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I decided to start with a photo of the completed project rather than a photo of the materials because it's a little more interesting than a bunch of tools and materials laid out would be. I also thought it may be a good idea to give a general idea of what your efforts can produce if you choose to go this route.
Concrete: 4 or 5 bags
Mortar: 5 or 6 bags
Rebar: 10 pieces (about 24 inches long)
Sandy creek flagstone and steppers: 1,600 pounds
Fire brick: 50 bricks
Lots of patience
2 bottles of ibuprofen
Dimensions: 5 feet wide and 18 inches tall, which is somewhat large, so use these figures loosely depending on the size of your yard.
Approximate cost: $450
Before we did anything, we viewed our yard from multiple angles to determine the best location for our fire pit. Next, we measured and marked the area with a can of spray paint at the end of a rope tied to a stick. Think of it as a large-scale drafting compass.
Once the yard was marked, we had a guideline for the foundation, which I will just come out and say we did not dig deep enough nor wide enough, and we will probably have to deal with the consequences later on. We dug only about 8 inches down, but I've read that it's recommended to go as far as 3 feet deep depending on your winter climate.
We prepared the concrete and poured it into the excavated area, leaving about half an inch between the top of the ground and the top of the concrete. Once the wet concrete was poured, I pressed about 10 2-foot-long rods of rebar into it for added strength, then made sure the cement was level.
Although I probably should have let the foundation cure entirely, I didn't really do that. I couldn't find any decent tutorials at the time and kind of just winged a few things, which I found to be stressful since this was something I wanted to last for a long time. I'm hoping that anybody who uses this as a tutorial will learn from my mistakes rather than repeat them.
Once the concrete was poured, I let it thicken a bit. During this time I sorted my stones: big ones to one side and flat ones to the other. As I did this, I set aside the stones that I favored for the base. I wanted varying heights but also wanted to be sure that everything on the bottom row was flat. I mostly chose stones that had a slight curve so I could match it to the circle.
Tip: When you are choosing your stone at the rock yard, it is helpful to pick the flattest ones you can find so you aren't working with any more angles than you already have.
After the bottom row was set, I let it harden for a couple of days. Then I started to stack the stones in small sections at a time to see how they would fit together. I usually did this before going to work every day, so I would do about a third of a level each morning.
Once I liked the way it looked, I moved the stones off to the side, being sure to keep everything in the same sequence that I had just created. Admittedly, this was the hardest part for me and took a long time. My best advice is to not get caught up in perfection.
I mixed small batches of mortar and applied a layer under each stone as I went along. It is important not to get ahead of yourself here and only mix as much mortar as you can handle in a short period of time.
Tip: If you're like me and don't have a stretch of days to do this all at once, your yard can take quite a beating. You may want to stage everything in one specific area so you don't have too much grass to fix.
One of the more difficult parts of this project came as I neared the top level. Not only was I trying to fit things together side by side, which is why a chisel is handy, but I was now working against the grain of my "varying heights" idea. Sure, it may look cool, but it is most definitely a challenge to get things even again toward the top. By now the project had become a vertical puzzle as well as a horizontal one. This is where having various thicknesses of stone helped a lot.
The photo shown here was my last level before placing the cap stones. I set the fire brick and mortared it together. While building the fire pit I left a few small gaps for ventilation, which I took into account when placing the fire brick. I ended up with three narrow gaps for airflow when all was said and done. If I were to do it over, I wouldn't do that. It was one of the tips that I kept reading over and over, but with a fire pit this size, I don't really need additional airflow.
At this point, it's almost finished! My husband and my brother filled the bottom with pea gravel after I dug the grass out from the center.
I suppose now is a good time to mention that getting to this point required a large amount of strength, and my biceps became kind of huge. So if that freaks you out, be careful. Moving 1,600 pounds of stone all over the place by hand gets a bit grueling at times, especially when you are working at ground level. This is where the ibuprofen was helpful.
I saved my flattest and biggest stones for the top, although I did have to make a second or third trip to my stone supplier to get what I needed. A few hours later, it was finally complete! Here you can see how hard this project was on the grass, but in my case it was actually helpful because I eventually removed it and it made that task much easier.
Tip: When you purchase your stone, it's a good idea to buy more than you think you'll need so you'll have a good variety to choose from.
After a few parties, I began round two of the process: landscaping the surrounding area. I used the spray paint and string method for this part, too. I dug down about 3 inches and set landscaping fabric on top. We are lucky to live in an area with rich black soil, but be warned that this would be a bear to do by hand if you have clay or rock. May I suggest that you find some friends and turn it into a "party"?
Tip: Be sure you have somewhere to put all the dirt that you will dig up if you go this route, as it yields a lot more than you may think.
Next we laid pea gravel and called it quits for the season. Fall was here and the days were getting cooler. I was glad to have this finished before winter set in.
We would eventually like to replace the pea gravel with something nicer, but this is what was in our budget at the time. I read a lot about the nuisances of pea gravel — that it gets in your house and shoes all the time and that it's difficult to keep clean.
I have not found this to be an issue, but then again, the house is far enough from this area that it doesn't get tracked inside, I wear only sandals in the summer, and a leaf blower will go a long way when removing debris in the fall.
After a massive garden overhaul this spring, I finally had a few spare days to revisit this project. We dug out even more grass, laid mulch and started planting flowers. Off to the side, a large wooden planter is used for branches, and a log pile is at an arm's reach.
Eventually I want this space to be more intimate and enclosed. I'm going to plant a couple of shrubs and some wildflowers in varying hues of purple, orange, red and yellow to keep this area warm and inviting. We'll also contain the gravel a bit more with a perimeter of sandstone.
This is what it looks like from our deck. As you can see, I used the extra stones to create a path that leads to the area. Next year I will plant blanket flowers at the edge of the path. But for this year, I'm considering it done.
For now I think I'll kick back and listen to late-night stories told by friends with the crackling sound of fire in the background.
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