How to Build (and Use) a Wood Burning Fire Pit
So, you've made up your mind to install a fire pit at your home. Not only that, but you've done your research. You've educated yourself with our handy dandy article that explains components. However, now you've gotten to the big choice. What kind of installation are you going for? Well, if you're here, it would seem that you're leaning toward a wood burning one. If so, you have some more choices to ponder on.
Obviously, if you're burning wood, you're not usually going to have an ignition system. So you've inadvertently made that choice already. Your choices are going to be in regards to enclosure options, safety, and durability.
Before Getting Started
The first thing you have to acknowledge is that wood burning fire pits produce smoke. Shocking, we know. The importance of this obvious piece of information stems from the smoke's pollutants. Burning freshly cut or green wood is something we recommend you avoid because of this. Although, you must also be sure that you can even burn wood in the first place.
Some areas will allow the use of a wood burning fire pit only during certain times of the day or even times of the year. Others will not permit the use of a wood burning fire pit at all. We recommend checking with the local code office and any homeowners association.
Well, now you have figured out whether you can make or use a wood burning fire pit. The next step is thinking about whether you should. Again, you're going to be generating smoke, especially on startup, so it is courteous to consider neighbors and the like. For lots with homes bordering many houses, we recommend discussing the fire pit with them. While you are not required to, your neighbors will definitely appreciate the consideration.
Of course, if you have a larger property (3/4 acre or greater), you likely won't even need to worry about the neighbors. But, taking these steps can go a long way toward avoiding any potential issues that may arise in the future.
Wood Burning Fire Pit Types
Choosing a fire pit is exactly like selecting any other kind of product: there are pros and cons of each type. For example, cost, durability, surroundings, and even warranties are all factors to consider. Here we will elaborate on each type in the hopes that you will find what's best for you.
The most basic option for wood burning is a fire ring. Examples are this P and D Metal Works Fire Ring and this Buck Stove Fire Ring. If you are looking for a low-cost, recreational or backyard fire pit option, a fire ring is ideal.
Items like the Fighting Elk Fire Ring are portable and great for camping, beach fires, and the like. They can be quickly broken down and moved as needed. These fire rings surround an in-ground fire pit and keep the logs contained. They prevent errant sparks and such from escaping as well.
As for the Ohio Flame Steel Fire Ring, you can consider it a step up. Instead of surrounding an in-ground fire pit, this ring is a sort of "sleeve". It's designed to be a template for stacking landscape blocks, brick, or stone around. The steel barrier prevents fracturing resulting from direct flame exposure to these materials.
You don't need any mortar or adhesive for fire rings. The weight of the materials alone will hold the item together. These products are affordable and yet their heavy steel construction is robust enough for many years of service. If you are wanting to enjoy a wood burning fire pit on a budget, a fire ring is the way to go.
Another low-cost option is a free-standing model, like this Fire Sense Palermo Fire Pit. At first glance, it appears similar to the low-cost models carried in big box stores. Indeed, their design is similar. With higher-end models, though, a copper bowl replaces the typical stamped steel bowl. The advantage of copper bowls is their resistance to heat exposure and corrosion. Traditional stamped steel bowls will last approximately 2 years, while copper bowls can easily last double that time.
A free-standing model is another fire pit that can move from location to location. It even eliminates the need to dig an in-ground fire pit or use any extra blocks or stone, since it includes a stand.
A step up from the previously mentioned types are plate steel fire pits, an example of this model is this Ohio Flame Fire Pit. These models are costly, but they often have long warranties and provide decades of use. Many models are free-standing by nature, simplifying their use. Though, enclosing the fire pit in a surround or veneer of your choice is simple.
Plate steel fire pits are also available in a broader range of sizes and shapes. Traditional bowl styles can exceed four feet in diameter, making them an ideal centerpiece for your outdoor gathering area. Some models are even manufactured into a decorative globe, which contains the fire and makes for a very unique look. Plate steel models are typically constructed of 1/8 inch to 3/16 inch material and are left unpainted. With time, the surface will naturally develop a layer of oxidation that protects the steel and adds a rustic charm to the bowl.
As an added bonus, most plate steel models allow conversion to an outdoor burner assembly. Although, you should verify that the burner allows installation into a steel fire pit. It is also possible to add a stainless steel log lighter for easier ignition of the wood logs. If you are looking for an even more durable fire pit - one that will last for a decade or more - this is the better option.
A final option available is a cast iron fire pit. These models are rare, but are, by far, the most durable models of wood burning fire pits on the market. An example is this Goldens Cast Iron Fire Pit. Cast iron is very dense and heavy, thus providing a fire pit that resists decay and can last for generations. Indeed, these fire pits are heirloom quality and can serve as the centerpiece of any backyard.
Like their plate steel cousins, these cast iron fire pits can also be converted to use gas burners and log lighters. Their large diameter and beautiful design makes them perfect as a centerpiece for outdoor rooms and yards.
Like the plate steel models, cast iron fire pits tend to use a stand. Additionally, the broad rim allows for an assembly in stone, block, or brick enclosures. A popular option is to construct a permanent brick or stone support ring, then lift the cast iron bowl into place, with the rim of the bowl supported by the brick or stone circular wall.
As for why cast iron is superior, the manufacturing differences are the answer. The plate steel models are very smooth and do not feature any dramatic design details. But, cast iron has a unique wrinkled texture and often has decorative elements on the metal. Lastly, cast iron models are generally more durable.
Positioning the Fire Pit
Having chosen the perfect fire pit for your home, it's time to move on to location, location, location. Aesthetic appeal is all well and good, but safety is definitely a top priority.
First off, never place the fire pit under a combustible structure of any kind. Even if the fire pit uses a mesh screen, sparks can slip through and make contact with the surroundings. You will also need to periodically remove a screen when fire building and refueling. This process allows more chances for sparks to escape and ignite a wood arbor or mesh fabric patio cover.
You should also pay attention to the manufacturer's instructions about wooden structures. While it may sound nice to use a fire pit with a stand on a deck or porch, most manufacturers will advise against this. Some will make an exception if the deck has a covering, but it is important to understand the limitations.
Furthermore, you should always maintain distance from homes, sheds, and other structures. However, you should also stay away from overhanging trees or large shrubs. Fire pits can release a large number of sparks or embers as the wood shifts and burns. These byproducts need open space to dissipate in the air. Ideally, at least ten feet of space should be maintained from structures and overhanging branches. This space will cut the risk of landing on combustible structures or foliage.
Additionally, you should place the fire pit at a high point on your property. This is especially important for in-ground fire pits that are using a fire ring. Doing so will ensure an in-ground pit does not fill with excess water. This will also help keep the seating area dry. If there is not an ideal high point, consider building the area up with topsoil before setting the fire pit. For a more permanent feature, you can also pour a concrete pad or gravel base.
Lastly, it is necessary to have a utility location service to visit the property. This is to determine the location of any buried cable, phone, power, or gas lines. Doing so is necessary to prevent constructing your fire pit over utility infrastructure or hitting these lines while build your in ground fire pit.
Constructing the Fire Pit
This type of fire pit is absolutely one of the lowest-cost options to create. Though, you can incorporate some details to prevent erosion or stagnant water. Once you have your fire ring, use a spade shovel to create a circular perimeter just inside the ring.
Without Lining — If you don't plan on lining the fire pit, we recommend digging a 30 to 45-degree bowl by angling the shovel. The purpose of this angle is to prevent soil erosion when the fire pit is not in use. If you plan to line the fire pit, dig at a 90-degree angle, or completely perpendicular to ground level. After creating the perimeter line, begin removing the soil within the perimeter. Using a narrow spade shovel to establish the outer perimeter and then a broad spade to remove the soil will work best.
Installing a Drainage Hole — An unlined fire pit will be shallow, with a depth that approaches no more than 16 inches for most versions. There is only a bit more to do once you have created the hole. If you have an uncovered fire pit, we recommend you dig a small, 3 to 4-inch diameter hole in the center of the fire pit. You will want this hole to be at least 12 inches deep, with 3 feet deep being ideal.
The purpose of this hole is to allow any water that does pool into the fire pit to drain into the soil. Fill the hole with medium-sized limestone gravel. The natural lime content in this stone helps to neutralize unpleasant odors and prevents a standing water surface, which would otherwise encourage mosquitoes to breed. Cover the hole with a piece of galvanized or stainless 1/4 inch expanded metal. This kind of heavy mesh is usually available from home improvement stores. The fine sizing will protect from embers falling into the hole while still allowing water to escape.
Holes for More Oxygen Intake — We also recommend digging 3 to 4 fist-sized, equidistant holes beneath the perimeter. The purpose of these is to help supply more oxygen to the fire as it is burning, allowing a cleaner and hotter flame. Most fire rings have decorative designs cut into them, allowing a lot of oxygen to fuel the fire. Although, the lower the opening to supply oxygen, the better.
For a lined version, you can go as deep as you like, but the necessary depth will depend on how you feed oxygen to the fire pit. We recommend digging no more than 24 inches deep. Any deeper causes the fire pit to hold heat, making your fire pit consume excess wood. Additionally, this will make it more difficult to clean out the fire pit.
If the fire pit is dug between 12 and 24 inches deep, we recommend providing more oxygen to the base of the fire pit. To do so, you should cut 3 to 4 trenches at equal distances around the pit. Each trench should be a steady angle from the soil outside the fire pit perimeter down to the base of the interior. You can then install steel piping in each trench, funneling air into the base of the fire pit. No matter what material you use to do this, we recommend having an area of at least a 4-inch circle (or 12.56 inches total area) for the combined air inlets.
Lining Your Fire Pit — As for the lining process, fire pits can have walls formed out of fire brick, refractory cement, or steel. It is important not to use standard brick, landscape stone, or any other natural stone product. High temperatures can cause these materials to heat up and explosively fracture. The resulting shards of material can injure anyone around the fire pit. Also, be sure to leave appropriately-sized gaps in the perimeter's lining. These will allow air to enter from the oxygen supply pipes.
Before stacking the liner material, ensure the base of the fire pit is firmly packed. If possible, we recommend coating the base with a layer of refractory cement. Also, you can use refractory mortar with your material for more permanent installations.
Once the liner is level with the soil, backfill any space between the liner and the edges of the hole. Then, we recommend placing a thin layer of dirt on top of the bricks. This will stabilize them and prevent water intrusion.
Above Ground With Stand
Free-standing or above ground wood burning fire pits are easy to install. Whether it be a light gauge steel, plate steel, or cast iron fire pit, many models come with their own stand. Except, they are more costly than in-ground setups.
The only necessity for these fire pits is that you cannot place them over a combustible surface. Some do, however, allow a protected combustible surface to serve as the base. If you can use a noncombustible to cover a surface, you only have a couple more things to consider. First, you must think about keeping an adequate distance from your home. Second, you must ensure that the structure can handle the extra load of heavier models, such as cast iron.
Once you've met these considerations, simply set up the stand and enjoy the fire pit. Know that any uncoated fire pits will generate a green or brown film naturally over time. Additionally, after some time, some staining can occur to the surface beneath.
If you cannot place your fire pit over a combustible surface, there are some other options you can pursue. You can cover an area with limestone or tumbled pea gravel, poured concrete, or compacted soil. No matter the choice, it is important to slope the area away from the fire pit to prevent water from settling in the area. A slope of 1/4" per foot is adequate.
Above Ground Without Stand
If you decide to enclose a stand-less fire pit or surround a stand with an enclosure, there are options. As with free-standing models, you must verify whether you can do so over combustibles.
Unlike gas fire pits, almost all wood burning models use oxygen pulled over the rim of the fire pit. Thus, an enclosure must have ventilation only if the manufacturer recommends it. You can leave regular gaps in the enclosure material to allow oxygen to enter. Or, there are many fire pit vents that you can buy and build into the enclosure walls.
Enclosure on a Raised Deck, Porch, or Other Structure
If the manufacturer allows use on combustibles, you must first consider fireproofing measures. Some manufacturers require you to lay down a pad of pavers or bricks over the wood surface. Others will require only an ember shield, which could be a sheet of painted steel or fiberglass matte.
After thinking about fireproofing, you should calculate the total weight of your materials. This will allow you to determine if the raised structure needs more support to bear the weight. There are sites that offer span calculators, such as this one from American Wood Council. These allow you to determine the allowable span based on the total weight.
These calculators will assist an experienced builder. But we recommend anyone that is a beginner to contact a qualified contractor. They will come out and check any structure you may be unsure about.
Enclosure on Earthen Pad, Gravel, or Cement
Should you place the fire pit on solid ground, there is little to do in the way of preparation. If the enclosure is over bare earth or gravel, ensure that it is a sloped area so that the fire pit is at the highest point. Use a tamper to ensure that the soil/gravel is sufficiently compacted. This will prevent settling or tilting once the full weight of the enclosure is in place.
Options for Enclosure Material
Cinder Block — Blocks with texturized facings and various colors are available. They are very low cost and provide an effective solution for fire pit enclosures. You can stack them dry or mortared together for a more permanent enclosure.
Cut Stone or Stacked Stone — Natural stone creates a beautiful enclosure that makes a statement in the yard. Natural rock such as Arkansas fieldstone or slate is low-cost. Although, we recommend mortar to prevent shifting or collapse from the inconsistent shapes. Cut stone is more costly, but the flat surfaces allow you to stack it like blocks. This cuts down on the expense of mortar or skilled labor for assembly.
Brick — This material is a timeless choice and can be a very cost-effective solution. Most brickyards will have overages from home sites or canceled orders. This leaves them with brick they can sell at a discounted price. Like stone yards, brick vendors will often allow you to browse to find exactly what you need. You can stack these bricks dry or mortared together.
Pavers or Landscape Stones — These concrete-based stones are available in a variety of shapes, colors, and thicknesses. You can usually order them in bulk from home improvement stores or nurseries. They are inexpensive for most shapes and colors. You can use some versions with stabilizer pins that help hold them in place without the need for mortar. Although, they can also be dry stacked.
Building an Enclosure
With the weight-bearing surface prepared, it's time to actually build the enclosure. For fire pits that have a stand and are self-sustaining, place the fire pit in its final location first. Most self-supporting fire pits will have their widest point at the opening. This will serve as the inner diameter of your fire pit enclosure. First things first, you need to prepare the placement of your enclosure. To do so, you need to draw a circle on the ground the size of the enclosure's diameter. You should invert the fire pit and place it on the ground, centering it exactly where you want it.
For soft ground, use a steel-shank tool such as a screwdriver to draw the perimeter. If you are building on a solid surface, a construction marker will serve the same purpose. Having drawn the perimeter line, place the fire pit in your markings and use a level or plumb bob to center it.
For fire pits that need an enclosure to support them, the process is very similar. You still must invert the fire pit to mark the perimeter. Though, instead of the enclosure skirting the very edge of the fire pit, you must make it slightly smaller. This allows the supporting lip of the wood burning fire pit to rest on the edges of the enclosure. Measure the depth of the fire pit lip and then shrink your enclosure the appropriate amount.
Begin constructing the enclosure, making sure the shape matches your perimeter markings. The manufacturer may call for gaps in the enclosure for combustion or cooling air. If so, be sure to meet the minimum opening requirements. You can make screened openings in the enclosure, or you can use a manufactured product.
You should make the enclosure no more than 4 inches taller than the perimeter edge of your fire pit. This ensures that oxygen is able to make its way over the edge of the enclosure and into the fire pit. Too tall of an enclosure will dam the oxygen flow, causing the fire to suffer.
Using A Wood Burning Fire Pit Effectively
Now that the logistics are out of the way, it's time to get down to the brass tacks. But, is using a wood burning fire pit as simple as it seems? Isn't it just about adding some wood and letting it burn? Not exactly. While the idea of using a wood burning fire is simple, there are ways to maximize the experience. You can even reduce the output of smoke.
First, you have to consider the quality of the wood. As mentioned before, you should avoid freshly cut or wet logs. Although, a fire burning only softwood is also undesirable. Throw rotten wood onto that list of things to avoid as well.
Indeed, burning wet, green, or rotten wood will create a noxious mixture of steam and smoke. Of course, this will lead to an unpleasant experience. By using only dry logs of medium or high-density species, the fire will burn hotter, longer, and cleaner.
Before you set up your logs, it's a pretty good idea to set up some kindling. That's right, it's time to get to the fun part - lighting stuff on fire!
First off, don't use gasoline,diesel fuel, or used motor oil to light fires. That's a recipe for disaster because flash combustion is more likely to occur in the bowl of a fire pit. If you have good wood, pine heartwood or clean construction cuttings is all the kindling you need. Use those with newspaper or even everyday copy paper and you'll be good to go.
Lighting a Healthy Fire — Wad the paper and put it at the base of your fire pit, fitting it in the middle of where you're going to stack your logs. If you're struggling to get the fire going, a small amount of kerosene or lighter fluid is ideal. You should apply these fuels to the grain of the kindling itself and allow it to soak in before lighting. These fuels burn in a clean and controlled fashion, unlike other petroleum-based fuels.
Now it's time to think about how to arrange the wood in your fire pit. Getting into this degree of specificity may seem needless. However, ideal patterns will pull oxygen from the sides. This results in a tall flame that radiates lots of heat while minimizing the output of soot and smoke.
The patterns you should strive for are the classic teepee style or a cross-stacked setup. The teepee style is leaning the logs into a central peak, and the cross-stacked style is making a log cabin. Either of these styles will give the desired effect, allowing the fire pit to have a clean burn. And, again, be sure to place your kindling in the middle of these formations to allow the logs easy ignition.
Additionally, it is ideal to wait until the kindling surface chars and has begun to ash at the corners or edges. This is a good indicator that the kindling is hot enough to prevent smothering when you add the fuel logs.
Relax to the Crackling Sounds of Tinder in Your Fire Pit
You're ready to make a well-educated decision on your future wood burning fire pit. Not only do you know the basic types, but you also know what kind of safety concerns you should have. You even know how to properly construct the fire pit of your dreams. So, go out into the world with the confidence that you have earned!