Building your own backyard fire pit

July 8, 2014


Chris Hoaglund

Zenith City Weekly


I love a cool summer night, having a cocktail or two with a few good friends in front of a roaring bonfire. Nothing says summer to me more than that.


Commercial fire pits will get you there, but they don’t have the same appeal. My friend used to have a basic pit: a flat area, lots of sand, and a big hole. But they recently upgraded, adding a concrete apron and a ring of stones to catch any ash—a suitable height for warming feet and surrounded by a fleet of Adirondack chairs.


It’s one of the nicest fire pits I’ve ever seen and it got me thinking about my sad little black portable pit, semi-rusted and too tall. You can’t toast a marshmallow over it because the fire is in a cage, which ruins the ambiance.


Generally, in Minnesota, fire pits are legal as long as they are one foot deep, with flames less than three feet tall and three feet wide. They must be 25 feet from buildings/structures and 600 feet from power lines. The fire must be surrounded by rocks or bricks and it is illegal to burn yard waste or garbage in them.


However, check local restrictions. In Wisconsin, fire pits are regulated at the city or county level. In Minnesota, municipalities can make stricter regulations.


Home improvement stores sell fire rings and kits. You can get a basic metal ring for under $50. These will help protect your stone from the heat of the fire.  


A good size for a fire pit is 36 to 44 inches in diameter. Clear away grass or vegetation for a good three feet around the area. You can rent a sod cutter, or kicker, for this. It’s easier on the back, but still a good workout.  


As a rule, a fire pit should sit low to the ground, with walls no more than a foot high. For stability, the base of the wall around the ring should be buried in the ground.


Once you’ve removed the grass, you are going to need to dig a trench at least eight inches wider than your ring and about twelve inches deep.


When the hole is dug, level it out and line the bottom with six inches of gravel to help keep the stones level and provide drainage. Make sure you tamp down the rock to get it as level as possible.


There are some nice stone kits you can buy, complete with inner metal ring and flat capstones for the top, but they can get pricey, upwards of $500 or more. More than likely, your home improvement store has some unofficial kits ready for purchase for a lot cheaper than the fancy ledge and fieldstone pre-fabricated kits.


Using four-inch-high blocks, you’ll need about four rows high. The first row and a half (about six inches) will sit underground, on top of six inches of gravel.


The next two-and-a-half rows (10 inches) will sit aboveground. If you add a two-inch flat cap on top, you’ll have a fire wall about 12 inches high—the perfect height for warming your feet.


The quantity and shape of the stones depends on your final overall size. You can buy pre-curved stones for tree rings, but you’ll want any gaps tightly filled-in, which may involve cutting some of the blocks.


It’s important to level your stones next to each other while you are laying them. Use a two-foot level, so you can have the level sitting on both stones. If they are uneven, use a rubber mallet to gently coax them into place. If they are too low, you may have to use sand to adjust the height accordingly. The important thing is that they are level and fit snugly next to each other.


Use fireproof masonry adhesive to adhere the blocks together, staggering the seams between the blocks. Masonry adhesive sets quickly, so work steady and fast.


Once your first two rows are complete, you can position the ring inside. You’ll want to fill the center of the ring with a few inches of gravel to keep the inside sturdy.


Once the ring is in place, top with your stone cap, if desired. For added safety, you might want to add a foot or two ring of pea gravel or pond pebbles around the perimeter to catch any flying ash and keep little ones from getting too close. Give it a day or two to dry.


On the next starry night, get out the marshmallows and chocolate—it’s time for s’mores!

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