This weekend I finally decided to work on a project I’ve had in mind for many years: a backyard fire pit. For the past couple years we’ve had one of those smallish metal bowls with a flimsy screen on top, and we used it enough that an investment in something that looked better and was more permanent seemed reasonable. The location where we placed it turned out to be a good choice, and the grass was already dead there, so that’s where the new one went as well.
The first problem was finding a set of plans that matched my skill set (limited), looked nice and was relatively inexpensive. I’ve been passively collecting ideas for a while and nothing sparked my interest until I came across these blueprints from This Old House. For the most part I followed the directions, but I’ll point out where I didn’t.
Here’s a list of the materials I ended up purchasing. Interesting that the price TOH listed was ~$500; I spent ~$100 for everything.
- 36” steel fire ring
- 42 Crestone concrete retaining wall blocks (I used retaining wall blocks instead of solid wall blocks because that’s what I found at Menards, and they were cheaper.)
- A few bags of gravel
- A few bags of paver leveling sand
- Landscaping adhesive
- Stove paint
- Rubber mallet
Other tools I used, but already owned:
- Spade shovel
- Regular shovel
- Hammer (I used claw end instead of buying a brick hammer)
Once that was all purchased and unloaded (whew!) the real work began.
Here are the basic steps I took:
- Determine placement, lay down fire ring, and use the spade to cut the grass around it to mark where you’ll dig the hole.
- Remove fire ring and dig down 6 inches or so.
- Plop fire ring in the hole and make sure it fits and there are no obvious sticking points. I used a large level to make sure the ring was roughly level.
- I then filled the hole with a few inches of gravel. (I didn’t put in 6 inches like TOH instructed.)
- Paint the inside of the fire ring with stove paint. (I don’t remember why I did this, but I read it somewhere.)
- I just planned to lay the blocks on the grass, which is what did initially.
At this point I could have called it good, but I ended up making some adjustments the next day, and I’m glad I did. The blocks were loose, so it wouldn’t really be possible to put your feet up etc. Also, all of the blocks tended to slope slightly away from the fire ring, which was annoying. To fix all this I needed to level the base for the blocks and apply landscape/masonry adhesive between the layers to make it solid.
Here were the steps for stage two:
- With blocks in place, outline the perimeter with your spade, just like we did with the fire ring.
- Remove blocks, then dig down 3 inches or so to create a base for the blocks.
- Tamp down dirt. (I didn’t have a tamper, but used an extra block to pound.)
- Layer 1” of paver sand on base.
- Lay first course of blocks and use level on each to make sure they aren’t sloping away from fire ring. (I didn’t worry about the entire installation being level since my yard has a slight incline. Does that make sense?)
- Add the second and third layer of blocks using the landscape adhesive.
That’s about it. TOH rates the difficulty of this project as “Hard”, but I don’t think that is entirely true.
Not everything went right. When laying the blocks during stage two I forgot to remove the lip from the bottom of the blocks. I only discovered that when I was about to lay the third and final course.For the first layer that doesn’t matter so much because you have sand to help make sure it is level. On the second layer, however, that lip is resting on top of the solid block below, which causes the slight slope away from the ring I was trying to correct. I removed the lip from the third layer with the claw part of my hammer, but still had to shim each block with a couple thin pieces of gravel plucked from the pit. In the end, the top layer was level, which is what I really cared about. ;)
In the future I might add the flagstone caps, but for now I’m fine with it as-is.
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