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POP Projects is a collection of new and classic projects from more than a century of Popular Mechanics. Master skills, get tool recommendations, and, most importantly, build something of your very own.

Fall is the perfect time to build a masonry fire pit from a kit. There may be frost in the morning, but a sunny and cool fall afternoon is the ideal time to tackle this job. We admit, some hard work is involved, such as toting gravel and laying up the sides of the fire pit. But unlike building a traditional fire pit out of brick and mortar, these kits don’t require a massive concrete foundation, nor several days to build. They’re designed to simplify the process from start to finish, removing much of the guesswork and experience necessary to build one of these using traditional masonry methods. One physically fit person can easily do the work in a day. With a helper and a good start in the morning, you should be able to complete this job by some point in the early afternoon. Tack on anywhere from two to four hours to construct the log benches that we show below to fully build out your setup. Let’s get started.

Why a Masonry-Kit Fireplace

My wife Bev and I love to sit outside in the late afternoon or in the evening with some friends and enjoy a fire in the backyard. We live on a quiet Pennsylvania hilltop, and our house backs up to some woods. A cozy fire and a circle of friends is the perfect soft landing after a day’s work. But we didn’t like the ugly charred circle that these fires left behind. And we were concerned that a wind-blown ember could start a brush fire in the nearby woods.

I considered building a traditional brick fire pit on a concrete footing, but that’s no small undertaking or expense. For these, you need to dig a minimum of a 30-inch-deep footing trench. In our case, that means excavating down through clay and rocky soil. Then I’d have to get the concrete into the trench. Even if I opted to have the material delivered, it’s not easy lugging it by wheelbarrow. Wet concrete weighs roughly 150 pounds per cubic foot. A wheelbarrow full of the stuff can weigh anywhere from 200 to 300 pounds. Mixing it by hand also seemed like a backbreaker. So I abandoned the idea of traditional masonry. Investigating chimineas and steel fire rings at a nearby home center, my wife and I discovered the Fossil Stone Fire Pit from Natural Concrete Products.

Much to my surprise, Popular Mechanics tester and editor Roy Berendsohn and I were able to construct the pit in 4 hours. When night fell, I kindled a big fire. Friends gathered, and I relaxed with a cold beer. The pit looked great and safely contained the fire without a burnt ring of grass the next day. Bonus: The remaining charcoal at the bottom of the pit is hidden from view.

Picking the Right Spot

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George Retseck

Common sense with an eye toward fire safety requires that you build the fire pit somewhere that it doesn’t create a fire hazard to your home, outbuildings, or neighbors’ houses or their property. Don’t build the pit under low-hanging limbs or a power line where a flying ember can arise and melt the line’s insulation. Although it doesn’t pose a fire danger to a well head, septic tank, or leaching field, those are also areas you should avoid. Local laws will almost certainly require you to position a structure of this type a given distance from your house or the neighbor’s property line. Check the codes at the town hall.

When I had located the ideal spot in my yard, Berendsohn and I drove a stake at the approximate center of the pit, looped a mason’s line around the stake, and then tied the line around a can of white landscape spray paint, with which I created a 102-inch-diameter circle. This is large enough to accommodate the pit, whose outside diameter is 66 inches, and a surrounding 18-inch band of River Jacks gravel.

Some Tools You'll Need for Building a Fire Pit
PL1632 Hand Planer
Bosch PL1632 Hand Planer
$139 at Amazon
SikaBond Hardscape Adhesive
Sika SikaBond Hardscape Adhesive
Credit: Courtesy
48-In. Spirit Level
Goldblatt Masonry 48-In. Spirit Level
Credit: Courtesy
3-Piece Chisel Set
Workpro 3-Piece Chisel Set
Credit: Courtesy

To create a base for the pit and gravel, we dug a hole 4 inches deep bordered by the painted circle and dumped in several wheelbarrow loads of crushed stone. The specific stone you use for this will vary depending on your region. Where I live, the most common material for this is crushed stone known as 2A Modified, a road-building material. A local landscape supply center or home center will likely have a material like this in bulk or bagged. If not, contact a local sand and gravel quarry to see if they make small bulk sales to residential customers. You’ll need a pickup truck or a small trailer to get this material from a quarry. After raking the stone to a depth of about 2 inches, we compacted it with a hand tamper.

For aesthetic reasons and to ensure the fire pit blocks align properly, it’s important to build the pit’s walls on a level surface. So we marked a 68-inch-diameter circle (a couple of inches wider than the outer wall of the pit) on the compacted stone and checked it using a 4-foot mason’s level, adding and removing material as needed.

With the base level, we carefully laid up and leveled two layers of blocks, bolted the fire ring together and installed it so it was centered in the blocks. Next, we poured some more crushed rocks between the ring and the blocks, then used masonry adhesive to glue on the decorative blocks that form the fire pit’s rim. We completed the fire pit by spreading a layer of multi-colored River Jacks gravel in the 18-inch space between the outside wall of the fire pit and the grass.

Installing a Fire Pit in 4 Easy Steps
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Now... Let’s Make Some Seats

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Lajos Geenen

I wanted to install seating near the fire pit and thought a couple of rustic log benches would fit the bill. Since I heat my home with firewood, I always have a few logs on hand: The straightest of these became the seats.

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Halve the Logs

I halved two logs lengthwise by driving several wood-splitting wedges into them. While I did this, Berendsohn dropped a large pinch-point digging bar into the crack, holding the log in position and using the bar as a lever to complete the split.

Lajos Geenen
Tree, Wood, Soil, Lumberjack, Chainsaw, Wood chopping,
Plane the Surface

Then we leveled and smoothed the flat surfaces using a Bosch planer, making a series of 1⁄16-inch-deep diagonal passes and then going straight down the log. You could do this with a large belt sander and the coarsest-grit belt you can get.

Lajos Geenen
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Notch the Bench

My favorite part of building half-log benches is making the crescent-shaped notch in the base logs. It’s surprisingly easy to do. We placed the seat facedown on the ground and held a base log perpendicular to the curved part of the seat.

Lajos Geenen
Notch the Base Logs

We chiseled and sawed as necessary, keeping in mind that the crescent doesn’t have to be a perfect fit—just close enough to hold the seat securely. Last, we placed the seats around the pit.

Lajos Geenen

One Last Thing: Building the Fire

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To make a teepee fire, stack kindling, then stand wood over it. The vertical wood forms a chimney, and the draft through it produces a quick, hot fire that looks pretty and makes a small pile of embers.

Instafire Popular Mechanics Fire Starter
Popular Mechanics Fire Starter
Instafire Popular Mechanics Fire Starter
$40 at instafire.com

The log cabin, or ladder, burns slowly and is better for cooking.

💡The teepee’s embers can start a log cabin fire.