty nervous at the thought of nailing into it. Bead board turned into a board and batten style panelling and eventually into recessed panels.
I was able to find a nice, straight, clean 2 x 6 for the mantel shelf, good enough to be stained rather than painted. The design evolved as we worked on it. The carpenter I hired, Dave, would show up each morning waiting to hear what I was going to change that day. He and I considered each design option as it came to either one of us and then we called in the tie-breaker, my professional painter and decorator best friend across the street who would also agree to stain and varnish the mantel shelf. After a week and a half, paying about three times what I'd hoped for, I have a wonderful look that really enlarges the room and creates a fabulous focal point. Just in time for Christmas.
Someday, when I have the money and know what I want to do, I'll improve the fireplace surround. I hope to be able to keep the original tiles without damaging them, maybe covering them and extending the treatment to the mantel. I'll also need to do something with the plain concrete hearth. But for now black paint finishes off that space and all I have to do is to hang the stockings!