DIY Electric Fireplace – Everything You Need To Know

Is there anything in this world that sounds more relaxing than a cup of hot cocoa in front of a fireplace? Maybe a spa holiday on a tropical island, but it’s not like we can build one of those!

Electric fireplaces entered our homes in the early 20th century. They became popular because they could be installed anywhere and were pretty cheap to run. Today, these gadgets are mostly composed of LED lights and electric heating elements and can be installed in any space.

Today, we’ll cover everything from building the mantel to installing the store-bought device, plus see if you could build one completely from scratch. So, put the cocoa down for now, and let’s get to work.

Fun fact: Did you know that a fireplace can raise the value of your home?

A classic fireplace can add up to $12,000 to the overall value of your property. An electric one is not as potent, but it still has some earning power.

Can You Build an Electric Fireplace in an Existing One?

Yes, but it has both its benefits and challenges. The major benefit is that you don’t have to build the mantle, but you may struggle with the installation.

Though, as long as the old fireplace is structurally sound, everything should be okay. Just make sure to close the chimney so you don’t have any nasty surprises next time it rains. And you may want to figure out where to plug in the device. 

Does an Electric Fireplace Need a Chimney?

No, and you don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. The same can’t be said for some tabletop models that burn oil or alcohol to produce flames.

Are Electric Fireplaces Safe?

As safe as any other electric appliance, but by a certain degree safer than a traditional fireplace.

A commercial device will come with a full list of warnings and safety precautions. As long as you stick to them, you should not have any issues. Don’t leave it on when you leave the house and pay attention to any changes in the way it operates (i.e., strange smells, flickering lights, etc.).

Electric Fireplace Buying Guide

When you go shopping, you’ll find two main types of electric fireplaces: self-standing and the ones we need, recessed and wall mounted.

The latter can look like old flat-screen TVs and they are measured in the same way (by the diagonal). And they often come with a remote. 

The more affordable ones are around $150, though plan to spend twice as much. If you’re not in a rush to finish this project, wait for spring or early summer to buy one. 

When it comes to the size, consider the dimensions of your finished fireplace. Ideally, you should pick an electric fireplace that is at least 20% smaller. This will be more aesthetically pleasing, plus provide enough space for the air to circulate. 

And of course, think of the effect you want to achieve. The ones that look like TVs can produce numerous effects with some models offering multiple options. There are also the ones that come without a glass panel and often depict burning logs. They tend to be a bit pricier but look almost exactly the way a traditional fireplace would look like.

Building the Mantle and Installing an Electric Fireplace

This will include a bit of construction work, so make sure to take ample time to dedicate to your project. Also, maybe send kids and pets somewhere else for the day.

Step 1 – Prep and Plan

Unfortunately, I don’t know the size of the space and device you’re working with so I can’t give you exact measurements for your project. You will have to sit down and do the math yourself. 

You want to leave at least 2 inches between the wall and the electric fireplace, and at least 4-5 inches on the side. This is important for air circulation. For the height of the finished piece and placement of the device, figure out what works best with the room.

Speaking of the room, you may need to do some prep work there as well. First, make sure to pick a wall with an outlet so you have something to plug the device into. 

If you’re renting, take stock of what’s happening with the baseboard so you can cut the frame to fit in properly. If you own the place, cut that piece of baseboard and remove it. 

Step 2 – Build a Frame

This will be the most time-consuming part of the job, both when it comes to planning and execution. You’ll have to map out the back and the front piece, then connect them. 

For the frame, you will need different dimensions of framing lumber. Pick two-by-fours at least for the load-bearing parts, and two-by-twos for connecting pieces. Make sure you’re connecting everything with screws and nails, and not gluing things together.

For the back of the frame, you will need two pieces each that measure the height and the width of the finished mantle. Add another horizontal piece where the electric fireplace is supposed to sit.

For the front of the frame, you will repeat what you did in the back, but you will add additional pieces in the center that will hold the device. A frame within a frame, fully linked with each other.

To connect both pieces, attach smaller planks to the side and the top of the frame. Add a few to create a shelf for the device by connecting the front of the frame with that additional horizontal piece in the back.

At this point, you should also take the electric fireplace out of the box and check for the fit. Also, take this opportunity to test the device and see if you’re happy with your placement. 

Step 3 – Apply Paneling, Trim, and Paint

When you secure the frame to the wall, it’s time to apply the panels. You can use any type you want, from wood to drywall. Just remember to pick corresponding fillers for that smooth, seamless finish.

The order of other decorative items depends on what you’re using and the design. If you’re applying a wood trim on wood panels, do it before painting (and add some wood filler as well). But if the trim is supposed to create a contrast, apply it after painting of course.

You can also add a contrasting shelf to the top of the mantle. In that case, paint and varnish each piece separately before attaching them. 

However, avoid using glue if possible, and leave everything to dry before the next step. 

Step 4 – Install the Electric Fireplace

Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings (hopefully before starting this entire project). Your warranty may become void due to improper installation.

Don’t remove the protective wrap yet, leave it until you know that the job is done. Totally not the mistake I made, but plug in the electric fireplace first before trying to squeeze it in. 

Most models don’t need to be screwed in so hopefully, you have measured and cut everything perfectly, so it slides in like a puzzle piece. Just gently nudge it in, and you’re done!

Step 5 – Finishing Touches

Before you remove the protective cover on the electric fireplace, take a step back and see if you need to tweak anything. If you have any last-minute painting or trimming to do, now is the time to do it. 

Once all the paint and glue have dried, peel off the cover, grab a cup of cocoa, and enjoy your new fireplace. 

Turning the Electric Fireplace into an Energy-efficient Heater

There’s a fantastic, decades-old hack that can turn the electric fireplace into an energy-efficient source of heat. It’s bricks.

It didn’t stick around for long in the US, but for decades in Europe and Asia, you could buy this huge heater that was no more than a metal box that you fill with bricks. There would be a heating coil in there as well, just like in any heating appliance. 

Now, here’s where the magic happens: the device was designed to be “charged” during the night, the time when electricity is several times cheaper in most places. That means that the heater will be on only during those hours. The bricks would get hot and radiate gentle heat throughout the day with no need for electricity.

So, how do we apply this to our new electric fireplace? Easy. Add bricks into the mantle.

Instead of leaving the space under the device empty, you can fill it with bricks. They can be even bought second-hand since they are not there to provide structure or look pretty. 

Now, whenever you turn on the fireplace, they will absorb heat and when you turn it off, the bricks will stay warm for at least a couple of hours. And as a bonus, they can provide additional stability for the device itself. 

Can You Build an Electric Fireplace from Scratch?

Yes, but don’t attempt it unless you have prior experience of working with electricity. If you don’t know what you’re doing, either leave it to a professional or leave it, full stop. Playing with electricity is not a game since a slight mistake can lead to results that are not compatible with life.

And let’s be honest, if you had the necessary skills to build one from scratch, you would not be asking this question. Plus, it’s also not worth it. Unless you have a state-of-the-art workshop to go with those skills, you probably can’t match something that comes in a box.