Ah, fire -- early man mastered it, and modern man uses it for recreation. If you love a crackling fire in the hearth, you'll be mesmerized by the warm, dancing flames that will create a focal point in your garden and give your outdoor guests something more entertaining to talk about than the mosquitoes. Of course, we're referring to the last word in outdoor luxury, the fire pit. These ingenious devices can be fashioned to look like small ponds of flame and do double duty as outdoor grills, too. They can be made from a variety of materials and fashioned in many styles and a number of sizes. They're as unique as their owners. The one thing they all have in common, though, is an ability to put on a light show and create a cozy al fresco atmosphere in outdoor rooms.
In the next few pages, we'll take a look at how to plan and install a fire pit in your landscape. We will also offer some tips and tricks for a safe and hassle free installation. As DIY projects go, this one has a few challenges involved, not the least of which is handling the raw materials. Whether you're using brick, stone or concrete, there'll be some toting involved. If you've never worked with masonry before, taking a quick primer on the basics would be a good idea, too.
Even though building a fire pit may take a couple of weekends to complete, imagine the fun it will be to extend your outdoor recreational time to long summer evenings or chilly autumn afternoons. After all, you worked hard to make your outdoor rooms livable and fun, why not create a space that boasts all the amenities. A fire pit can be a great way to bring the family together to roast some marshmallows and slap together some s'mores.
DIY Fire Pit Designs
If you've ever been camping, you've seen the ubiquitous fire rings that dot campsites across the country. Fire pits use this principle, too. Although you can build a wood burning fire pit or use another fuel source, such as gas logs, the most important consideration is safety. That's why heat-containing materials like stone, ceramic, metal and brick are always employed in fire pit design. It's also why any DIY fire pit project you undertake should include selecting a level spot at least 10 feet away from trees, shrubs and anything else that could catch an errant spark and burn -- including your house. As fun as fire pits are, they can be dangerous, and if your property doesn't have enough open area, well, how about building a nice water feature instead?
From a design standpoint, fire pits often conform to a few basic shapes and styles. That doesn't mean a savvy and ingenious DIYer couldn't make one in any shape that took his -- or your -- fancy. Here is a list of some shapes you may consider:
- Round pits - Like a round dinner table (with flaming coals in the middle), round fire pits make effective conversation areas. If you do quite a bit of outdoor entertaining -- or want to -- using a round fire pit as a conversational grouping area will allow everyone to interact easily. This is also a great configuration in which to use a dramatic prefabricated dish or bowl.
- Square pits - Square fire pits will typically require more space than their round counterparts and can look boxy, especially in tiny locations. If you'd like to give your garden a feng shui vibe, they can add a Zen feel to a large space and offer structure and a formal feel.
- Rectangular pits - If you want a large pit that will accommodate a crowd, rectangular fire pits are an attractive accompaniment to long bench seating. They can make a narrow patio look deeper and also work well with other features, like ponds and pools.
- Unique pits - This is where the fun begins. If you have an intrepid spirit, you can try some unique or outlandish designs for fire pits, too. How about an old concrete washing tub, a tractor tire rim or an old washing machine drum for the foundation of your fire pit?
- Outdoor fireplaces - The ultimate fire pit isn't a pit at all, it's a fireplace for outdoor spaces. If you want to create an outdoor fire feature that has it all, think vertical and build an outdoor fireplace.
Fire Pit Stones and Bricks
Before you grab your measuring tape and start taking measurements for your new fire pit, check to see if you'll need a special permit to build one in your area. With the growing popularity of fire pits and equally widespread problems with protracted drought conditions, you may have to wait to build. Even if you do get a permit, there will probably be a number of restrictions and guidelines you should be aware of before you begin work. Check with your local building inspector for additional details, hints and tips.
Working with masonry can be very satisfying, but it can be challenging, too. Masons are craftsmen, and constructing that perfect curve for your round fire pit or aligning the bricks evenly for stability can take time and patience. Don't underestimate the challenges involved in just moving stones and bricks from place to place, either. They get heavy and can be unwieldy.
The purpose of stone and brick construction is to create a solid wall surrounding your pit that will contain the heat and flames and protect the fire from windy conditions. Beyond that, your budget, ease of use and finished appearance will be important considerations in choosing a fire pit style and material. Although natural stone is beautiful, it can be difficult to work with because no two stones are exactly alike. For both brick and stone, you'll also have to learn a few masonry tricks. When working with stone in particular, you'll need to learn how to use a chipping hammer to reform stones and also how to create filler stones.
Another option is to use a molded concrete block-type product that mimics the look of stone without some of the inconvenience of working with the real thing. Because faux stone is flat on two sides, it is easier to stack, shape and handle than stone. Think of it as a cross between stone and brick. It also comes in a variety of shapes, some interlocking, which make it easy to use in different pit configurations, and they lay together quickly.
Even though it looks as though a thick layer of stone should be enough protection from the heat of a crackling fire, it's a good idea to line the interior of your stone fire pit with a protective metal liner or ring, or a layer of fire brick. When exposed to extreme heat, some materials can react to the very drying conditions in the pit and begin to lose cohesion, breaking down faster than they would otherwise.
Fire Pit Accessories
Once your pit is finished and has had time to cure, you're ready to accessorize it. You may think there isn't much pomp and ceremony to throwing some wood on the fire and then sitting around to watch it burn, but there are a number of accessories that can make the job of outdoor fire manager easier and safer.
These accessories will help you make the most of your fire pit:
- Grates - Grates can be used as elevated platforms for fire preparation or cooking. They're typically open metal shelves that install inside the fire pit.
- Cooking grids (also called grates) -If you're grate is holding the logs for your fire, you may still have a gridded shelf positioned above the flames to cook on. Often cooking grids are adjustable. If you don't plan on using your fire pit for cooking, you won't need one.
- Log racks - Bins, shelves or cabinets designed to hold firewood, log racks are available in a number of sizes, shapes and materials. They can be rustically decorative or strictly utilitarian. Many are available with covers.
- Log grabbers - These long metal tongs make it easier to perform fire management duties once things start getting hot. They're usually constructed of steel or iron. Some also have lever action handles.
- Hearth gloves - Fireproof and long enough to cover the wrist and part of the forearm, these gloves are must-have for safe fire control.
- Covers - Having a heavyweight polyester cover for your fire pit can be handy when it rains. They're easy to find for round pits with a diameter of around 48 inches or so. If you have a custom built pit, you may have to make a cover yourself.
- Pads - Designed for portable pits, stone pads protect the surface under the pit from heat, sparks and ash.
- Screens - For standard, round pits, screen domes are available that can make fire gazing a bit safer.
- Gas logs and lava rocks- For gas powered fire pits, these accessories hold heat and help create the illusion of burning logs and embers.
With a few accessories to make fire fun easier, all you'll need is a bag of marshmallows and some friends to share them with.
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