A neighbor and his wife got into a big fight about their outdoor deck and fire pit. I couldn’t help but overhear. The husband thought he was building the deck a good size with the fire pit in the center of the deck. The wife told him it was all wrong. Long story short, the wife was right and now he’s tearing it all apart. Can you share some tips about building an outdoor fire pit? What are the top things to consider, especially if it’s going to be part of a wood deck? — Ron S., Seymour, Ind.
I hate to say this, but I’ve been your neighbor — minus the scream fest.
Here’s a true story. Years ago, when I built a dream house for my wife, I insisted that my office be on the first floor so subcontractors could come into the house and just turn left into my office. In our previous home, they had to walk through the house.
The problem was that it made the room on the other side of the wall, our family room with a fireplace, too small. My wife kept saying: “The family room is too small. Hardly any furniture will fit.” When I insisted on building it my way, she said, “Well, I can guarantee you one day you’ll be remodeling the two rooms and moving the fireplace to the outside wall.”
Those words replayed in my head when I was up on my roof taking the first swing of a 4-pound hammer to tear down a 35-foot-tall chimney that had to be moved just seven feet to the side.
Gentlemen, listen to your wives!
It just so happens fire pits are a minor hobby of mine. I’ve built several and sat around many. Here are a few key fire pit ideas to consider.
First and foremost, think about any view beyond the fire pit. It’s not always going to be pitch dark when a fire is roaring, so make the view beyond something nice if possible. Believe it or not, when I sit at my own fire pit my back is turned to the third largest lake in New Hampshire. The idiot who built my fire pit (not me!) has you looking away from the lake.
Second, it’s very important to consider prevailing winds. Some back yards have a particular direction the wind typically blows. (Note: The wind may not blow that direction all the time.) You don’t want the seating area around the fire pit to be downwind of the fire or everyone will be rubbing their eyes or dodging flying embers.
Third, think about how hot fires get. If you have a roaring fire, you often can’t be any closer than 4 or 5 feet to the edge of the fire or you will roast. This means that the seating area needs to be at least 10 feet deep from the edge of the fire pit so there’s enough room in front of any chairs and room to walk behind the chairs.
I’ll bet if you talk with your local fire captain she or he will tell you a story about a deck that caught on fire from an ember or leaves under a deck that ignited. It’s very bad when these fires erupt after everyone has left the deck and the fire is in the smoldering stage.
I would create a masonry hearth around the fire pit that’s at least 18 inches deep. You want no wood or decking within 18 inches of the edge of the fire pit. Your local code may call for a greater distance, so refer to it for guidance.
Think about leaf debris and anything else that’s combustible that could accumulate near or around the fire pit. Keep an 8-foot ring of safety, possibly more. If you can afford it and are willing to do the work, I’d run a seasonal water line, even if it’s just a great garden hose in an underground large conduit pipe, so you have running water right next to the fire pit in case something goes wrong. How nice would it be to just turn a valve and have a charged garden hose right there to put out an out-of-control fire?
The diameter of the fire pit should be no less than 3 feet, and 5 feet is more than enough. Ring it with stone or other fireproof material. The height of the stone should be about 1 foot above the ground level where you stack the wood that will make the fire.
Plan a spot for firewood storage so that it doesn’t take up valuable deck space where a chair might be. You want the firewood close enough so it’s not a hassle to retrieve, but not so close that it could catch fire from a rogue ember.
As crazy as this sounds, it’s always best to build a test fire where you think you’ll have the fire pit. Make the fire as large as you normally might have it. See how close you can comfortably sit. Use string to outline how much space you want behind the chairs. This simple test will ensure you build the best fire pit and the perfect deck or patio that will surround it.
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