Fire Pit and Patio Construction

May 14, 2010

I'm starting a new stone project, so I thought I'd post pictures of my progress here. I'm planning to improve the fire pit area behind my house with a new fire pit, patio, and retaining wall. The current area is just natural woods with a ring of rocks for a fire pit.


I'm going to use a different kind of stone on this project than I have in my other projects because I want a level surface for chairs. All of my past stone projects have used roundish, glacial erratic rocks. I've made a bunch of paths using the flat sides of these rocks, but I didn't think it would work well for a large patio. I found a picture in a book that mixed flagstone with accents of rounder rocks and I thought that would make a good transition from one type of rock to the other, so that's what I'm going to do. The flagstone I'll use is called Onaway stone, a type of limestone quarried near here. The local supplier is having trouble getting stone in this year because of a change of ownership of the quarry or something. Hopefully he gets some before the weather gets too hot and the mosquitos get thick!

I've read a few things about installing patios, but have never done one myself. It's recommended that you start with a layer of gravel, topped with sand and then the stones. On my paths, I have never used gravel and they haven't shifted from the frost. Theres nothing but sand under the layer of forest duff, so do I need gravel? I'm thinking of going without it.

The fire pit is going to be upgraded with fire bricks on the inside and the round stoned mortared on the outside, capped with flagstone. I'm tired of cracked rocks. I think I'll make it about a foot above ground and about 6 inches below ground. I want it a little deeper than it is now, but I'm going to be careful that I don't make it so deep that the fire isn't visible from a seated position around it.

The whole area is on a slope. I ran a string across it with a level and it looks like it drops almost two feet. I'll need to dig into the slope and build a dry stacked retaining wall. I don't want to have a wall right next to the patio, so I'm putting it back a two or three feet. That will leave room for some plants and a little extra room if someone needs to step off the patio. I'll make the wall out of the roundish rocks. I've already started hauling them in. I might cap the wall with Onaway stone if it looks right.


This is the area with the wood pile moved, the firepit repositioned, and the general layout outlined with hoses. My neighbor and I, recently removed 13 dead jack pines from the woods here, so there's a big brush pile and some stumps I removed. In the foreground, you can see some of the rocks I've started to haul in.

Any comments are welcome. I'll post more pictures as things progress. I'm not in a huge hurry to get this done. I just work on it as I feel like it, so don't expect finished pictures anytime soon!

Here is a link that might be useful: More pictures

Comments (64)

  • jugglerguy

    I'm almost done with the wall! I can't finish the steps right now because the flagstone won't be available until fall, so I just skipped them and I'll get them later. I plan to extend both ends of the wall, but at a lower height. I'm going to wait until after I finish the steps to do that because I want a large selection of rocks for the steps. The lower parts of the wall are much, much easier to build, so I won't need as big of a selection.


    Here's a shot from another angle. The fire pit here is not what the finished pit will look like. I put the original rocks back temporarily to measure how big it was. The new fire pit will be made with fire brick on the inside and mortared stones on the outside with a flagstone cap.


    I also dug out the fire pit area so that I can pour a footing tomorrow. I was too exhausted to haul the camera back for a picture. It's a big hole.

  • haxuan

    Awesome! I will definite follow you to the final project.

    You made me want to go out into my own garden, move some rocks and start a rock garden!

    Thanks for sharing.


  • jugglerguy

    Xuan, when you get started on your rock garden, post pictures. I love looking at other people's work.

    I've gotten started on the fire pit. Here's a picture of the footing.


    I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the fire bricks fit around the circle. I'm a math teacher, so figuring out the geometry wasn't a problem, but I had a bad feeling about that last brick fitting perfectly. I considered making spacers for the gaps between the bricks, but it wasn't confident that it would be very accurate. I ended up making this template to work around. It took me three or four tries to get it just right, so I'm really glad I was working with dry bricks instead of mortared bricks.


    Here's the template in action (okay, maybe it's not actually "action"). I use it on each new course. I made it out of 1/4 inch luan plywood with spacers underneath so the mortar had room to ooze out. I cut the middle out so I could work from inside. The first rocks are in, but I didn't worry about making them neat because they'll be buried.


  • haxuan

    Juggler, I wish I had started the rock garden but I hurt myself riding my motorbike the other day, so I cannot start at yet.

    At the moment my hubby is not here with me so I cannot get any help!

    When I can finally put the "garden" together, I will share photos with you.

    Meanwhile, may I show you my succulent bed, which has made used of some rocks. (I posted this in the C&S forum)



    Your firepit looks very nice, you're so careful to make a template. But it has certainly saved you a lot of guess work, hasn't it?

    In our country, there're bricks that can withstand high temperature. My hubby used them for the fireplace in our second home here. The bricks look similar to those you're using.

    All the best to your building. I'm so eager to see it put into use by your family this winter, perhaps?

    Thanks for sharing.


  • jugglerguy

    The succulent beds look great, Xuan! It looks like you have some nice stone paths there too. That stone looks similar to what I'm trying to get for my patio.

    The bricks I'm using are the high temperature bricks. When I had just rocks before, they were getting all cracked from the heat, so I decided to go with the fire bricks.

  • toffee1

    those rocks looked pretty big, like 2 x basketball? How much do they weight? I work with the so call sonoma field stone here, which is not much bigger than a basketball and even those hurts my back.

    How do you lift them on to the top tier of that wall?

  • jugglerguy

    The biggest rocks are probably closer to three or four basketballs in size. I don't know how much they weigh, but I call them "rollers". I can't lift them. The one I show moving into the Jeep is an example of a roller. I'm not super strong or even sort of strong, but I can lift most of the rocks on my wall. The biggest ones get rolled on from the top. My back hurts plenty.

    Today I got a 10 yard load of topsoil. Most of my body hurt by dinner time, but strangely my back didn't hurt. Unfortunately, most of it is still in my driveway.

  • toffee1

    any new pics?

  • jugglerguy

    I'm finally done moving the topsoil out of my driveway. Unfortunately, I had to remove 10 yards of sand with roots in order to have a place to put the 10 yards of topsoil. I'm really sick of moving dirt, but it's mostly done now.

    I've added a low row of rocks to the end of each end of the wall. I wanted to wait until the steps were done to do the ends of the walls, because the steps are going to be more difficult and I wanted better rocks to choose from. But in order to put all the topsoil in place, it was hard to avoid finishing the wall. So it's done. I think it looks good.


    I have all the firebrick done, but I'm only about a third done with the stones. I decided to stop work on the stones to get the dirt in so I could plant some stuff before it was too late.


    Since the last update, I also removed the tree stump. I did most of it with a shovel and a hatchet, but cheated a little with the chainsaw at the end. After cutting through sandy roots, it wasn't sharp enough to cut up the stump. It's sharpened now, but getting the topsoil out of my driveway took priority over the stump. I'll cut it up this week.

    I also got bad news about the Onaway stone I'm using for the patio and steps. It was supposed to be available this fall, but now they've decided to wait until spring to mine it. I'll be able to finish the fire pit, and plant a few more things, but that's about it until I get flagstone in the spring.

  • haxuan

    It looks pretty nice already. I bet it will look even better when the plants fill in.

    Congrats on your hard work, Juggler.

  • botann

    I see you're not afraid of hard work and carrying out a plan, no matter how long it takes.

    I'm with you on how hard it is to make a wall out of glacial worn field rock. I have built over a hundred rock walls in thirty plus years as a Landscape contractor. I used blasted quarry rock with flat surfaces and right angles. Much easier than working with basketballs. A rock shaped like a football is the hardest to deal with in building anything, including decorative outcroppings.
    I use the largest rocks for the base of the wall and work up with progressively smaller rocks. More pleasing to the eye in my opinion. I realize you didn't have all your rocks to choose from when you began.

    Nice work. My compliments Rob. (I have a son named Rob.)

  • jugglerguy

    Thanks for the compliment, Mike. I can't wait for the snow to melt to get started again. I've been thinking about my project a lot lately.

    I really like your gardens. I've looked at your pictures many times trying to learn from them. You've got some really great trees, shrubs, and rocks. I love the spring pictures with the azaleas, Japanese maples, and evergreens.


  • botann

    Thanks Rob.

    You have done a wonderful job!

    I live in a different climate and a lot of plants are easy to grow, but unwanted plants are easy too. Blackberry vines can grow twenty feet up in trees here. I've seen them tangled up in phone lines. Our version of Kudzu vine. I have some weeds going to seed right now even though most nights have been just below freezing the past week.

    Working with rock is a very satisfying endeavor for me. Plants grow and change. Rocks have a sense of permanence about them. A well done job will last. There's a certain amount of feeling good with that.
    The picture below shows some rocks I hauled in and placed a few years ago. It needs some tweaking, but I hope to have it landscaped before spring. Dwarf evergreens seem to be in order here. Zone eight means I can work through the winter several days of the week. Rain is more of a problem than low temps and snow. The stream goes dry by mid summer until late November. South is to the left.

  • jolj

    It is warm here.
    Is it still cold up your way.
    Sorry, I can not wait to see your pit finished.

  • jugglerguy

    The snow was all gone, but then it snowed a little last night. Just a dusting, but it's still depressing. It was in the low fifties during the day last week, but only in the thirties this weekend.

    The fire pit was finished last fall except for the capstones. I'm waiting for flagstone for that. I got an email from the stone place saying that they were reopening the quarry last week. I'm hoping that within a month I can get some stone and get back to work. I can't wait to see it finished either!

  • Kevin Reilly

    wow...this project is epic! will be a rewarding day when you put the last pieces in!

  • jugglerguy

    Winter has come and gone and I finally got my hands on almost three tons of Onaway stone. My son and I just hauled the stones to the back yard. I haven't started setting any in place yet, but I laid some out so I could see what I had to work with. I'm going to use mostly flagstone for the patio, but also mix in some of the other stones so that it ties in with the walls.


  • jenn

    Wow. I don't visit this form often, but followed a link to this page. This project is simply amazing. The patience required astounds me!

  • jugglerguy

    I've started setting the first flagstones. I'm incorporating some round fieldstone like the type used in the walls into the design in an attempt to make it blend in a little more and give it some color and interest. The large stone at the bottom of the steps is going to be mostly buried and will be the riser of the first step (if it fits right).

    I need some advice about what type of benches or chairs I should put around the fire pit. I'm leaning toward some sort of bench with a seat made out of slab of wood about six inches thick with front and back edges unfinished, except for having the bark removed. I'm not sure what to do about legs if I do something like this. One thought is to use the 4x6 legs from my old benches (see the first picture in this thread). Another idea for legs is to use full log sections about 16 inches long, turned perpendicular to the bench top. I also considered adirondack chairs, but I think they'll take up too much space and not provide enough seating. If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them.


  • tanowicki

    Your fire pit has me so jealous. I think my little 10' x 10' area could fit into your actual fire ring.

    If you've got the thick slabs, I think they would make great benches. You can use shorter pieces for legs but you would want them to be rather plain. I'm posting a link to a quick search I did for natural wood benches showing what I'm thinking of. I suspect they would be rather heavy though and not too great to move around easily.

    Don't rule out Adirondack chairs. They are sooo comfy with their back and arm rests. Your fire pit is pretty big so you could probably have a couple there along with the benches. I find ours are always the first to get claimed.

    Here is a link that might be useful: {{gwi:287189}}

  • chickadee_42us

    How much seating space are you going to need? It screams adironack chairs to me! You could scrunch them up next to the pit in the snowy dark night while burrowing down in the chair!

  • jugglerguy

    I haven't ruled Adirondack chairs out, I'm just concerned about both the width and the length. The patio is not super wide, so I want to make sure that there's room to walk around the fire without tripping over chairs. If you need to slide the chairs forward or back if you're too hot or cold, I'm not sure there is enough room. My neighbor has some, so I'll try some of his out to see how they fit.

    I have a teenage daughter and an elementary school son who I think will have friends over for fires, so I'd like to have enough room for a group of kids. It's easier to squeeze three kids on a bench than squeeze five Adirondack chairs together.

    I think tanowicki might have the right idea with a mixture of the two.

  • jolj

    My son & I will be making a walled garden & a fire pit patio.
    My son is 16 & want to have friends over too.
    Thank you for the detailed photos, our pit will be different, but your example is great.
    And you have hills too, I am in the foot hill/ flat land.

  • jolj

    I am thinking of stone or concrete benches.
    Maybe a few wooden ones for flavor.

  • jugglerguy

    I'm almost done with my project. The last step is to put capstones on the fire pit. I'm going to use the same flagstone that I used for the patio. I plan to cut the stone so that the joints are along the radii of the circle. I'll use a grinder with a diamond wheel to make the cuts from the bottom and break the last little bit along the top. I'll be mortaring them on, so the mortar will cover the cuts. I'm not sure how to cut the arcs along the outside and inside circumferences though. I haven't had very good luck cutting this stone with a hammer and chisel. If I cut it with the grinder, those edges are going to look really bad. The best idea I've come up with is to cut with the grinder and then try to rough up the cuts with a chisel, but I don't think that's going to be easy to do. Does anyone have any better ideas?

  • tanowicki

    Have you tried cutting part way through with the grinder and then hitting it with a hammer? If you did that from the bottom, would the grind cuts show?

  • jugglerguy

    Yes, that show I've made cuts so far. That's what I plan to do for the radial cuts because the mortar will hide the cuts. What I'm concerned about are the cuts around the outside of the circle. There, the entire edge of the rock will be visible.

    If I can't rough up the edges with a hammer or chisel I'll try a wire brush. I've seen a torch used to flake away an edge on a TV show, but I think that was on granite, not limestone.

  • tanowicki

    Have you tried taking a file to the edges? You probably won't have to have perfect roughing up.

  • jugglerguy


    I figured out how to finish the edges of my capstones. It's probably not the way the professionals do it, but it works for me. I bought some muriatic acid and I've been dipping the edges in that.

    Here's how I cut them:

    This is what it looks like after the cut:

    Dip it in acid a bunch of times:

    Here's the end result:

  • jugglerguy

    I'm finally done! Here are the pictures:




  • tanowicki

    Your fire pit looks amazing. Now to get a chair with a back for you to rest in while the kids on the benches (which look great too) tend to the fire.

  • lolauren

    I have watched for updates on this project. It looks incredible. You should be very proud of your work! Your vision and execution were both perfect.

  • jenn


  • hardin

    Oh my. That is very beautiful. Excellent job and awesome inspiration. Thank you for posting the progress and finale.

  • greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

    I've been following this project for a long time....
    wonderful to see it finally come to completion! The benches are an excellent touch, too.


  • jolj

    Talent & skill, You are the man!
    I hope my project is half that good.
    I am still collecting stones.
    I am think of making colored concrete mold stones to fill in some of the gapes.
    When I get a large pile of stones, I will put up the pic's.

  • novascapes

    Laying rock is not only a skill but I consider it an art form. Very few have a talent for this.
    Congratulations on such a great job.
    As far as the cracking of rock goes what happens most of time is that people build the fire up to fast. Most rock will contain moisture. When the rock gets hot the water in the rock expands, causing the rock to crack. Build up the temp. slowly and it may help prevent cracks in the top cap.

  • botann

    Nice job, Juggler Guy.
    I see why you're a teacher.
    You do it well.
    An example for all!

  • chickadee_42us

    Completed and done really well. Landscaped nicely too.

  • deviant-deziner

    beautifully crafted and integrated into the natural landscape.
    thanks for posting the process.

  • christina923


  • jugglerguy

    The service where all the pictures are hosted for this thread is shutting down. I have reposted all the pictures at a different site, but GardenWeb does not allow me to edit my posts to change all the links. Here's a page with all the pictures on it. Don't miss the tiny "page 2" link at the top of the page.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Pictures for this thread

  • karin_mt

    Thanks for the link and for keeping the photos available - what a terrific project that has been. I am about 1/4 of the way through a big stone project this summer so it's fun to look at your beautiful result. Inspirational!

  • jugglerguy

    Thanks Karin. Are you posting pictures of your project? I'd love to see them!

  • karin_mt

    Yes, I hope to post some photos once I get things far enough along to be worthwhile. Stay tuned. :)

  • gwen_spurgart

    it is now 2016 -and I am reading this post with interest, but both websites which hosted the pictures are unavailable. If Jugglerguy is still available to post pictures again, I would appreciated it

  • jugglerguy

    I'm in a hotel right now, but I'll try to post some pictures when I get home.

  • jugglerguy

    I just uploaded the pictures to Flickr. There are no comments anymore, but I think you can probably figure out what's happening in most of them.

    Fire Pit and Patio Construction Pictures.

  • jugglerguy

    I just found my original comments and added them.

  • PRO
    Davison's 4 Seasons Landscaping

    I have to say ..... Very nice and natural looking

Need help with an existing Houzz order? Call 1-800-368-4268