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Building a Fire Pit

Build a circular masonry fire pit for not much more than the cost of a flimsy store-bought fire ring. With tips from a veteran bricklayer, we’ll show you how.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Building a Fire Pit

Build a circular masonry fire pit for not much more than the cost of a flimsy store-bought fire ring. With tips from a veteran bricklayer, we’ll show you how.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

Backyard fire pits are still all the rage, and for good reason. There’s nothing like a crackling fire to draw friends and family together. Sure, you could set some stones around a hole or spend a hundred bucks on a steel fire ring. But if you spend twice that, you can build a handsome brick fire pit to create a gathering space in your backyard. We spent $250 on this fire pit. It’s maintenance free and easy to clean out, and it will last forever.

If you’ve ever wanted to learn to lay brick, a backyard fire pit is an excellent project to start with. Even if your brickwork isn’t perfect, the fire pit will still look great. We asked Doug Montzka, of Montkza Concrete & Masonry in St. Paul, MN, to show us some tricks and tools of the trade. Set aside several days to complete your fire pit: First you’ll pour the footing and let it set up. Then you’ll mortar the bricks into place.

Fire pit

Keys to a better fire pit

A well-built masonry fire pit is rock solid, safe to use, and will easily last for as long as you own your house.

Dig the pit

Before digging, call your utility companies (dial 811; for more info, go to call811.com) to check the location of buried utility lines. Also check the fire pit code in your area. Most require a fire pit to be 25 ft. away from any structures and overhanging trees. Think about how the prevailing winds blow through your backyard. Don’t locate your pit upwind of your patio or where the smoke will blow into your windows or those of your neighbors.

A 3-ft.-diameter fire pit creates enough room for a good fire, yet keeps everyone close enough to chat (and complies with most codes). To make measuring the pit and pouring the concrete footing easy, we used two cardboard concrete form tubes (purchased from a concrete supply company). You could also make your own forms by screwing together 1/8-in. hardboard. Rip a 4 x 8-ft. sheet into four 8-in.-wide strips. Carefully bend and screw two strips together to create a 36-in.-diameter circle, and use the other two to make a 48-in.-diameter circle.

Mark the outside edge of the pit (Photo 1). Then shovel out the soil to a depth of 8 in. (Photo 2). Don’t disturb the underlying soil.

Pour a sturdy footing

The concrete footing will create a stable base for the pit walls and keep the sides of your pit from cracking as the ground moves over time. Stake the forms (Photo 3) and mix up ten 80-lb. bags of concrete mix (sold at home centers) according to the manufacturer’s directions. If you’re using hardboard forms, stake them so they’re nice and round. Fill the forms halfway and press a rebar ring into the concrete for strength (Photo 4). Finish filling the forms to the top and tap the tubes gently with a sledgehammer until the concrete mix is level. Smooth the top of the footing (Photo 5). Let the concrete completely set up overnight and then remove the forms.

Dry-set the firebrick liner

Because regular clay brick can crack at high temperatures, we’re using firebrick (also called “refractory” brick) to line the inside of the pit walls. Firebrick is a dense brick that’s kilned to withstand high temperatures. It’s larger, thicker and wider than regular brick, and you can find it at most brickyards. Firebrick is more expensive, but it will stand up to nightly fires for years to come. You’ll need 25 firebricks for a 3-ft. diameter pit.

Because firebrick is so dense, it’s tougher to split than regular brick. “Soldiering” the brick (standing it on end) minimizes the amount of splitting and lets you easily accommodate the curve of the pit. You’ll only need to split four firebricks (use the technique shown in Photo 9), which you’ll place across from one another around the pit to create draw holes for oxygen for your fire. After you split your firebricks, dry-set them in place on top of the footing (Photo 6).

Mortar the firebrick

Firebrick is mortared with refractory cement, which, unlike regular masonry mortar, can withstand high heat. Refractory cement comes premixed in a bucket and has the consistency of peanut butter.

A margin trowel makes it easier to scoop cement out of the bucket and butter the bricks. A tuck pointer is useful for cleaning up the joints.

Work with four bricks at a time. The secret is to trowel the cement on thin, like you’re spreading peanut butter on toast, and use the tightest joints you can (Photo 7). Continue mortaring the firebrick around the pit, placing the half bricks for the draw holes at four opposite points around the ring (Photo 8). Check for level across the pit and the vertical level of the bricks as you go.

Complete the outside walls with face brick

We used SW (“severe weathering”) face brick (also called “common” or “building” brick) to line the outside pit walls. If your climate doesn’t include freeze/thaw cycles, you can use MW (“moderate weathering”) building brick. Home centers and brickyards carry a large variety of brick. You’ll need 80 face bricks for a 3-ft.-diameter pit. Face brick with holes (“cored”) is easy to split with a brick hammer (Photo 9). It’s easier to form the curve of the pit walls with half bricks. You’ll lay three courses of face brick and mortar them together with Type N mortar mix (sold in 80-lb. bag at home centers, and you’ll need about five bags).

Because face brick is smaller than firebrick, you’ll need to make up the size difference as you lay your three courses of face brick. The difference between the height of your firebrick and the total height of three stacked face bricks will determine the width of your mortar beds between courses. Dry-set the face brick, marking where each course of face brick has to hit the firebrick to make the third course of face brick level with the firebrick.

To keep your mortar joints between courses a reasonable width, first lay a 2- to 3-in.-thick bed of mortar right on top of the footing. Let it set up slightly (15 minutes) and smooth out the top. Then, working on one-third of the pit at a time, mortar each course of face brick into place, leaving a 1/4-in. gap between the firebrick and the face brick (Photo 10). Level the brick between courses, tapping the bricks down when necessary (Photo 11). Remember to leave the draft holes open as you mortar each section of face brick and smooth out the finished joints (Photo 12).

Finish off the top lip

Finish the pit with a matching “row-lock” cap using regular face brick set on edge. You’ll need about 40 face bricks for this cap, which will help protect the wall joints from rain, keep sparks contained and give you a nice ledge to warm your feet on. We used brick, but you could use natural stone for a different look. Work with 10 to 12 bricks at a time. Lay a 3/8-in. bed of mortar, then butter each brick and press it into place (Photo 13). Work your way around the circle, filling any gaps with mortar and checking level and placement frequently (Photo 14). Smooth the finished joints with a concave jointer.

Give the cement and mortar a week to cure completely before lighting a fire in your pit. Pour a few inches of gravel on the pit’s floor for drainage and you’re ready for your first wienie roast.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Cordless drill
    • Bucket
    • Level
    • Wheelbarrow
    • Safety glasses
    • Spade
    • Tuckpointing tool

You'll also need a margin trowel, a mason's trowel, a concave jointer, a concrete float and a brick hammer.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • 36 in. cardboard concrete form
    • 48 in. cardboard concrete form (or for less money substitute a 4x8 sheet of hardboard to make both forms)
    • Ten 80-lb. bags of concrete mix
    • Two 10 ft. lengths of 3/8-in. rebar
    • 25 firebricks
    • One half-gallon bucket of refractory cement (sold at a brickyard)
    • 120 face bricks
    • Five 80-lb. bags of Type N mortar mix

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 13 of 13 comments
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May 28, 7:50 AM [GMT -5]

I completed this project this weekend and there were a few issues with the instructions. first the plans say to use 10-80# bags of concrete, I only used 7-60# bags. Then the top ring I used 47 brick, I did have to step it out a bit to create the overhang but not that much to have to use 7 more brick than the plans. Overall it came out awesome and have gotten so many compliments. So much better than the store bought pits. Due to some resourcefulness on my part it only cost me under $100.

April 21, 9:05 PM [GMT -5]

This is much faster...Buy a firering...dig your circle...To a depth of half the fire rings depth.
Place in hole...You should have the "upper half of "fire ring above ground"...Take your best buddie or wife...Go out in the country for a sunday ride...Collect good sized "rocks(for "free")
Come home, place them around outside perimiter of the firering...LOOKS AWeSOME! CHEAP! and blends in well with nature
Then split a "tree lof in half...add two "shorter tree lolgs for the "legs"...Flip half of log over so your butt sits on "smooth side...
There you are...Firepit and benches made out of tree logs...Cost? Just the price of a 4 or 5 foot fire ring...Your choice...We do a foot.
Lasts FOREVER! Looks natural, especially in a country setting...

April 03, 5:48 PM [GMT -5]

Last year I installed a fire pit I bought online from Home Depot. The pit was all concrete block but they had a very natural look to the blocks so when I stacked it up the fire pit had a stone look. I think I paid around $400 for it including delivery. It took about 1 hour to install and it was pretty easy. I believe it was called the Random Stone fire pit or something like that and it came from a company called Natural Concrete Products. It doesn't look quite as good as using regular stones but for the price and time savings it was well worth it.

March 25, 4:08 PM [GMT -5]

Demanding project, lot of manual labor. Turned out good though. I decided to make it a foot wider, I like bigger pits and burning bigger logs. Just a few tips that would have been helpful: I used 60" and 48" circles. I used 8 bags of concrete, 7 of the mortar. It took me roughly 35 firebricks. Digging the 8" hole is a task if done by hand, especially if ground is hard. Try soaking it real good first. The sonotube forms were impossible to find locally, I used the 1/8" hardboard, found only at Home Depot, not Lowe's. Was only $9 for a sheet, they will need to cut it for you. Gotta do some math to find the Circumference and then cut them as long as you can. I found a lot of nailing and tape will not make a perfect circle. About a 3" overlap is all you need to nail it into a perfect circle. Stake all around if using hardboard, not just as pictured. When you dump concrete in, they will shift easily and mess up your circles, boards are real flimsy. Seemed to me like the concrete needed more water than the directions, also seemed like I could have packed it down better. I found 1 1/4 gallons of water per bag worked good. The "refractory cement" is impossible to find locally and can be purchased on the net. I did not use this for the firebricks, I used type N mortar and added some fire clay. Seemed to work okay although this part is challenging, especially the draw holes (half bricks). I would recommend ordering the R cement and trying that method, the mortar does not stick well to the firebricks. The rest of the bricks isn't too bad, just get all the tools, especially the tuck pointer. Get a good solid pair of gloves or you will ruin your fingers if they get holes in them. Really pay attention to the height of the bricks and the mortar so it is level when you do the cap. Also, make sure to continue your bricks above where the draw hole is (it should just be on the bottom row). The directions overlook this. You don't want to be fitting bricks in down the road, this was a challenge. Get some of those Knee guards things to protect your kneecaps. Also, use a bucket to put mortar in from wheel barrow, will help save your back. Overall, cool looking..can't wait for the first burn and to have friends over!!

March 07, 7:11 PM [GMT -5]

I was just reading on another website that recommends at least one or two expansion/contraction joints in a fire pit that has a diameter over four or five feet, is this a required step if I follow the directions here?

December 07, 12:01 PM [GMT -5]

Great instructions and comments, i am just finishing up this weekend. For the forms I actually had a few yards left over of this 5" green garden boarder that I bought on Amazon. It was cheap and i was able to make a pretty decent circle for the inner and outer. Could have been perfected but I was rushing with a 3 year old helping me. For the top cap I ended up using concrete former stone from lowes as the rest of my yard has more of a gray stone look than all red brick. Firing it up for the first time on Tuesday. I went with two opposing half vents and lava gravel filled to the level of the foundation. I did end up a bit shorter on the red brick then the verticle fire brick, which made me have to put a heavy morar layer under the top cap. You cannot really see it but you are not supposed to lay mortar on for fill like that. I couldnt decide on anything to fill it though. You must really keep the stacked height of the outer brick in mind as you build to avoid going under, having to run a 4th course, or going over, then using costly refrac motor to fill (filling with N mortar on the inside would be a really bad idea from the direct heat).

October 30, 9:29 AM [GMT -5]

Very first step mentions laying down the concrete liner ring and putting a circular rebar ring, yet the Materials List makes zero mention of the ring (and as important: where to get and how much does it cost?)

October 28, 3:57 PM [GMT -5]

I am trying to build a fire pit on top of a large concrete slab patio. I don't want to dig up the spot for the firepit, what do I need to place between the fire and the concrete? Or can I build this firepit on top of the slab?

May 13, 9:58 AM [GMT -5]

I had problems with the alternate concrete form recommendation. If you do not purchase the cardboard rings the directions suggest you can use 1/8” hard board ripped to 8” strips. The directions say to “Carefully bend and screw two strips together to create a 36-in.-diameter circle….” I found that 36” diameter was just a little too small for the hardboard I purchased from my box store. It snapped in several places when forming the circle to 36”. Hard board sheets are sold 96” inches long and the 36” inner circle needs approximately 113.4” inches to for the circle (I tried one piece 96” and one piece 17”). The 17” piece is to short and lacks the flexibility you can obtain with longer pieces to make a graceful curve.

I solved my problem by using two layers of hardboard, laminated, to make up the ring. I used 2 pieces 56.5” to for the OD and 2 pieces 56” long to create inner circle. I staggered the joints of the 4 pieces and some clamps to hold everything together to achieve the perfect 36” outside dimension. I used screws and some narrow pieces of scrap wood (positioned inside the ring) to hold it all together.

Hope this helps anyone looking to use the alternate form instructions. I had no issue using the hardboard to achieve the larger outside diameter.

April 23, 9:34 PM [GMT -5]

The question I have, is how does it survive the heat over several years? I have seen lots of fire pits but they all have the same thing in common. They crack! Just like the "free" rocks around a hole in the ground. My neigbor build something similar to this but every other brick, was a space of air. His claim is it releases the heat so the bricks and mortar wont crack. Time will tell, he has only had one fire in it. He is not a big fire guy, so not sure if his design will be tested.
I burn big fires very weekend. It is not uncommon for me to burn up a 4x8 sheet of old wood, or an old dock section from time to time. What can handle the heat but look this nice?

January 28, 1:09 PM [GMT -5]

I was thinking of building this fire pit but I was thinking of making it into a charcoal grill as well. What could I do to allow for 2 grills to be inserted for grilling?

January 28, 1:09 PM [GMT -5]

I was thinking of building this fire pit but I was thinking of making it into a charcoal grill as well. What could I do to allow for 2 grills to be inserted for grilling?

December 22, 4:54 PM [GMT -5]

The bricks I used were longer so I had problems breaking them. I used a skill saw with a diamond blade to cut them which worked fine.For some reason I didn't use as much concrete and cement but the plans and directions worked out great. I had never worked with bricks before but it came out looking good. we really enjoy making fires and having a few beers.

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