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April 30, 2010
Welcome, Kay!
Since this project will take a few weeks to complete, I'll try to keep you pumped up about it by posting a few progress photos here.  Feel free to share the link with your friends and family so they can follow along, too.

Here's a "before" photo of your living room.  You had the "builder's special," 4x12, slab o' cedar as your mantel, which was in desperate need of an update.  On the right is the "after" diagram of where we'll be going with this.  You reviewed the wood and the detailed drawings, but we'll keep it sketchy here to create some anticipation for others.  I'll post a few photos here periodically as construction progresses.  You can always click on the photos to see them in a much larger size.
May 3, 2010
I bought all the materials for this piece on Friday night and Saturday morning.  It's better to have everything at your fingertips so you don't have to work in a linear fashion.  While the glue's drying on one part, you can start working on something else.

The top shelf was the first thing to attack.  At over six feet long, 1 3/4" thick, and weighing in at about 60 pounds it would more aptly be referred to as a 'tree trunk'.  I wanted a single piece of wood here; I didn't want to glue something up.  St. Charles Hardwoods didn't have a big enough board, so I went over to Woodcraft in Maryland Heights who did.  The board has some beautiful grain and some mild figuring - spectacular!  It looks a little washed out here, but it won't take on it's final personality until the finish goes on and pops out the grain.  After cleaning up the rough edges, I cut the arc, sanded things smooth, and routed the decorative profile on the top and bottom edges.

I also cut out and glued up the 'case' below.  If you recall it bumps out and does its own thing below the arcing shelf above.  All the individual pieces interlock with the next, and everything is glued and nailed for strength.  Another thing to look for in quality woodworking is that all of the pieces were cut from a single board and in order so that the color will be consistent and the grain will run continuously around the whole piece.  It's a little hard to see, but if you blow up the photo and look at the left clamped joint it is noticeable.
May 6, 2010
We had good visible progress last weekend, but this week it's mostly been about the stuff you can't see.  This is the inside of the case looking from behind.  I added some corner supports and mounting cleats so that mantel shelf can be physically attached to the case.  Don't worry, your trim will cover up those screw heads.  Also, notice the holes connecting the various compartments where the wires will be run.  You have to think of these things early or you'd never be able to drill the holes later.

On top of the mantel, I cut the holes for the outlet and dimmer switch junction boxes, but I didn't like the way the cover plates stood proud of the surface ... so I recessed the cover plates.  Now, when you stand in front, you won't be able to see the cover plates sticking up.
The puck lights we bought were designed to be surface mounted to the bottom of a cabinet.  However, they're over an inch deep and would not look very good hanging down so low ... so I recessed those as well!  I drilled holes through the bottom of the case and attached some mounting plates inside.  Now the pucks only protrude about a quarter inch below, just enough that you can grasp and unscrew the lenses to change the bulbs.  All of the lights were pre-installed to make sure everything will fit and work right, then they were all removed.  You want to stain and spray finish on the wood, not on your lights.
May 10, 2010
All the various parts you've seen earlier were brought together over the weekend.  The top was secured down to the case, the case bottoms were slid into their final resting places, and the internal support structure was incorporated.

On the front, the trim bands were mitered up all the way around leaving the center spot open for the decorative panel.  Although we look pretty far along, that center panel will suck up some time.  If you count individual pieces of wood, we're maybe at the halfway point.
May 13, 2010
Now to the decorative panels which will be the centerpiece of your mantel.  The panels wrap around from the front to the underside creating a continuous pattern and banding.  I started with the (less complex) underside.  After some careful layout, I routed small grooves which will hold tiny sections of wood.  I suppose I could have just tacked the wood bands to the face of the board, but the grooves will ensure that everything lines up properly and doesn't slide around when I apply the glue.

After all the grooves are cut, it's time to whittle some sticks of wood to nest in them.  I cut them oversized on the table saw, brought them a bit closer on the power planer, then fine tuned the fit of each piece with a hand plane - repeat for 63 twigs!  It's very tedious and time consuming, but in a strange way therapeutic ... and that's enough therapy for one night!

I cut some sticks in a few different woods to see how they would look.  The swirly backdrop is quilted, spalted maple.  All the skinny sticks are padauk, a reddish wood from Africa.  The thicker sticks on the left are (brownish) walnut, and the thicker sticks on the right are cherry.  I'm partial to the walnut; it brings out the brown tones in the maple below.  The cherry is getting washed out, not enough contrast.  Nothing's glued down yet (and I won't be able to work on this tonight) so you still have a day to exercise your veto power.

May 17, 2010
Ok, very time consuming, but finally done!  I think I used every micro-tool I had in my arsenal: tiny saw, tiny knife, tiny pliers, and I'm happy to say that all digits are still accounted for!  A big table saw and 1/8" square strips of wood are not the most compatible.  The panels were installed as well as the trim around them.  Now you can see what I meant when I said this would "wrap around the bottom."  It's three-dimensional art.

I roughed out the faux-corbels.  There was enough of the thick top wood left to make them from so they're nice and beefy.  I carved out the interior recesses, and have yet to cut off the arcing portion.
May 20, 2010
I fashioned some decorative elements to reside on the faux-corbels.  In keeping with the wood relief theme, these were designed to compliment the centerpiece.  The corbels were glued up using biscuits inside for alignment and strength.  And finally the corbels were secured to the bottom of the mantel case.  That means we're done cutting wood!
May 27, 2010
We're down to the home stretch now!  I performed a final and thorough sanding.  It's my last chance to catch any imperfections and to fill any nail holes.

Our finishing scheme has several steps to get you to your preferred color tone.  The first is a couple coats of boiled linseed oil.  The oil really brings out the color and grain patterns in the wood.  Show this photo to your friend who thought the wood was too light to be cherry.  The immediate transformation is amazing and the whole piece jumps to life.  Notice there's no photo of the whole piece making that jump.  I guess I forgot to take one...or maybe I'm just saving something for the reveal.  Oh, the cruelty!
May 29, 2010
I applied several coats of shellac tinted with a little brown dye to get the color where you wanted it.  Then I followed that up with several coats of protective polyurethane.

After all that dried thoroughly, it was on to the finishing touches.  The whole piece was lightly sanded with very high grit sand paper to smooth out all the little bumpies.  Then it received a coat of paste wax.  The lights were installed and everything was wired up and tested.
May 31, 2010
Installation day!

After all the careful preparation, the mantel mounted to the wall without any difficulty.  The circuit breaker was flipped and the under-mantel lights came on.  The new stonework looks great, and the new mantel adds the exclamation mark to the ensemble.  Now, for you, it's on to your kitchen improvements.  Good luck!

I hope your enjoy your new mantel for many years to come, and please rest assured that if there ever is a problem of any kind, it will be covered by a lifetime warranty - period; no fine print nor disclaimers here.



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