Building an elaborate mantelpiece can be an intimidating task. That's why I like to think of it as a series of smaller projects — the upper and lower pilasters, the undermantel frieze, the mantelshelf, and the overmantel — that can be built separately. The trick is to figure out how all the parts fit together and then build them accurately and efficiently.

With the materials already on hand, the mantel shown in this article took me and a helper about a day and a half to build. I used a story pole to work out its many details in full scale; pocket-screw construction allowed me to assemble the parts on site with a trim carpenter's basic repertoire of tools. The expressive details that give the...

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