Get Cozy with Firepits
Fire pits are a "hot" backyard accessory. With so many options, we're sure you'll warm up to one.
By Eric Smith, Projects Editor
Your backyard will never be the same once you install a cozy firepit.
Fire pits—they've been around since fire.
But they've evolved. Once holes in the ground, they're now decorative backyard accessories—attractive centerpieces that "spark" long evenings of conversation between friends and family gathering 'round their warm glow. If you have a large yard, and the town you live in permits it, the ancient campfire design—a shallow, in-ground hole surrounded by stones—is still the simplest and cheapest fire pit. But you don't have to live in wide, open spaces to enjoy the beauty of an outdoor fire. There are many ways to invite the warming glow of firelight into your backyard.
Mull Over Metal
You've seen them at most home and garden centers—metal fire pits that start at about $50. The basic model is a large steel ring with decorative cutouts for ventilation and flame viewing. The ring contains the fire and is set on the ground or on a bed of sand or stone.
Want a step up? Look at metal bowls on legs. Here, the fire is contained in a 2- to 3-foot bowl or kettle fashioned from copper, steel or aluminum. They range from $100 to $500 and can be set anywhere on the lawn or patio. Metal bowls can get extremely hot, and models with short legs may scorch the grass below. Set on a surface that withstands intense heat (never on a wood deck). And hands off when a fire is burning! Some metal models are available with grills for cooking or with wire mesh screens to keep embers and ash from escaping.
Formal Stone and Masonry
More formal, permanent fire pits can be made from stone or masonry mortared together. They can be as large or small as you want, but the fires that burn inside them should never be more than 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet high. It's a good idea to consult your local building department before constructing a permanent fire pit. To prevent the walls from settling or being damaged by frost heave, local officials may suggest building them on footings or a concrete slab.
You may also want to line the inside of masonry fire pits with a layer of firebrick, or make the pit large enough so that fires burn several feet away from the masonry. Porous materials like brick, concrete block, slate or sandstone can get hot enough for the expanding moisture within the material to cause them to crack...or even explode! Likewise, use granite or other non-porous rock to construct stone fire pits, or make an inner ring of firebrick.
Gas fire pits, like gas grills, run on propane or natural gas. Most kits use faux logs, lava rocks and even decorative colored glass, though inexpensive models are available that consist of nothing more than metal tubes with holes. These should be avoided, however, as they're not UL-approved.
The main advantage of gas fire pits is that they don't need as much clearance from flammable surfaces and can be used in suburban or urban areas where wood fires are restricted. They also turn on and off instantly—some are even operated via remote control. And because they don't produce embers and ash, cleanup is minimal. Plus, with all the decorative surrounds and accessories available, you can surely find one that complements your outdoor style. There are some disadvantages to gas: they're not suitable for cooking, you need to use quite a bit of gas to get the appearance of a wood fire and they're generally more expensive—from several hundred to several thousand dollars. And, of course, the aroma of burning gas isn't quite the same.
Regardless of the type of fire pit you choose, there's no denying the soothing effect of a crackling fire in the great outdoors. It's not only beautiful, but there's no better way to wind down from a long day than by gazing into a pile of glowing embers, cozy within the warmth of a backyard flame.
Now you're cooking with fire!
Ahh...the delightful aroma of food on the fire. There's nothing like campfire cooking. You, too, can replicate this deliciously primal cooking technique in a backyard fire pit! It's easy, and using foil packets makes cleanup a breeze. Because the food is contained in an aluminum-foil pack, you don't have to worry about grease dripping onto your pretty copper fire bowl. Here's how it's done:
Ready the Fire. Glowing embers are better for cooking than a raging fire. Let the fire burn down a bit, then shovel a thick bed of embers to one side. Keep the flames burning on the other so you'll have fresh embers to replenish the cooking area.
Wrap It Up Right. The key to successful foil cooking is the wrapping; it must be leak-proof and sturdy enough to tolerate frequent flipping during cooking. Place a large sheet of extra-wide, heavy-duty foil on your work surface. Place the food in the center, and bring the two longest edges together over it. Fold them over together 3/4 inch from the edge, forming an open-ended tent. Fold the foil again, and continue until it's snug against the food. You need at least three folds to ensure a good seal, so adjust the width of your folds accordingly.
Get on a Roll. Next, roll up the sides until you have a fairly snug packet. Here, you're rolling the foil tightly as though making a rope, rather than folding.
Handle with Care. Use long tongs to nestle the packet on the embers, handling by the rolled edges only. Flip the packet every 5 or 10 minutes. Most foods take 30 to 45 minutes.
Check It. When you think the food is done, transfer the packet to a plate, then carefully unroll the foil (watch out for steam). If the food isn't done, rewrap the packet and put it back on the embers with the seam up. Don't flip a packet that has been rewrapped, because the seal is compromised.
Want to give foil-pack cooking a try?
Here are some ideas to get you started...
Camper's Classic Dinner: Lay a thick slice of onion on foil. Top with hamburger patty (spread with barbecue sauce if you like). Place sliced carrot and half of a sliced potato over burger; sprinkle with a little water. Seal; cook for about 35 minutes or until center of burger reaches 160°.
Potato Packet: Slice a baking potato and onion about 1/8 inch thick, and place on foil. Top food with several thin pats of butter. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, fresh herbs, salt and pepper; add minced garlic if you like. Toss to mix. Top with several more pats of butter. Seal and cook for 35 to 45 minutes or until potatoes are tender. (For a nice variation, use half of a sweet potato and half of a white potato.)
Herbed Fish and Carrots: Slice 2 carrots 1/8 inch thick; place on foil, shaping into rectangle. Sprinkle with a little water, then top with a few thin pats of butter. Place 1 pound of filleted fish atop carrots. Sprinkle with mixed dried herbs, salt and pepper to taste (lemon-pepper is nice). Top with several more pats of butter; seal. Place on coals, seam up. Cook for 15 minutes, moving packet around occasionally but keeping seam up. Flip packet seam side down, and cook for about 8 minutes longer.
English Muffin Pie: Butter outsides of split English muffin. Spoon fruit pie filling between halves. Wrap and cook for 15 minutes, turning every few minutes.
Don't Get Burned!
Open fires have the potential to be dangerous. Before
buying or using a fire pit, call your local fire department and ask about regulations for recreational fires and open burning in your area. Here are some other hot points to consider:
- In general, fire pits must be at least 25 feet away from houses or combustible material, although enclosed fire pit containers like metal kettles may be allowed closer.
- Never leave fires unattended, and make sure some type of fire-extinguishing device is nearby—a hose, bucket of water, shovel or minimum 4-A fire extinguisher.
- Don't make fires larger than 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet high, and don't start them on windy days. Open fires are often prohibited during periods of drought.
- When burning wood, use hardwoods like oak and birch. Never burn treated, painted or manufactured woods—they release harmful chemicals into the air when alight. Burning excessive amounts of paper, cardboard or household trash is also a bad idea.
Build this simple, stacked-stone fire pit
- 24 granite retaining-wall stones (6-1/2" x 8" x 14")
- 1-1/2 yds. of sand
- 200 sq. ft. of flagstone(optional)
The easiest way to construct a stone fire pit is with stacked granite blocks (or other nonporous stone). Since the blocks are stacked on top of each other without mortar, they don't need footings and can be set directly on a bed of sand. Use wide, heavy blocks for stability. The cost for 24 granite blocks (enough to make a basic fire pit) is about $200. Just follow our easy step-by-step instructions...
- Mark a circular area in the yard big enough for the fire pit and, if desired, a flagstone patio surround. Cut out the sod and scrape out enough dirt so that your flagstones will come out level with the grass after being bedded in a layer of sand. Spread an inch of sand over the dirt and rake it smooth, leveling out the area where the fire pit will sit.
- Pound a spike in the center of the fire pit area, then loop a string around it to measure the inside circumference. Three to 4 feet is a good interior size for fire pits. Lay blocks out around the circle, then level. If the stones are tight against each other, leave small gaps for air vents. Move the stones as needed for even spacing.
- Add the second layer of stone, straddling the joints of the first layer. If a stone doesn't sit flat, add more sand under the skewed stone in the first course, then tap or wiggle it flat.
- After stones are set, add a few inches of sand or gravel inside the pit to raise the level of the fire so it's easier to tend. If building a surround, set flagstones outside of the fire pit, then fill in gaps with strips of sod.