As soon as the dog days of summer are over, s’mores season commences. In addition to being a wonderful place to warm up, backyard fire features can add value to your home. Storebought fire pits only seem to last a season or two, but there are several fire pit designs that you can create yourself. From wood-burning to gas; round to square; in-ground or above, we’ve rounded up some simple, affordable DIY fire pit ideas for your backyard. But first, let’s go over some considerations, including types of fire pits, placement, materials, dimensions, liners and filler, and ventilation and drainage.
Check local ordinances regarding how far fire pits must be from buildings and utility lines. At least a couple of days before breaking ground on your DIY project, call 811 to avoid accidentally hitting an underground utility line. Drier states may not be allowed to have fire pits as far as homeowner’s insurance is concerned—contact your agent just to be sure.
Gas vs. Wood-Burning
The first decision you must make concerns the fuel source: wood or gas? Wood-burning fire pits produce more heat, but also more smoke than their gas counterparts. You can grill dinner over wood or charcoal in a wood fire pit, but you really can’t do much more than roast a marshmallow over gas because the grease or drippings can clog the mechanisms.
While wood takes a while to warm up and is difficult to catch fire in inclement weather, gas is always easy to ignite and heats quickly. Of course, gas does have to be connected to a tank or line. Wood produces more heat than gas, but also more smoke, not to mention ashes. Wood goes with a more natural esthetic, while gas may appear more modern. Wood will have you smelling like a campfire, but you don’t have to wash your hair after sitting around a gas flame.
Above-Ground or Below-Ground?
Due to the simplicity of their construction, most of the DIY designs below are basic below-ground fire pits.
Fire Pit Placement
Placement is important when considering a permanent fixture in your backyard landscaping, especially a flammable one. Pick a relatively flat spot, at least 10 feet away from trees, branches, bushes, fences, or other structures on your property. Another thing to consider is the flow of traffic—you don’t want friends and family tripping over your fire pit! Pick a position downwind of your home so you don’t smoke out the interior.
Size and Dimensions
It’s all about proportions. If you have a large backyard, your fire pit should also be large. Smaller backyards call for a smaller fire pit. If it’s just going to be you sipping wine by the fire, then a solo-sized pit will work, but if you’re planning on throwing a barn-burner, the bigger the better.
Large fire pits can be up to six feet wide, while small ones are usually around three feet wide. This is measured from the outside of the ring, so the interior is actually smaller. Stay out of harm’s way by providing at least three feet of space between outdoor furniture and the fire.
Measure out the circumference by driving a atake into the middle of the chosen area. However large you want the fireplace to be, tie half as much twine to the stake then walk around in a circle to create the perimeter using marking paint. For in-ground fire pits, dig down six to 12 inches.
DIY fire pit designs incorporate low-cost materials such as brick, pavers, concrete, and retaining wall blocks.
In addition to providing structure, liners can extend the life of wood-burning fire pits. Designed to withstand high temperatures, stainless steel and fire bricks are the most common fire pit liners. For a three-foot pit, Lawsons suggests using around 25 fire bricks and mortaring them with pre-mixed refractory cement.
Wood-Burning Fire Pit Filler
Leave the stone or concrete base as is, or add a filler for drainage and aesthetic purposes. Porous materials like sandstone, limestone, pumice, gravel, river rock, or natural rock tend to hold water, which can expand and crack or explode when exposed to high heat. Instead, use lava rocks.
First, make sure the ground is as level as possible, then place a thin layer of sand, followed by two to six inches of lava rock. Even lava rock can explode if it’s wet when heated, so you may want to cover the pit when it’s not in use.
Gas-Burning Fire Pit Filler
Pea gravel is the ideal filler for allowing water to drain from gas-burning fire pits, pots, and tables. Use it to fill in any hollow areas below the burner where gas could potentially leak and pond. What’s ponding? According to EasyFirePits.com, “In fire features that are not well ventilated (like most pits), should there be a hollow ponding area for the gas to accumulate, the byproduct is an eventual “whoosh”, which is also known as a flare-up (3,500 degrees that can instantly cause first degree burns and or quickly melt the end off rubber hoses).” That doesn’t sound fun.
Above the burner, use lovely lava rock or decorative fire glass. Propane burns dirtier than natural gas, so look for darker rocks or glass that won’t show soot as much as lighter colors.
Ventilation & Drainage
Fire requires airflow, so for above-ground, walled pits, be sure to include a two-inch hole every two to three feet around the base. To ensure adequate airflow, keep the holes free of debris and ash. A foot of gravel should provide sufficient drainage for most wood-burning fire pits, especially if it’s covered when not in use.
Brick DIY Fire Pits
SFGate surrounds a metal fire pit bowl with bricks. Start by flipping the bowl upside down and tracing around the rim. Then, level the area, including six to eight inches beyond the circular template you traced. Add a three- to five-inch layer of gravel and level with a rake. Place bricks end-to-end around the circle, staggering and stacking until they’re as high as the rim of the metal bowl.
Family Handyman offers another way to build a fire pit out of brick, but it’s quite complicated and involves rebar, pouring concrete, and mortar.
Concrete DIY Fire Pits
Lowe’s takes the same concept from above but uses concrete blocks to surround the fire pit bowl instead of bricks. The DIY Network ups the ante by pouring a concrete frame to encase the fire pit bowl. Speaking of mixing concrete, ManMade created a cute concrete bowl that uses gel fireplace fuel canisters as fuel. Coming in at under $50, this project is as affordable as it is portable.
Gas-Burning Fire Pit Kits
Make a fire pit out of any fireproof object with gas kits from Easy Fire Pits. A cutie photographer at the Fresno Bee used his kit to make a fire pit out of a flower pot. They also have instructions for how to make a Paver Pit with the 18 or 24-inch kit using 42 pavers, a couple of bags of lava rock, a 3×5′ sheet of cement board siding like Hardie Board, and a few bags pea gravel.
Other Cute DIY Fire Pit Ideas
Even a propane tank can be repurposed to serve as a fire pit (if you have metalworking skills and equipment). For a super satisfying project that you do in an afternoon, try making these little tabletop fire pits with supplies from the Dollar Tree!