If your home has a fireplace, you'll likely use the mantel to showcase family photos, treasured artworks or favorite knickknacks. Around the holidays, the fireplace mantel is a good place to hang stockings for Santa. If you're building or remodeling a fireplace, the placement of your mantel is key, not only to the overall aesthetic of the room, but also to provide the safest hearth possible.
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Distance From the Fireplace Opening
One of the most important measurements for positioning the mantel is its distance from the fireplace's opening. The mantel must be at least 6 inches from the fireplace opening, according to the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC). However, state and local building codes and ordinances can vary from the IRC or may use standards from older versions of the same code. To ensure maximum safety, check with your local and state building ordinances before mounting a mantel.
Besides the mantel itself, other combustible materials, such as wooden trim elements, must also be positioned at a safe distance from the fireplace opening. The amount that the trim projects out from the wall helps to determine its required distance. For every 1/8 inch that the combustible material extends, it must be at least 1 inch away from the fireplace opening. Therefore, the mantel legs -- the columns supporting the mantel -- that have a one-inch relief must be at least 8 inches from any side of the fireplace opening. By the same token, 1/2-inch trim molding beneath the mantel must come no closer than 4 inches from the edge of the fireplace opening.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) echoes the requirements put forth by the 2009 IRC. According to the NFPA, any mantel must be at least 6 inches from the fireplace opening. In addition, any combustible trim elements measuring at least 1 1/2 inches thick must be at least 12 inches from the fireplace opening; this corresponds to the IRC ruling which requires 1 inch of distance for every 1/8 inch of projection.
While the IRC and the NFPA codes provide guidelines for mantel height which may be binding, depending on where you live, you may additionally wish to consider your hearth's aesthetics. After consulting with local codes to determine your obligations in designing a mantel and fireplace, examine your design options, working within the bounds of the relevant codes. If you have high ceilings, you may wish to extend a mantel even higher than required by code, which will help to draw the eye upward, especially if you have striking ornaments on top of the mantel. If you plan to mount photographs on the mantel, however, avoid positioning the mantel too high above eye level, which can produce an exceedingly opulent look.