In the 13 years we’ve owned our home, my wife and I have built three fire pits. The first was a rock ring in the woods, where we sat on boulders and invited armies of mosquitoes to mainline our blood while we pretended not to notice.
The second, in our scrubby side yard in suburban Connecticut, never saw flame but eventually hosted many interesting species of weeds and at least one tree.
Then I invested in bricks and a grate, building a pit 10 yards from our back deck, where it sat unused for two years before I kicked it down.
What would it take to inspire an outdoorsy family of fire lovers to actually use a fire pit?
Recently, I figured I’d find out. I called on John Gulland, manager and founder of Woodheat.org; Scott Cohen, author of “Scott Cohen’s Outdoor Fireplaces and Fire Pits”; and Julie Moir Messervy, a Vermont-based landscape designer and author of eight books on the subject, including “Landscaping Ideas That Work.”
My landscaping specialists got right to the heart of it: A successful fire pit is about a lot more than just the fire.
“The goal is to create a go-to destination where you can chitchat with your friends,” Cohen said. “Fire just helps prolong the use of the area.”
In designing the space, Messervy suggested I start by selecting a proper site. My impulse was to put the pit on the slope behind a patio I installed in June. The patio’s retaining wall, I figured, would make a passable bench for the fire pit.
Messervy felt this would crowd the patio and, worse still, force me to dig tons of soil to level the ground. Having dug myself to the edge of insanity building the patio, I took her advice and chose a spot on a plateau a few yards away. In playing with designs and layouts, I relied on Messervy’s Home Outside Palette mobile app, which was useful (and free).
A patch of heaven
I chose a loose-rock floor because the thought of building another patio turned my stomach. With loose rock, you still have to remove a layer of topsoil, but you don’t need to dig as deep as you do when installing pavers, or stabilize the base with compacted gravel.
To set the pit on solid ground and prevent shifting during the winter, though, I had little choice but to follow my paver-patio protocol. I dug a 4-foot-wide circular trench roughly 8 inches deep and filled it with so-called stone aggregate, which is a mixture of sand and gravel found at masonry suppliers.
Working in 2-inch layers, I tamped down the gravel and checked it for level, giving it the slightest slope so the water wouldn’t pool around the pit. Next, I added a 1-inch layer of sand to set the bricks.
Sounds easy? Now imagine filling a shovel with dense soil too many times to count, hoisting it all into a wheelbarrow and hauling those monstrous loads to some dark corner of your property. Then imagine filling the wheelbarrow with gravel multiple times, raking it out and slamming a tamper onto it to get it flat.
For your next act, lay down some landscaping fabric and then enjoy carting nearly a ton of river rock and fire pit bricks from your driveway to your yard. All of this for a little patch of heaven 12 feet in diameter.
Do yourself a favor and break up the job into two days at the minimum. If possible, recruit a few muscular masochists to help.
One logistical, budgetary note: I had gravel and sand left over from my patio project, so I didn’t need to pick it up or have it delivered. My local supplier charges $100 for delivery, so the material itself would have cost less than the delivery. But if you’ve ever tried to haul a ton of rocks on your own, you are likely to recognize this as the immeasurable bargain it is.
Consider the smoke
One of my best moves was starting with a kit. Pavestone’s RumbleStone round kit costs around $400, delivered, and includes a pit liner and screen. The company sells a 46-inch-diameter, 16-inch-high version, but my sources said 12 inches is a good height if you like to kick your feet up on the edge. (The kit itself comes in a 10.5-inch version.)
Even the smaller kit costs considerably more than you would pay for bricks. Then again, for the extra cash, you don’t have to melt your brain while cobbling together bricks into a perfect circle.
The RumbleStone liner would require some modification for a propane fire pit, but that didn’t apply to me as I decided to use a wood-fire design. Of course, not everyone has that choice. Cities like New York and Boston, among others, prohibit open fires with wood, and smaller municipalities sometimes regulate fire pit placement to keep smoke away from the neighbors.
And wind conditions are too often overlooked by fire pit owners, Gulland said: “People don’t know how to burn properly, which creates a ton of smoke, and they’ll burn when there’s a breeze, which makes it really bad.”
He favors so-called top-down fires, where kindling rests on the wood logs, because they produce much less smoke than traditional American campfire methods.
I forgot his advice during our first fire, but fortunately there was no wind. When my pit and the surrounding patio were finally finished, I slid a few chairs around it and collapsed in a heap on a couch inside. The kids took one look and immediately demanded marshmallows.
An hour later, the stars were out, the neighborhood was quiet and the fire had gathered the family to it. As we sat, I remembered what Messervy said about the value of this venture.
“It’s amazing what happens to a conversation when people have fire as a focal point,” she told me. “It absorbs your self-consciousness and allows people to literally get into a place that’s warm, and you can enjoy conversations in a deeper way.”
Along with a few s’mores and a cold beer, it was enough to justify all the sweat this little bear of a project required.