How to Build a Backyard Fire Pit
Here, Tom and Leslie join This Old House’s Roger Cook to discuss one the year’s biggest outdoor home trends: the backyard fire pit — specifically a DIY backyard fire pit.
LESLIE: Well, backyard fire pits are really hot right now, literally. On cool nights, who doesn’t want to melt marshmallows and have that great smell of a campfire right in your own backyard?
So, Roger, I guess the first decision is where the heck are you going to put this thing?
ROGER: No. Actually, the first decision is can you have one?
LESLIE: Oh, true.
TOM: Oh, good point. Because some towns frown on this, then, huh?
ROGER: Right. And you look at a lot of places that have fire problems. The worst thing that can happen is an open fire. So the first place you’re going to go is probably the fire department and check with them and see if your town will allow you to burn, period, before you spend any money or time on anything else.
TOM: That makes good sense, because a lot of folks don’t have good sense when it comes to locating anything with heat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that halo pattern in vinyl siding when a grill got too close.
LESLIE: Got it from a barbecue.
ROGER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s the thing is you want to locate it centrally so it’s away from fences, away from buildings. But also look up; you really don’t want to burn your favorite tree or catch a tree on fire. And that can happen if you put it right underneath it.
LESLIE: Is there an appropriate distance? Because I know sometimes with branch overhang at 10, 12 feet in the air – but you might get an ember just shoot straight up.
ROGER: Right. I’m looking for a 10-foot to 15-foot clear space around whatever you’re putting in.
LESLIE: Like a dome, you know.
TOM: Now, once we’ve identified the space, we’ve got the clearance, it’s OK with our town to build one, how do we actually get started?
ROGER: Well, you want to pick out the material you want to make the basin with. Now, what you want to do is dig a hole down because you want that fire down in the ground, like a foot below grade. That will make it safer to be around. We’ve been using a lot of kits lately that have been made out of the segmental concrete blocks in the …
TOM: Oh, is that like what they use for retaining walls, where they lock together?
ROGER: Exactly. Except these ones are shaped in a radius and give you a perfect circle. So you compact the gravel, you lay your first base down and then you build it up. And I like to see it about a foot above grade and that makes it safe that no one is going to step into that fire.
LESLIE: So that first row really gets inset into that hole that you’ve dug?
LESLIE: Do you need any sort of steel ring, like you might see at a park?
ROGER: Concrete needs to be protected from the heat. And they make a steel ring that goes with this kit. In fact, it even has a grill that flips over on the top so you can grill away.
LESLIE: Oh, that’s great.
TOM: Now, if you’re going to construct this and you’re using the segmented stones, you have your steel ring, once you get it above grade, are you actually attaching those bricks together? Are you using any kind of sealant to sort of hold them in place or is it all just sort of gravity?
ROGER: No, we use the regular glue we use on the walls. And that just binds everything together so that it really becomes a one-piece structure.
TOM: So there’s really no mortar involved.
ROGER: No mortar at all; no, it’s all dry.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. So no masonry adhesive at all?
ROGER: No. Yes, that’s what you use to hold the block together.
LESLIE: Yeah, so the masonry adhesive. Just no mortar.
ROGER: No mortar.
TOM: Wow, that sounds really super-easy.
Now, if that’s still a little bit too much of a project for the average DIYer, what about the premanufactured kits that are available or the kind that you sort of roll out: the chimineas and that sort of thing?
ROGER: Well, I think they’re great. I think they all have a place. The chimineas are great because you can put different flavored wood, so to speak, in it and get different scents coming out of it. They also make shallow basins. Some of them are copper, some of them are steel where if – you put in a few logs and have a real small fire that way.
TOM: And it doesn’t matter what kind you use; the smores taste the same, don’t they?
LESLIE: Since those are so accessible and you can just pick them up at a home center, do you still need to follow those same rules: check with your fire department and make sure that you can have one or those kind of just go under the radar?
ROGER: An open fire is an open fire. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big one or a little one.
TOM: Good advice. Roger Cook from TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
ROGER: You’re welcome.
LESLIE: You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and a step-by-step video on how to build a fire pit and other projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by State Farm Insurance. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.