Fireplace with Built In Shelves

DIY Fireplace and Built-Ins: Turn $2,000 into $10,000 of Home Equity

Posted on Posted in Home Improvement

The challenge this time was how to create storage in a small living room and also to incorporate a fireplace.  Our 1,900 sq ft house isn’t small, but it feels cramped because it’s split up across 3 stories and has a closed off floor plan.  The width of the house is 14′.  Because of that, whatever we built couldn’t extend into the room very far.

We really struggled to find the right layout on the internet and Pinterest.  We found a never ending supply of super fancy fireplace, hearth, built in shelving pictures.  I think it’s similar to how on Facebook everyone only posts photos of them when they are happy and at their peak.  You don’t log onto Facebook and see people when they are going through a rough patch.

As it pertains to home improvement, when someone does a crappy job, they are not clamoring to take a pic and upload it to the internet.  It’s only when there’s a really expensive remodel done that the homeowners are excited to take a pic and share it.  Google and Pinterest probably only exacerbate the effect by showing more of the pictures that have get seen more often.  The pics that get more views are the more impressive remodel jobs.

As a result, we were searching through all the really expensive (yet impressive) fireplace/shelving projects for bits and pieces that we could do ourselves.  We found features and tips from different websites and pieced them together for our more affordable project.  We completed the entire project for about $2,000!

These are the steps we took to piece together the fireplace, hearth, location for the tv, and built in shelving.  This is what we were starting with 🙂


Old Fireplace and Hearth
The before pictures from the day we moved in. This is what the living room looked like (plus some fresh paint) for the 1.5 years.
Old Fireplace and hearth
Another “before” pic.

#1)  Choose Your Fireplace

How you vent the fireplace (if necessary) will affect where the fireplace has to be positioned in the room.  It will also potentially affect how you hide or don’t hide the ducting.  A previous post explains how to choose what type of fireplace you need, How to Choose Gas, Wood, or Electric.  As a side note: we paid $1,100 for our fireplace and venting accessories.  Flex gas line, fittings, and cut off valve were about another $50.

The fireplace itself is extremely simple. No blower, no remote, nor an ornate cover over the front.

#2)  Choose Your Mantel

One of the biggest components that has the opportunity to make the finished product pop but also break the budget is the hearth.  For as long as we’ve owned a home (we have each separately or together been homeowners for 7 years), we’ve always wanted to buy a used (hopefully 50-80 years old), rustic fireplace mantel.  We live in an area that has many antique stores, and they all have a selection of mantels.  The mantels come in many shapes, sizes and prices.

New or Used Mantel?

We looked through a handful of different antique shops when we were looking for ideas for this project.  We were really attracted to the ornate, hardwood designs with some paint rubbing off from the early 1900’s.  However, the used mantels were more expensive than we expected. We really only wanted to pay $100-$200 for our mantel considering there was going to many other expenses ahead.

We ended up choosing to make our own mantel based on a picture that we found on the internet.  I used exactly the same structure that they did.  There were just a few differences in the shape of the trim pieces.  Making our own kept the price of the mantel at about $80.  I don’t think it actually added any hours to the project, though.

Fireplace Mantel
Horizontal surface of the mantel is 3/4″ plywood. Adornments are done with 1″x3″s and decorative trim. Everything was bought at Lowes.
Fireplace Surround
Fireplace surround is made of 1″x3″s and decorative trim. Nothing fancy on their own, but put them together and they look pretty good!

Buying a mantel pre-made would have had its own challenges when it came to making it fit into place.  I learned a lot about how to make trim pieces fit together at 90 degree angles.  And by learn, I do mean spending a lot of time sanding and caulking to span the inevitable gaps.  But, it was worth it.  In the end, I highly recommend the mantel design that we used!

#3)  Choose Your Hearth

The only dimension that we were really sure about related to the hearth was that we wanted to make it difficult for the kids to climb on.  Our 1 year old routinely climbed on our old fireplace   We had him stand near the old fireplace, and we tried to gauge how much taller it would be for him not to be able to climb on it.  We ended up deciding that it needed to be 14″-16″ tall.

Fireplace slate hearth
12″ square slate tile on 15″ tall fireplace hearth.

Other than that, you need to decide the shape and material of your hearth.  There are other ways you could protect kids from the fireplace and the sharp edges of a hearth.  One way is to make the fireplace just above arm’s reach of a kiddo and have no hearth.  This could be a challenge if you wanted a tv to rest on top of the fireplace, but not impossible.  Another way is to have an even taller hearth and just not make it very deep.

Make compromises you can live with.

The internet is full of beautiful fireplace/shelving pictures that will break the budget.  My dream fireplace would break our current budget, but I do look forward to our $10/sq ft stack stone that will go from floor to ceiling.  Ah… someday!  But, I am very happy with the $2.50/sq ft 12″ tiles that we got from Home Depot.  This is actually the second project in the house that we’ve used that stone for.  It’s also the flooring for our kids/guest bath.

stack stone fireplace hearth example
My dream fireplace surround and hearth will be covered in this $10/sq ft stack stone! This pic is from Home Depot.

However you design your hearth, just keep in mind how you are going to construct it.  I ended up framing ours with 2×4’s and covering with 3/4″ plywood.  This is slightly over-engineered (at least on the sides), but it was worth the piece of mind.  As our kids get older they won’t be able to hurt it too badly.

#4)  Choose Your Shelves

Every step of this process has temptations to overspend.  You must resist!  When it’s all over with, your project will look amazing!  It’s like going TV shopping.  The TV looks tiny when it’s sitting next to a 60″ in the showroom.  But, when you get it home it looks much bigger and impressive.  Keep that in mind 🙂

1″x2″ furniture is nicer than it sounds

That was the lesson we learned with shelving.  We found a website on making 1″x2″ furniture.  Basically, the entirety of our shelves are made of 1×2’s.  The wood supporting the shelves are 1×3’s, but I would make them 1×2’s if I could do it all over.  Regardless, though, even though the individual pieces going into the shelves are minimalist, they look very grand when all put together.

Fireplace built in shelf
One of the shelves. 1″x2″ covers the front of the 3/4″ plywood shelf. The sides and back are supported by 1″x3″ pine.

The other much more expensive option that we avoided was to have adjustable height shelves.  There are many shelving kits available that will have several tall slotted metal strips where you can put shelf brackets at any height.  We really didn’t foresee the need to have the shelves adjustable, so fixing the shelves in place was an easy decision.

The design concept we chose was simple.  The shelves are made of plywood.  They aren’t the cheapest plywood, it’s the next grade up.  The edges of the plywood are covered with 1×2’s.  The vertical panels of the shelving units are also plywood with 1×2’s covering the edges, so you can’t see the plywood layers.  The bottom of both shelving units have cubbies made of, you guessed it, plywood with 1×2’s covering the edges.  Lastly, the tops of the units go to the ceiling and are covered in decorative trim.

Fireplace built in shelf
Another shelf.

#5)  Install the Fireplace

You will start by constructing the platform or hearth that the fireplace will sit on.  This was easy compared to what came ahead.  Making forms out of 2×4’s is a cinch.  The hearth/platform that the fireplace sits on was all 2×4’s covered in 3/4″ plywood.

First, find the fireplace

The biggest technical challenge for me was installing the fireplace.  I purchased the fireplace online, at, and there was a ton of ambiguity on what venting accessories were required.  I placed several calls to their call center trying to get clear on what I would need.  It took me a couple of days to finally talk to their fireplace “expert”, who was only there during normal work hours.  He didn’t exactly instill confidence in me, but all the parts I got were mostly correct.

Be ready for pieces not to fit

There was one ducting fitting that I had to take some tin snips to, but everything mostly came as expected.  I saved at least $300 by ordering on Homeclick.  The prices at our local fireplace store were much much higher than online.  After all, they have a show room to maintain.  Homeclick, I would bet, just takes the order and passes it along to the manufacturer for a commission (drop shipping).  I say this because Homeclick takes about 2-3 weeks to deliver the product.

Do the research (but don’t necessarily follow the instructions) on the gas line installation

I also had to figure out how to tie the fireplace gas line into the existing gas line.  You will have to decide if you want to wrestle with black iron or flex pipe.  I knew that I would be fishing the piping through some tight places, so I committed to learning how to buy and use flex pipe.  Lowes does sell it, although there’s a sign saying that you have to pass a test or something.  The checkout person didn’t say anything about the test, so that really wasn’t a concern.  The installation booklet is right there next to the flex pipe and fittings.  It does a very good job on describing exactly how to cut to length and assemble and tighten the fittings.

Installation did go pretty much as the installation booklet described.  It gave a spec on how many turns past finger tight.  That was definitely not right, though.

I followed the directions (I think it was 1 turn past finger tight).  A minute or two after I turned the gas on, I smelled gas.  I tightened the brass flex fittings, and it mostly went away.

Don’t be afraid to call the gas company.

The next day, though, we still smelled gas.  I was at work and couldn’t make it home.  Jessica ended up calling the gas company, who, by the way, is very happy to come over for free if you smell gas.  It’s definitely in their best interest to prevent your house from blowing up.  They use a combination of bubble solution, which they spray all over the place without cleaning up, and a sniffer.  The technician pinpointed it to the brass flex fitting.  It was not the end of the world.  I just should have tightened it to how tight I think it should have been.

Plan extra time for cutting holes in brick.

The other major technical challenge was venting horizontally through the brick wall.  And by brick wall, I mean a brick chimney still stuffed with coal ash from the early 1900’s.  Luckily, I had experience from our last house and knew that the chimney was probably full of tens of pounds of coal ash.  I used a masonry bit on a hammer drill to drill a few holes to take out the first chunk of a brick.  Most importantly, I made these holes from the outside!  Sure enough, the ash started pouring out like water.  It ended up being six 5-gallon buckets full!  I also found newspaper crumbled up in there.  One from 1905 and another from 1920.

Drilling and chiseling through the two layers of brick to form the 10″ hole was a challenge.  Actually installing the venting was a lot easier.  Like I mentioned earlier, the venting pieces didn’t fit together perfectly.  If they had it would have been a piece of cake.

With the fireplace resting on its platform, gas connected, and venting installed you are ready for the carpentry work!

#6)  Construct the Fireplace Surround and Mantel

We chose quartz mosaic tile to surround the fireplace.  It comes in 12″ square sheets.  I installed drywall around the fireplace to attach the tile and mantel to.

Keep the saw close to the work!

One tip to keep in mind is that you want your saw to be as close to where you are installing as possible.  This goes for the tile saw as well as the miter/chop saw.  I made a countless number of runs up and down the stairs as my saw was on the second floor while the fireplace was on the first.

Tile around the fireplace

After the fireplace was installed into a drywall box, I installed the tile surround.  After the tile was in, then I started on the woodwork.  I’m not going to go step by step.  Hopefully the pictures will give you enough guidance to be able to take the bits and pieces that you like.

Fireplace surround
Tile around the fireplace. Then add the trim.
Fireplace surround
Bottom of the “pillars” on the fireplace surround. The “pillar” is a 1″x3″, and it’s encased in floor trim.


#7)  Install the Benches and Shelves

I wish it was as easy as this title makes it sound.  There are really no shortcuts to this type of work, but keep in mind how this will transform your living room when it’s done!  Here’s a few more pics to give some guidance.

Fireplace bench
Benches around the fireplace. We made some cushions to make it a bit more comfortable. We designed the cubbies to be a common size for bins.
Fireplace with Built in Shelves
Upper shelves. Trim at the top where the shelves meet the ceiling.
Fireplace Built In Trim
So much trim!
Fireplace built in shelves trim
Left side upper shelves.
Fireplace with bench and built in shelving
These bins will twice as expensive as the bin on the other side, so we went with half and half.
Fireplace with a switch
Don’t forget your plans for electrical outlets (if applicable). The bottom switch is the on/off for the fireplace.

The fireplace, built in shelves and built in benches make the living room so much more impressive.  We believe that it adds $7k-$10k in value to the house.  And that’s probably how much it would have cost to have a contractor come in and take care of it from start to finish.  By finding cheaper materials, designs and of course doing all the work we completed the project with about $2k.  We consider this project to have one of the biggest return on investment.

That’s it!  Let me know if you have any specific questions.  I’d be happy to go further in depth if you’d like.

7 steps to DIY the fireplace, built in benches, and built in shelves of your dreams!