A fireplace naturally commands attention, whether it’s in use or not.

Often situated in the center of a room, a hearth conveys warmth and invites gathering. Most homeowners think carefully about what they place on and around the fireplace, hoping to set a tone or create atmosphere. Few consider how what surrounds the fireplace also matters.

“You can change a room completely with a custom mantel,” says John Rhodes, a new member of the Holtz Built custom carpentry team. “You can go from something painted to a natural or stained finish. You can have something small and simple go to big and ornate. You can also cover brick or stone [surrounding the fireplace] to create a whole new look. A custom mantel can bring new life to an old space.”

Rhodes recently constructed two custom mantels for customers who had specific visions in mind. One customer saw a DIY mantel kit at a big box store, liked its look, and installed it himself. It didn’t take long for the family to realize the purchase wasn’t working as planned.

“It wasn’t custom, it didn’t fit their house; it was functional but far from pretty,” Rhodes says. The new mantel, designed and constructed intentionally for the space, complements the room’s dimensions and existing trim – baseboards, door and window frames, and moulding – in a way no prefabricated mantel could.

“It’s not so much about the decorating, but how the room is put together,” Rhodes says. “You want to coordinate with what’s there.”

The second custom mantel Rhodes built has a similar traditional style as the first, but is made from walnut, so it can be stained to show the natural grain. “If a mantel is going to be painted, it’s often poplar or birch plywood,” he says. “With staining, it’s dealer’s choice – whatever wood they want.”

As with any custom work, the time it takes to fashion a mantel depends on what’s being done. Size doesn’t matter as much as the detail, such as carvings or panels. Rhodes says stained mantels also take longer than painted mantels because the surfaces have to be pristine. “You have to get rid of the marks left by woodworking tools,” he says. “Everything’s on display.”

Rhodes, who has worked 35-plus years as a builder and carpenter, lived in Chicago for the past two decades and recently returned to the Richmond area to be closer to family. He came to H.J. Holtz & Son on the recommendation of a previous employer.

“This was the place he thought would be the best fit,” Rhodes says. “He was right. It’s been very easy to come work here. Rick Holtz is a great guy, and these guys have been great to work with.”

Rhodes says he is enjoying being part of the growing Holtz Built team. “We have a lot of talent in this shop, which is rare these days,” he says. “Most places I’ve worked, when you’re the most talented one there, you end up doing everything. Any of these guys can pull off what I can do, so if I’m busy, I don’t have to worry about what I’m not doing. It’s great being part of a team when you have a bunch of really good players.”