Enjoy the great outdoors in the comfort of your own backyard by rustling up this weekend project for a DIY fire pit with optional grill. A backyard fire pit can be your family’s favorite spot for conversation, relaxation and cooking — and you don’t have to limit the menu to marshmallows and hot dogs, because the pivoting, adjustable grate will make your outdoor cooking options endless. Or, if you’d prefer to create an evening gathering spot, you can build only the fire ring without the cooking grate.
DIY Fire Pit
1. Go shopping. Follow the Meat Smoker Materials List. Buy a metal fire-ring insert at a home center, farm supply store or garden center, or create your own by cutting down a culvert or a 55-gallon drum. Select trapezoid-shaped retaining-wall blocks for the surround. To make certain they’ll create a tight circle around your fire-ring insert, check the manufacturer’s literature or lay out some blocks in the store. If you’re building the metal cooking grate assembly, note that fittings and pipe sections with pre-threaded ends are available in a range of sizes. Use the “black iron” variety, because galvanized pipe can emit harmful fumes when heated.
2. Lay out the site. First, determine the overall dimensions of the fire pit by adding the diameter of the fire-ring insert and the width of the retaining-wall blocks. Pound a stake into the ground to indicate the center of the ring. Hook one end of a tape measure on a nail driven into the stake, and use it as a gigantic compass to scratch two circles into the ground: one to inscribe the circumference of the metal fire-ring insert, and the other to inscribe the outside circumference of the blocks. You can also mark the perimeters with stakes. The area between the circles is where you’ll need to excavate in Step 3. If you prefer, you can dig out a much larger area to create a firebreak between your fire pit blocks and surrounding vegetation, and to give you space to create an easy-to-level gravel surface on which to set benches and chairs.
3. Excavate the area between the circles to a depth of 6 inches. Add 4 inches of gravel. Even out the gravel using a level taped to a long, straight 2-by-4. If you don’t intend to build a cooking grate, skip ahead to Step 7.
4. Dig a hole. Use a posthole digger to dig a 6- to 8-inch-diameter hole that’s 18 to 24 inches deep for the iron pipe sleeve that will support the cooking grate assembly. The ideal position for the pipe sleeve is just kissing the inner surface of the metal fire-ring insert. Insert the pipe sleeve so it’s level with the top of the metal fire ring (or slightly taller) and stands perfectly plumb. Mix and pour the concrete to fill the hole around the pipe; keep the top of the concrete just below the soil surface so it won’t interfere with the metal fire ring and blocks when you install them.
5. Build the pivoting cooking grate assembly. Use standard iron pipe and fittings, as shown in the cooking grate assembly drawing above. Thread the parts together and tighten all the joints firmly with pipe wrenches. (You can fiddle with the size and design to match your site and cooking needs.)
6. Install the grill. I used a 22-inch replacement grill and wired it to the arms of the assembly in four places. Make the cooking grate’s height adjustable by drilling a few 5/16-inch-diameter holes spaced 2 inches apart near the bottom of the pipe leg. Use a 1/4-inch bolt to peg the height you need.
7. Position and level the metal fire-ring insert. Set the first course of retaining-wall blocks around the perimeter of your fire pit. If the last block doesn’t fit, pull each block an inch or so farther away from the metal insert and try again until the blocks form a full circle. Use a level to make sure the first course of blocks is level. Add a couple of inches of gravel along the outer perimeter of the first course to lock the fire pit’s blocks in place and to bring the gravel fill up to ground level.
8. Apply concrete block adhesive to the top of the first course of blocks. Position the first block of the second course so it’s centered over a joint between a pair of blocks below. Add the remaining blocks for the second course. Keep adding courses to reach your desired height; three or four courses are typical for backyard fire pits. Some retaining-wall systems include cap blocks to create a more finished look for the top course. Determine ahead of time whether you want to install cap blocks; if you do, then take them into account when calculating your fire pit’s final height.
DIY Fire Pit Materials List
• Retaining-wall blocks, 10 to 20 per course
• 1 metal ring insert for a fire pit, 40-inches to 48-inch diameter
• Concrete block adhesive
For cooking grate assembly
• Black iron pipe and fittings — length and number will vary according to grate size
• Concrete mix
• 1 cooking grate
• 1 bolt, 1/4 inch x 2 inches
Spike Carlsen is a carpenter, editor and author who cooks up fun in Minnesota. These projects are from his excellent DIY book The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects.