Fire It Up

By Chandra Orr

February 20, 2009 5 min read


A pit may warm up those chilly summer nights

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

A big blaze on a crisp summer evening is a creature comfort few can deny. You've probably drooled over some of the phenomenal backyard fireplaces unveiled on home improvement shows -- those flick-of-the-switch, gas-powered granite hearths surrounded by posh patio furniture with a stainless steel smoker grill on the side.

For most homeowners, though, these decked-out decks are the stuff of dreams. Luckily, those on a more modest budget have plenty of options, from simple store-bought fire pits to do-it-yourself backyard bonfire rings -- and nothing transforms a simple patio into a home outside the house quite like the crackling embers of a cozy fire.

"There is something primal about watching a fire and seeing the flames twisting upward and the smoke wafting here and there," said landscape contractor Roger Cook of PBS' perennially popular "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House."

"The sensory pleasures that you derive from the landscape around your house all come from the most fundamental natural elements -- earth, air, water and fire," said landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, author of "Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love" ($30, Taunton Press). "To many of us there's nothing more magical than being outside in a warm place looking up at a cold night sky."

Ready-made fire pits are all the rage, from copper cauldrons to cast iron pits that transform into posh patio tables. But when it comes to creating a cozy atmosphere on a budget, nothing beats a chiminea. Also known as Mexican fireplaces, they resemble giant urns set atop metal stands -- and their unique shape makes them ideal for small patios and porches.

The long neck acts as a chimney, controlling drafts and protecting the fire from sudden gusts of wind, while the curved fire pit deflects and radiates heat with surprising efficiency. Many feature grated doors and spark arrestors that double as rain guards.

With prices starting at around $80, chimineas are something of a bargain -- and, because they use considerably less wood than traditional fire pits, you'll save money on firewood. For the best burn, try pinion or juniper wood. Both have a high heat content and a pleasant pine scent that repels insects naturally.


Looking for something a little larger? Turn the cool evenings into an asset with a quick do-it-yourself fire pit that's high on style and easy on the pocketbook.

"Fire pits can be as simple as a ring of rocks around a slight depression in the ground, or as intricate as cut granite pieces fitting together to make the perfect circle -- plus, it's inexpensive if you want it to be," Cook said.

Cook suggested the following: Start by digging a hole about four feet wide by one foot deep. Fill the depression six inches deep with crushed stone, and line the edge with large rocks.

For added style, use concrete or brick-segmented wall blocks in lieu of the rocks. Available at any home improvement store, the segmented blocks, generally used for landscape edging, elevate an everyday fire pit to a formal landscaping feature.

Look for retaining wall blocks cut to fit curves. The interlocking units require no mortar -- simply stack and you're ready for your first backyard bonfire. Expect to spend about $2 per block.

For added fire safety, surround the retaining wall with loose stone or flat stone that compliments your landscaping.

"If you already have an outdoor patio or kitchen, it is always better if the material of the fire pit ties into the existing scheme," Cook said.

This simple design allows for easy upgrades. Add a spit or rotisserie for an alternative to the traditional grill. Don't forget to add a few essentials like comfortable seating, side tables and an eating area.

"Remember that any fire element is a focal point that draws both the eye and the body to its dancing flames and its warmth," Messervy said. "By combining a fireplace with an outdoor kitchen or grill and a durable living and dining room set, you'll create a home outside that meets your every need."

Before building, determine the proper location and brush up on your local fire regulations. A fire feature should be far enough away from the house to ensure proper safety and avoid smoke drifting in through the windows, yet close enough for guests to grab refreshments or make a quick pit stop. There should also be a water source nearby in case of mishaps.

Some municipalities and neighborhood associations have strict rules on what, where and when you can burn, so check with your local fire marshal before stoking the flames in your new fire pit.

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