Tag Archives: clearances

How high should my fireplace mantel be?

Fireplace mantelIt is said that the eyes are the window to the soul.  I would say that the fireplace is the soul of the home. Homeowners make a statement by what important items they place on the fireplace mantel.

As chimney sweeps, one of the common problems we see during a chimney inspection has to do with the fireplace mantel. In most cases, the fireplace mantel is too close to the firebox opening. This is a potential safety issue.

What is a fireplace mantel?

Throughout history, the fireplace was the centerpiece of homes, not only for creating warmth from cold winters but also for cooking.

Up until the twelfth century, fires were made in the middle of the home, many times with simply a hole in the roof to vent the smoke from the room. Of course, this meant the home was always filled with smoke. Fireplaces became more popular once the concept of chimneys was developed.

Ancient fireplace mantel
The smoke canopy–A precursor to fireplace mantels. Photo credit: Wikipedia

By the 12th century, fireplaces were moved to an exterior wall where a chimney was incorporated to vent the smoke. Smoke “canopies” were developed to help with the inherent smoking problems that these fireplaces had. In time, fireplace mantels developed from the smoke canopies.

Carved fireplace mantels became fundamental pieces of elaborate art, especially in European castles, mansions, and historic grand buildings. Some of these beautiful mantels can still be found on display in museums.

Today, fireplace mantels no longer serve so much a practical purpose but more of a decorative one. Even in the 21st century, fireplaces with decorative mantels serve as a beautiful centerpiece and focal point to the modern home. These mantels serve to create a unique decorating statement to the room.

Fireplace Mantel clearances

Mantels can be beautiful but it’s important that they also be safe. For safety reasons, there are code requirements that dictate the distance between the top of the fireplace opening and the bottom of the mantel. Your local CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep should know the code requirements and clearances to combustibles for your fireplace mantel.

As an example, here in San Diego, the California Residential Code is the code that my city has adopted. For the sake of this post, the clearances discussed here are based on this code.

The distance is determined by measuring from the top of the fireplace opening to the bottom or underside of the mantel. If the mantel has a combustible support or bracket made from wood, then the measurement must be taken at the bottom of the support because that’s the closest point to the top of the fireplace.  If the bracket is a metal support for the mantel, since it’s a non-combustible material, then the measurement would be from the bottom of the mantel.

Absolutely no combustible material can be within six inches above the top of the fireplace!

Our fireplace mantel
Our own Fireplace Mantel

To determine where the mantel is to be installed will depend upon how far the mantel protrudes from the wall. The further the mantel protrudes, the further above the fireplace opening the mantel needs to be.

The 2016 California Residential Code R1001.11 states: “Exposed combustible mantels or trim may be placed directly on the masonry fireplace front surrounding a fireplace opening providing such combustible materials are not placed within six inches of the fireplace opening. Combustible material within 12 inches of the fireplace opening should not project more than 1/8 inch for each 1″ distance from such an opening.”

Complicated? Maybe, but here is a cheat sheet that will help you.

Projection of Fireplace Mantel from the wall Minimum distance from the top of firebox to the bottom of the mantel
.75 inch 6 inches
1 inch 8 inches
1.5 inches 12 inches
More than 1.5 inches Unlimited

Any mantel or supports that are more than 12 inches above the fireplace opening has no limit as to how far it can protrude from the wall.

In simple terms: If the mantel or supports for the mantel are a combustible material such as wood, they need to be more than 12″ above the fireplace opening if they protrude more than 1.5 inches.

IMPORTANT: It’s critical to know that these clearances are for brick and mortar masonry systems only. Prefab fireplaces and stove inserts have their own clearances to combustibles. In those cases, the clearances will be listed on an identification tag or plate on the system or in the installation instructions.

A fireplace mantel adds incredible beauty to the centerpiece of your home. Just make sure that you have a safe distance from the top of the fireplace to the mantel above.