Outdoor fires are so hot right now. These days people are going ultra-retro and getting their heat from stone-walled pits set into the earth. And, why not? On cool summer nights, you can melt marshmallows while you lounge in a chair, feet propped up on the rock ledge. Or just chill with a group of friends or your family with a glass of red wine, or your favorite beverage. So if you really want to light up right, do it in style. Take a few days to build your very own ring of fire.
A built-in fire pit is a glorified campfire, with sturdy walls of stone that help contain the flames and heat. That's especially important in the parts of the country where there's a risk of bush fires. So the first task in building any fire pit is checking local codes on open flames. The pit must be located far from overhanging trees, the house, and any other flammable structure.
To make building stone walls easier, you can use blocks made from cast concrete and molded to look like real stone (available at any home center). They're flat on the top and bottom so they stack neatly, and some interlock for added strength. Glue them together with masonry adhesive. Choose a block with angled sides, meant to form curves when butted against each other. The optimal size for a fire pit is between 2 and 3 meter inside diameter. That will create enough room for a healthy fire but still keep gatherers close enough to chat.
As an added precaution, the fire pit should be lined with a thick steel ring like the ones used for park campfires. These protect the concrete in the blocks from the heat, which can cause them to dry out and break down prematurely.
A fire pit should sit low to the ground, with walls rising no more than a foot off the ground. But for stability, the base of the wall must be buried below ground in a hole lined with gravel, providing drainage and protecting against frost heaves in winter. the gravel also creates a level base for the stones to rest on. Most concrete blocks are about 130mm high, so if the first course and a half sit underground, and there are two and a half courses above ground with a cap on top, you'll end up with a foot-high wall—just right for resting your feet on while sitting in an outdoor chair.
Step 1: Lay Out the Blocks
Dry-lay a ring of blocks on the fire pit site, placing them end to end until you have a perfect circle positioned where you want the finished pit to be. To adjust the size of the circle, you may need to cut a block. Hold the block over the gap it will fill, then mark it on the underside at the proper width.
Using a cold chisel and a brick hammer, score the block on the mark, and continue the score all the way around the block. Place the block on a hard surface (flat rocks or gravel). Hold the chisel in the score line, then hit it with the brick hammer until the block splits.
Clean up jagged edges with the tail of the brick hammer. Place the cut block into the ring.
Step 2: Mark the Pit Location
Make sure all the joints between the blocks are tight and the front and back edges line up. Using a spade, mark a circle in the ground about an inch outside the perimeter of the ring.
Take note of how many stones make up the ring, then remove them and set them aside.
If the blocks you are using are interlocking, remove any tongues on the bottom of the first-course blocks so they will lie flat in the trench. Chip them off with the tail of a brick hammer.
Step 3: Create a Level Trench for the Blocks
Using a spade, dig a straight-sided trench, 150mm deep and as wide as one block, within the circle marked out on the ground. Then dig down 80mm in the area encircled by the trench.
Lay the ring of blocks in the trench to see if all the pieces fit in a circle. If not, dig more to widen the trench. Remove blocks.
Step 4: Fill the Trench
Fill the trench with 80 mm of 16 mm drainage gravel. Using a hand tamper, compact the gravel. If necessary, add more gravel to keep the trench level and even.
Always make sure the blocks line up perfectly in the front and back when you lay them out; a difference of 20 mm in the circle's diameter could create a 75 mm gap between blocks.
Step 5: Lay and Level the First Course
Place the first block in the ring. Using a level, check that it sits level both side to side and front to back. Where the block is too high, tap it down with a rubber mallet. Where it's too low, shim it slightly with a handful of patio base. Make sure this first block is perfectly level and positioned correctly in the trench before moving on.
Lay another block next to the first one. Butt the sides together tightly and line up the front and back edges. Using the first block as a reference, level the second block side to side and front to back.
Lay the rest of the blocks in the trench in this manner until the ring is complete and all the blocks you counted earlier are used. Make sure each block is perfectly leveled and lined up tight with its neighbor before moving on to the next one. (You may have to coax the last block into place with a mallet.) Using a larger level, occasionally check level across the ring.
A small hit with a mallet can make a big adjustment; work slowly and carefully, block by block.
Fill the pit with 100 mm of gravel, which will help support the first two courses as they set up. Glue and lay the third and fourth courses, continuing to stagger the joints.
Insert the iron campfire ring into the circle. Adjust it to sit even with the top of the block wall. Fill any space between the ring and the block wall to the top with gravel.
Work quickly and only in a small area at one time; masonry adhesive sets up quickly.
Loosely arrange the cap pieces on top of the pit walls. (If you are using natural stone, try to arrange the pieces together like a puzzle.) Lay one stone edge over the next and mark the upper stone where they meet. Also, roughly mark the stone for a 50 mm overhang on the outside of the circle and 25 mm on the inside. Using a brick hammer and a chisel, score the stone on those marks. On thick natural stone, use a grinder fitted with a diamond blade to score it more deeply.
Lay the stone on a hard surface. Split it by hitting a chisel in the score mark, or by tapping against the stone's edge with the brick hammer until it breaks. Score and split each stone this way, moving around the circle in one direction until you've made a cap that fits together tightly.
If you're using blocks, glue the pieces on top of the wall. If you're using natural stone, combine the dry mortar with enough bonding additive—not water—to make a mix with a peanut-butter consistency.
Wet the wall with some bonding agent. Lay a large mound of mortar on two blocks. With the point of the trowel, make a groove across the mortar. Lay the capstone on top, push it down, then tap it with the rubber mallet to set and level it. Continue to lay the capstones in this manner until the wall is finished. Wait two days before lighting a fire.