Expert Advice: Ring of Fire

The simple (and cheap) joys of a fire pit

Longer evenings are upon us, and as twilight creeps westward it brings the chill of autumn. With that nip in the air, crackling flames in a backyard fire pit are a primal comfort.

“Fire pits are better than fireplaces,” says David Gatti, owner of P.O.P.S. Landscaping in Marietta and builder of some 900 fire pits (and countless fireplaces, too) in his twenty years in business. “With a fire pit, you can see the fire all around. It’s a conversation space. People will gather around it.” Whereas a typical outdoor fireplace costs $15,000, a basic, professionally installed fire pit is around $2,500—DIY versions are as cheap as $250 (see Gatti’s do-it-yourself design below). Running a gas line from the house—whether for just a starter or to power gas logs—can cost another $3,600 or more.

Every fire pit is a gathering place, so consider where people will sit. Chairs can be functional—like a built-in bench that doubles as a retaining wall on a hillside—or more decorative, such as ever-popular Adirondack chairs. Ideally, permanent seating should be constructed from rugged, weather-resistant materials like stone or architectural block.

Ninety percent of the fire pits P.O.P.S. builds are stackable stone, with only the capstone mortared for stability. (“Kids like to sit on the edge,” Gatti explains.) He recommends natural rock such as fieldstone or flagstone. Eschew pinks and creams for darker colors, which he says indicate denser rock that weathers elements and repeated heating/cooling better than lighter stone.

A fire on a cold night is a comforting friend, so, as Robert Browning once wrote, “Heap logs, and let the blaze laugh out!”

Photograph courtesy of P.O.P.S. Landscaping

Build Your Own Fire Pit

David Gatti, owner of P.O.P.S. Landscaping in Marietta, details how to build your own backyard fire pit for around $250. The catch? Lots of digging, lots of rocks . . .

Materials: 10 to 12 fieldstone “basket boulders,” each around 20 inches tall; approximately 400 lbs. of “river rounds” (softball-sized river rocks); 2 bags of 56-stone gravel; four pieces of 1-inch steel (at least 12 feet total)

1.    Dig a circular hole 8 inches deep and 5 feet wide. This is where your basket boulders will sit to create the fire pit wall.
2.    Dig a second 8-inch-deep hole within the first. The top should be the interior diameter of the fire pit wall. (If your basket boulders are uniform in size, double the width of one and subtract that length from 5 feet to determine the diameter of this hole.) Angle the walls of this second hole approximately 45 degrees.
3.    Dig a third hole in the middle of the second, at least 16 inches in diameter and 16 inches deep. Make the side perpendicular to the ground.
4.    Fill the bottom hole with gravel. (This acts as a 16” x 16” French drain to prevent rainwater from collecting in your pit.)
5.    Fit the basket boulders together on the ledge created by the first hole. The outer edge of these rocks should extend about 12 inches above the ground.
6.    Fill the secondary hole with river rounds by stacking the stones in a bowl shape. The edge of this “bowl” should come up to 6 inches below the tops of the basket boulders.
7.    Cut steel into lengths approximately the diameter of the fire pit. Lay two pieces on top of the river rounds parallel to each other and about one-third of the diameter apart; lay the remaining two pieces of steel in the same manner but perpendicular to the first two.
8.    Stack some dry wood on the steel bars. Put a match to the wood. You’ve got yourself a fire pit.

Fire pit design and sketch by David Gatti