There’s something satisfying about circling a fire, whether it’s to toast s’mores on a summer evening or watch cinders soar into the sky. The desire to gather around a fire is as old as time and yet inspires a popular outdoor design trend—the fire pit. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, fire pits top the list of today’s most in-demand outdoor design elements.
During the last few years, Aja Hudson of Earth Designs, a Rosendale-based landscaping collective, has seen a significant uptick in the number of requests for fire pits. Incorporating that element into an outdoor plan takes many forms—from temporary to permanent, from metal to stone, from wood-burning to gas-fired, and from simple to sculptural.
“Everyone wants to bring fire into their life,” says Aja. “It’s a basic element.”
One of the simplest ways to create a fire-inspired focal point is to dig a hole and surround it with rocks. Some prefer the natural approach—fitting a fire pit seamlessly into their landscaping—but on a larger scale. At Earth Designs, fire pits are generally excavated with heavy machinery and lined with boulders for a natural look.
“People can build a fire pit out of materials around the house,” says Aja. “We just build fancier ones by simply piling up big stones.”
When crafting your own, Aja recommends staying away from river rocks. “Anything that had water flowing over it for a long period of time is subject to popping and cracking, which can hurt someone.”
Another simple alternative is to purchase a portable unit or kit at a hardware or hearth store. Portable fire pits, or fire tables, made from copper, stainless steel, or cast iron just need to be set up on a fire retardant, stone, or sand surface. With many models on the market, the design can be as simple as a plain bowl or complex enough to qualify as sculpture.
If you’re handy, you can build a fire pit with some paving stones and a kit. “Most fire pits are sold as a kit including wall blocks, steel ring, lid, and grill grates,” says Jim Niles, paver specialist at Herzog’s Home and Paint Center in Kingston. “Grill grates are an added benefit to turn your fire pit into a BBQ.”
According to Jim, the best-selling fire pits on the market use cutting-edge technology to produce a taller, brighter, fuller flame. You can also opt for durable stainless steel screens that are hinged for easy access to the fire and offer protection from flying ambers, as well as inserts to keep smoke from stinging your eyes.
A mason or hardscaping company can fit a fire pit into a general paving plan that includes walls, benches, and possibly even a pool or hot tub. Combining fire and water elements is a good way to imbue any landscaping plan with visual drama. Fire pits provide a lovely place to warm up after a swim.
The most obvious advantage to a stone, clay, or brick fire pit is permanence. No need to put stone fire pits away during inclement weather and that means they can be used all year. Portable models may need to be covered or taken inside for the winter. “If they are made out of steel they will rust and rot away when you leave them out all winter,” says Tony Mirto of Accord’s A&M Hardware, which sells both gas-powered and wood-burning fire pits.
Even though stone constructions are more permanent and naturally resist rust, they are not indestructible. To prolong the life of a stone fire pit, consider the size of the fire relative to the size of the pit. “If a fire gets hot enough the stone can explode,” says Mike Soule of Mike’s Earthworks in Stone Ridge. “Always keep the fire at least six inches away from the edge of the fire pit.”
Close or far
Not only is it essential to keep the fire away from the edge; it should also be kept far from shrubbery. “Keep it away from the trees,” says Mike. “Watch that the flames don’t reach any overhanging branches, especially in spring and fall when everything can burn so easily. And always rake dry leaves and grass away.” Landscaping is not the only safeguard to consider when deciding on a location. Furniture—from benches to recliners—surrounding the fire pit can make it cozier, but if you like to sit close, make sure your seat is not flammable.
Alex Kambouris of Accord’s A&G Custom Made Furniture builds beautiful outdoor furniture in cedar and mahogany, including custom garden benches and canopied shelters, but he stresses the importance of keeping wooden furniture at a safe distance. “It’s a good idea to place anything combustible at least 20 feet from the fire pit,” he says. “Some people like to sit closer, but that’s still a comfortable distance to hang out and enjoy a glass of wine.” Alex also suggests checking the regulations in your area regarding the use of fire pits or any existing burn bans.
Gas, wood, or propane
Fire pits run on various fuels. Both wood and gas-fired models offer advantages. Wood-burning fireplaces are easy to install and invite those gathered around to participate in the ritual of feeding the fire. However, starting a wood fire can be time-consuming. You need somewhere to stockpile wood, which can attract insects.
Gas fire pits start up quickly and can be turned off quickly. They do, however, make smaller fires and are more expensive than wood-burning fire pits. There’s also an environmentally commendable alternative—briquettes made from recycled sawdust. Kingston’s Excelsior Wood Products is a green-focused company that makes recycled wood decks, and, as a by-product, briquettes. They began producing briquettes because they had an excess of sawdust from the company’s wood mill. Briquettes made from kiln-dried sawdust have zero additives, zero chemicals, and no pressure-treated products. “We grew up on a dairy farm and farmers recycle everything, so we try to bring that mindset here,” says Christina Sauer. “We thought, we have this waste, let’s make a good product from it and share it with the community. Briquettes produce less creosote, there’s no bark on the material, and they burn regularly at a consistent rate. Recycled material prevents more trees from being cut down and it burns clean and hot.” For an increasing number of homeowners, the fire pit has become a standard feature. “There is nothing like relaxing around a warm, enchanting fire to bring family and friends closer together,” says Jim. “Outdoor living areas are no longer complete without featuring fire pits or fire tables.”
This article was originally published in VisitVortex.com.