When I was a child I spent many evenings with my family and friends gathered around a roaring campfire on my parents’ farm in Maine. We would stay up late toasting marshmallows, laughing, telling stories and listening to music. The warmth, the smell of burning wood and the crackle of the fire created an unforgettable atmosphere that set the mood for the evening. At first, the roaring blaze was energizing and festive. Later, the dim light of embers was soothing. Focused on that small spot of light, we would enjoy a brief reprieve from our busy lives.
You don’t have to live on a farm or take the family camping to enjoy the campfire atmosphere. The growing popularity of portable metal campfires and chimney-style fireplaces makes it easy to build controlled open fires right in your backyard. But for a true campfire experience — one that will improve your property day or night — consider integrating a stone or brick fire ring into your landscape.
Indoor gas fireplaces and modern gas grills still have their place. But they don’t hold a candle to the fun that real campfires can spark. To prove it, we teamed up with the editors of our sister publication, Gardening How-To, to design and build a fire ring at Managing Editor Larry Okrend’s house. It took two days and about $650 in materials to complete.
The first step when considering a stationary fire ring project is selecting a site. The fire ring we had on the farm was way out in the woods along a river. It was far enough away that a trip there usually was an organized event with a group of people. The fire ring we built at Larry’s is more of an extension of the deck and patio. While it has a nice view of a small pond, it also improves the view from the house. My aunt and uncle took a middle-ground approach with their fire ring. They built it at the far end of their lawn, near the garden. This produces a nice destination point that draws your eye across the expanse of grass. It is far enough away to feel secluded but close enough to be convenient.
Before you design a fire ring, check codes and zoning regulations at your local government building department. In Larry’s city, permanent outdoor fireplaces must be at least 25 ft. away from any structure. The area also should be free from overhanging branches.
To reduce the odds that smoke will become a nuisance for you or your neighbors, consider the direction of the prevailing wind when picking a spot for a fire ring. Wind direction and view are just as important when creating stationary seating.
Because the wind in Larry’s backyard tends to swirl as it comes around the house, we included some portable seating in addition to the stationary stone benches. The wooden Adirondack chairs can be positioned closer to the fire on cool evenings or upwind, when needed, to dodge smoke.
Some people prefer to build a fire ring area into a bank, using a steep boulder wall to reflect the heat from the flames or to shelter people’s backs from the wind.
Site choice also affects how you extinguish the fire at the end of the evening or in an emergency. If your garden hose won’t reach the site, consider running a plastic water supply line underground. While you’re at it, think about installing underground power lines as well.
If it isn’t practical to extend the water supply to the site, be sure to provide buckets filled with water or sand before lighting a fire. It’s very dangerous to let embers burn after you leave the area.
Like most hardscaping projects, fire rings provide a great deal of design flexibility. In Larry’s city, the only requirements are that the inside diameter of the ring can be no larger than 3 ft. and that the ring must be made from noncombustible material.
The fire ring at my parents’ farm could not be seen from the house, so it did not need to be landscaped into an established lawn. It was very simply a ring of dry-laid stones like you might build when camping. Former Gardening How-To Editor Kelly O’Hara designed Larry’s fire ring to be a prominent feature in his backyard landscape, making aesthetics a higher priority. Any fire is attractive at dusk. But if it is a focal point of your yard, the fire ring also should look nice during the day when it is not in use.
Fire rings can be rustic or formal. They can incorporate flowerbeds, rock gardens or patios.
They can be built with stone or brick or even steel. Design the ring with a level top so it can support a tabletop or a grate for grilling.
Whatever look you select for the fire ring, be sure to provide a large, level area for seating. Even if you incorporate some stationary benches, as we did at Larry’s, you probably will want to add portable seating on occasion. The flat terrain will make the area both comfortable and safe when you do.
Larry’s yard sloped gently toward a pond, so we excavated a little to level the seating area. While we wanted to define this 15-ft.-dia. circle, we didn’t want to make it look like a helipad by paving the entire area. Fortunately, Kelly had the perfect design solution. She suggested a random arrangement of grade-level stepping stones separated by irregular strips of grass. This created a transition between the solid green lawn and the stone-and-mortar fire ring. In fact, we chose the same stone for the ring and the steppers and reused the original sod.
When you consider that fire rings have been around almost as long as fire itself, you get a feel for how low tech a project like this can be. Larry’s fire ring project was created with some muscle and these basic materials: 1-1/2 tons of sand and 2 tons of Chilton flagstone steppers, nine bags of concrete mix and two bags of mortar mix.
Larry decided to pour a 6-in.-thick floating concrete footing for the fire ring, as much to secure the first course of stones as to enable the ring to rise and fall uniformly as the ground froze and thawed. Besides, it was cheaper than burying the expensive stepping stones. In hindsight, it would have been even better to lay a couple of pieces of rebar in the footing, but if the mortar between the stones should crack it’s not a big deal. The mortar is more for leveling and gap filling than for strength. Just be sure to leave the middle of the ring natural or add a layer of gravel so water can drain.
The hardest part of a project like this is hauling the rocks and excavating the site. For moving large amounts of rock or sand, you may want to rent a
power cart. If your soil is dense clay like Larry’s, water the area the day before you start to make digging easier. Dry clay soil can be as hard as rock.
If you use a random stepping stone design, here are a few important pointers from our experience. First, excavate enough so that the tops of the stepping stones will be at grade level with the surrounding lawn when they settle into the sand base. After grass grows between the stones, you will be able to mow it like the rest of your lawn.
Second, place all of the stepping stones on the sand base and adjust them as needed before you level them and fill in with soil and sod. While the desired effect is random, the stone sizes and spacing should be fairly even. My advice is to place the made or build it yourself, there is stones, step back and evaluate the nothing like gathering around the overall look.
Whether you buy a fire pit ready made or build it yourself, there is nothing like gathering around the warmth with its flickering flames and smell of burning wood.
Step 1: Use a string and paint to make a series of concentric circles for the footing and the seating area.
Step 2: A rented sod kicker removes a uniform layer of turf for reuse between the stones.
Step 3: Excavate the site so it is level and 1 in. deeper than the thickness of the stepping stones.
Step 4: Excavate the site so it is level and 1 in. deeper than the thickness of the stepping stones.
Step 5: It took nine bags of concrete mix for the 6-in.-thick x 8-in. wide x 3-ft.-dia. footing.
Step 6: A thin layer of sand makes it easier to settle and level the stepping stones.
Step 7: Assemble the ring with stepping stones and mortar. The top should be level and even, to support a grate or tabletop.
Step 8: Spread a thin layer of rich soil over the sand to help the sod take root.
Step 9: Cut the original sod to fit between the stones and press it firmly to eliminate air pockets. Then water daily for the first week.