The majority of wooden mantels made up until the start of the First World War in 1914 were made from hardwoods, usually Oak, Mahogany and Walnut.
These woods would be traditionally finished with a high gloss shellac coating, applied by hand using French Polishing techniques. These finishes were generally quite dark.
Mantels were also still being made in Pine and Gesso, or just Pine, and these were usually painted.
1920s and 1930s Mantels
In the inter-war period some lighter woods came into fashion, notably light walnut and lighter oak and mahogany finishes especially with mantels in the “Modern” style.
High end pieces were often completely veneered mantels on a hardwood frame. The spraying of lacquers became common at this time, replacing the labour intensive French Polishing methods.
Darker finishes on these woods were still popular with more traditionally derived styles of mantel, and very dark “Jacobean” wood finishes especially in oak were common. Poplar, often stained very dark was quite widely used as a cheaper alternative to mahogany.
Very few mantels were painted during the inter-war period with a natural wood finish being preferred.
Post War Mantels
Large wooden mantels continued to be popular after the second world war up until the late 1960s. These fire surrounds were usually hardwood with Oak prominent as a material of choice
Sustainability and suitability
The majority of bespoke mantels that we now manufacture are made in Oak. We can guarantee that Oak from Europe or North America will have come from a managed forest and will be replanted.
You can have no such guarantee of sustainability with Mahogany. The closest wood to mahogany that we commonly use is Sapele, an African hardwood that can be sourced from protected resources.
Maple has a more delicate grain structure and is a very pale wood if a light effect is what you want.
We offer American Black Walnut as a good dark wood option. Some of the more dramatic Art Deco mantels we make combine this black walnut with a light Oak or Maple wood.
Ash is similar in grain pattern to the Oak. It is open grained but does not usually have the "Figuring" that Oak sometimes exhibits.
If a paint finish is needed we would recommend Poplar as a stable and not too expensive wood. MDF fibre is also very good for painted mantels if you do not want any graining being obvious.
Almost all wood is now “Force Seasoned” in kilns. Consequently it is not as stable as wood that has been air dried by more traditional methods.
Pine is especially vulnerable to splitting and cracking once it gets put in the very dry environment of a centrally heated house, but we rarely have any problems with any of the hardwoods.