DIY Fire Pit

What you need to know before placing a pit in your yard.

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While visiting my parents recently, I noticed something new just beyond the edge of their property.

“Is that a fire pit?” I asked.

“Oh yes, the neighbors built that themselves,” my father said, shaking his head. “On cold nights they bundle up, drag a few chairs right to the edge and drink beer with gloves on.”

He said this in an “aren’t-they-crazy tone?” and I dutifully agreed—but all I could think was how awesome that scenario sounded. So I called Patrick Devereux, owner of Stone Oak Landscapes in Cudahy, Wisconsin, to find out just how easy DIY fire pits can be.

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Devereux, who’s put sticks and stones together in the Wisconsin area for more than 20 years, says fire pits help people warm up to the idea of heading outside when it’s cold. “They extend the time people spend outdoors late into the fall and much earlier in spring,” he says. “Clients often build entire outdoor rooms around them.”

Before you head out back with a lighter and a frosty beverage, here’s what you need to know about creating your own fire pit:

A Good Match – Fire pits should always be at least 10 feet away from the house and as far as possible from overhanging trees. “Different municipalities have different regulations and some have none,” Devereux says. “Fire pits should be the focal point outside, like it would be in a great room or den.”

Ground Control – Once you’ve nailed down a location, there are a few more decisions to make: Wood burning or gas? In- or above-ground? Devereux says most clients are asking for above-ground fire pits that are chair height to keep curious children out and the fire in.

Material World – Devereux suggests using materials that complement the architecture of your home. One of the simplest ways to create your own fire pit is to purchase an old cast-iron sugar bowl originally used to process sugar cane. Stacked stone is also super simple and doesn’t require any masonry at all.

The Heat Is On – If you’re making a wood burning fire pit, get a metal liner to act as a heat shield between the fire and the stone, then fill the bottom with pea gravel to allow for drainage. Gas pits can be constructed with a manual match light or remote control, and Devereux says bigger is better when it comes to the actual gas ring.

The Big Screen – Check the local laws: Some municipalities require a spark screen, or a metal mesh guard, to prevent sparks from getting into roofs or trees from wood burning fire pits.

Still digging the idea? Good. Grab a shovel and let’s get started:

  • Dig the ground out about 6-8 inches deep, and lay 6-8 inches of compacted gravel.
  • Lay out the stone in the correct shape, making sure the course is level in both directions. Bury the first course about halfway into the ground.
  • Start the second course of stone, staggering the joints in a bond pattern.
  • Courses can be laid dry or connected with masonry adhesive, which can be purchased at most landscape supply stores.
  • Continue until you’re up to about 18 to 24 inches. If you’re going to use a cap or coping, install it now, using mortar or masonry adhesive to set it into place.
  • Add a foot of gravel inside the fire pit for drainage and so the fire is at a visible level.
  • Add the metal liner or gas burner. Consult with a plumber before installing the gas line.
  • If using a cast-iron bowl, drill a hole in the bottom for drainage.
  • Light the fire, sit back and bask in the glow of your accomplishment!

According to Devereux, fire pits require a low level of upkeep. “Once in awhile you’ll have to shovel out the ashes, but otherwise they’re relatively maintenance free,” he says.

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