Anatomy of a Fireplace – A mantel is not always just a mantel

I’ve been involved with the business of designing fireplaces for almost fifteen years and one of the challenges I continually face is how to effectively communicate fireplace design ideas in words, particularly over the phone or by email. The first hurdle? Terminology.

As with most things, there is no one correct way to describe the components of a fireplace, and what we refer to in day-to-day conversations doesn’t always jive with historical or technical terminology. For instance, the industry that includes fireplace products has come to be known as the ‘hearth Industry.’ The word hearth, technically speaking, may be used to describe the fireplace as a whole, but it traditionally referred to the floor of the firebox, the place where the fire is built. Nowadays, it commonly describes the fireproof floor area or structure directly in front of the opening. In Hearth Industry terms, the thing that creates the fire – be it a masonry assembly, a steel box that contains wood-burning, an aesthetic gas-burning appliance, or an electric device that creates a flame-like light – is called the fireplace. Further subgroups are fireplace inserts and freestanding stoves. So in industry terms, the ‘fireplace’ is just the thing that makes the fire. Then comes the rest of the wall. The word ‘mantel’ means the shelf that projects from the wall above a fireplace, the thing you hang stockings from at Christmas time, and place photographs, objet and chachkas on the rest of the year. In ‘hearth industry’ terms however, the word mantel is often used to describe not only the shelf, but the entire decorative element that surrounds the fireplace opening, also known as the fireplace surround. In Britain, they call the mantel the chimney piece.

Confused yet?

Anyway, my point is that fireplace terminology is a bit slippery. For my part, I like to think of the whole thing: the wall, the surround, the hearth and the fire itself, as the the ‘fireplace’. After all, it is the whole fire feature that can transform a space.

For the sake of clarity, here is a diagram, describing the terms that we, at Paloform, use to describe the parts of a fireplace when we are working with you on a design, along with other common terms that may accidentally slip into our vocabulary – but please forgive us if we occasionally get confused.

Anatomy of a Fireplace