How to Build a Gas Fire Pit
An Intriguing Building Project
Gas fire pits represent a popular alternative to barbecue grills, and some aspects actually become Do-It-Yourself (DIY) possibilities. Potential ignites first by learning more about the subject.
This article introduces the process of how to build a gas fire pit. Topics covered are design factors, gas issues, operations assembly, and surround construction. Videos, images, charts, and diagrams provide visual enhancements (occasionally in thumbprints and side blurbs) to ease and break up reading.
With awareness heightened, including pitfalls and challenges, you'll become more informed, which is necessary. For indeed tackling a gas fire pit building project is an ambitious undertaking, particularly if you are doing almost every step yourself. You might decide otherwise. Who knows? That is your decision. Nevertheless, a gas fire pit--however it is built--becomes an outside focal point.
My dad had a worn fireplace handbook hanging around. Sunset's 1973 "How to Plan and Build Fireplaces." In it I read that, "Every kind of fireplace is at home out of doors" (p. 34.) This comment has a certain sort of ring to it, doesn't it? Every kind of human is at home out of doors, too.
Our decisions however depend on where we are: our location.
Landscape Bubble Map
Design 1: Location
Location is paramount. Where will you put your gas fire pit?
First, you will want to locate it in a specific area outside of your dwelling. Will it be positioned on an existing patio (see image below) or on virgin ground? Imagine the scene at different times, day and night (glance at thumbprints below).
Next, snap a few shots of your exterior with a camera or draw a bubble map of key areas. Several applicable apps let you digitally write and draw in freehand, or grab a pencil and pad. Searching online for "landscape bubble maps" retrieves lots of possibilities to get you thinking holistically about your outside areas.
I discovered and freely downloaded a PDF from the US Department of Agriculture (in conjunction with Iowa State University). Step 7 "Sketch functional diagrams" included a "Home Landscape Planning Worksheet" on page 2 (see "Landscape Bubble Map").
Last, be cognizant of obstructions (e.g., tree branches, cable lines, and so forth). I walked around my parents' yard and figured out where a gas fire pit might go. Follow suit and bubble away.
You've decided where to put your gas fire pit. Now what?
Fire Pit on Existing Patio
More GlimpsesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Design 2: Other Features
OK. You've decided where to put your gas fire pit. Now what?
Other factors impact the design phase (to your right). Start questioning preferences. What other features do you want?
- Size - What coordinates with and is in proportion to what already exists? If nothing exists, what will you want to enhance, after installing your gas fire pit?
- Shape - What appeals to you? Round, rectangular, square?
- Material - What surfaces draw you in? Metal? Masonry, e.g, brick, stone?
Considering what operates the fire and also protects it, even more questions abound, such as height?
- Do you want to look down or up or across from the flame? Table or cocktail-table height?
- How high do you want the flame to go?
As an aside, web terminology varies. Kit is used interchangeably as in gas fire pit kit, gas fire pit insert kit, and so on. For the sake of simplification, a complete gas fire pit kit (in this article) represents two systems:
- Exterior Construction - the outside support structure, called a fire pit surround.
- Operation Assembly - the inside gas-ignition and flame-related components, called a fire pit insert.
Do you want to build the surround or insert yourself? That decision depends on finding out more about both.
Insert: Operating a Gas Fire Pit
The quality and type of gas fire pit insert will vary according to your needs and likes. The basic assembly consists of three parts, sometimes four:
- burner (for flame output),
- (burner) pan (for burner support),
- sometimes a bowl (for burner and pan support), and
- plumbing components (to control the gas fuel and ignite the gas flame).
Burners, pans, and bowls correspond by proportion size and shape, and material. Circular shapes make sense with a 12" round burner (often called a fire ring), atop an 18" round pan, attached to a 36" bowl, whereas you might see an H-shaped burner in a rectangular, stainless steel pan with depth (bowl style). The combinations of styles and features are quite numerous (see examples in two videos to right and thumbprints below). While researching appliances, keep a record of each by adding to your notes (for example, see "Gas Fire Pit Insert Checklist").
Gas runs and ignition starts the fire (important aspects discussed in the next section). Plumbing that is hidden underneath consists of connectors, fittings, couplers, nipples, flex lines, and more. Some conditions will require variations. For example, a larger burner ring might need a bigger orifice for gas flow. One constant however is that placement of gas operations must be firmly secured. Thereafter, many pit users move on to a fill, also called media, such a lava rocks or fire glass.
Will you want to fabricate the insert yourself? Realize that this endeavor will involve drilling, welding, connecting, sealing, and testing gas components yourself. I saw some beautiful custom units online, done by gas insert artisans (my description). Not to say you couldn't apprentice with one and fine tune your skills. But the learning curve would definitely impede your getting an up-and-ready completed fire pit in the near future.
Perhaps you'll purchase a gas fire pit insert kit instead. Nonetheless, please enlighten yourself about gas fuel, in general.
Gas Fire Pit Insert ComponentsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Gas Issues: Finding a Specialist and More
Gas factors are finicky. That's why it's wise to work with an expert who knows about local codes and ordinances. Find out about your municipality's specifications by talking to your public librarian or building official.
Search for gas specialists in the United States and Canada by entering your postal code on the National Fire Institute (NFI) web interface, specifically for the Public. These certified NFI professionals can also assist with down-the-road maintenance and service issues.
Do you have a natural gas line connected to the street, or will you prefer to have propane periodically delivered to your house and stored in a tank? A nonprofit trade organization, the Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association (HPBA), touted advantages (see "Gas Fire Pit Benefits"). In an online glossary they also described two fuel options as:
- Liquid Propane (LP) - "liquefied petroleum gas, available in cylinders, for home use."
- Natural Gas (NG) - "clean-burning fossil fuel transported to homes via an extensive pipeline network."
Know the type of gas you require before you order your unit. Obviously, a natural gas (NG) run appliance will not work with propane (LP) fuel. Appliance and fuel must match.
As for other factors, where and how will you turn on your gas controls? Will you turn on an exterior side valve (encircled area in image below), and then manually light with a match (match lit system) or push with a button (push button system)?
Will you prefer to electronically ignite your gas components by turning on a switch or pressing a remote control?
A professional will be able to read your blueprints (if you have any), and can easily tell you where to sketch utility lines. Represent architectural symbols for gas with capital Gs along a black line and conductor or wire with a black line (for electricity) in your notations as follows:
- _____G_____G_____G_____ (Gas)
- ________________________ (Conductor or wire)
Ask detailed questions and really press the expert about safety precautions.
To expound, why do a lot of work and then have to pay fines, tear down your work, or worse: Suffer the consequences of a catastrophe. How dire if your entire house burned up due to a faulty gas install. Heed the wisdom of: "Better to be safe than sorry."
Now that gas operations can be activated with certifiable convenience, ease, and safety, you're ready to focus on the outside.
Manual Ignition Controls
Surround: Enclosing the Gas Fire Pit
A fire pit enclosure can be portable or not. An immovable fire pit structure, called a surround, can be built on an existing patio or upon virgin ground. This discussion focuses on the latter, which requires these three steps:
While reading, refer to the supply list (below). In the midst of the actual project, you'd assemble applicable tools, equipment, and supplies at the appropriate junctures.
Supply List for Surround (& Beyond)
Gas Fire Pit Insert
Cultured Stone (in two shapes)
Tamper (if rent machine)
Washed Stones (2B)
Low Voltage Lighting (a feature to consider)
Wagon (for stone)
Step 1: Measuring
Excavation of a surround requires measuring beforehand. Do not depend on your excellent memory or loose pieces of paper. Keep these notations handy by jotting them down on a spiral notebook or mobile device (see example to right).
As you skim through A-F next, refer to the "Measuring Before Excavating" (diagram below) to also visually grasp, as follows:
- Center your fire pit with a stake (A).
- Calculate the inside of the fire pit (B). Based upon the shape and size you anticipate or on the fire pit insert (you may have already selected), mark the inside dimensions (ID) for your surround. For a circular surround, sometimes called a fire pit ring, attach twine or string from the center stake to a can of marking paint. Knowing what diameter you require, walk out its radius (1/2 of diameter), spraying the circle as you move around. For example, you could create a 36-inch diameter inside circle by walking out an 18-inch radius.
- Determine the outer dimensions (OD) of the surround (C). Add the width of the masonry building blocks. Let's say you were using eight-inch (8") tapered pavers in the circular surround (below). Its OD would measure 44" (36" ID + 8" paver width).
- Calculate the area outside of the fire pit surround (D). Refer back to B, only walk out and mark another, larger circle. Give yourself no less than six inches (6") more than the OD of the surround. For example, you could create a 50-inch diameter outside circle by walking out a 25-inch radius. You could however mark out a much larger circle for patio-sitting space around your gas fire pit.
- Edge for a more polished look (E). Particularly if you want an enlarged outside space, add the width of masonry building blocks. Again citing the circular example, eight inch (8") pavers placed around the outside would complete the project.
- Distinguish from the rest of the yard (F). Masonry edging accents your fire pit-sitting space from the rest of your property.
Measure before Excavating
Step 2: Excavating the Ground
So now that you've measured, you're ready to excavate. That means preparing the virgin ground (where nothing has been done beforehand), which entails digging and filling.
Refer to the dimensions that you have already marked and noted from the previous Measuring step.
- Have a wheelbarrow handy to move displaced grass and dirt elsewhere as you rake and dig designated area for clearing and flattening.
- Dig down six inches (6") deep, using a shovel or tiller (for an enlarged outside circle). Start from the center of your fire pit to the outside diameter of your surround, plus at least another six inches (6") outside of it. For a larger outside (patio) area, you might want to include the width of wall stones (pavers) for edging.
A quick lesson about the dimensions of masonry blocks is to look at one from above for length (l) and width (w) and from the side for height (h) (thickness). Picture a brick, for instance, measuring the basic math equation of l x w x h, or in real numbers as 4 x 8 x 2 inches.
Another quick lesson about weather. This circular surround example is dry-set, neither the foundation nor the structure are mortared. Mortar is the wet mixture of cement, sand, and water that later dries and cures. Digging deeper than the frost line, which varies by region, requires more preparation, to further secure masonry structures.
- Fill the empty area with quarry dust and then 2B washed stones. My dad's first drawing (below) illustrates this step. After the outer six inches (6") some folks added gravel to the larger, patio expanse.
- Flatten with a tamper (manual or machine), periodically making sure that the expanse is level. Some homeowners set up excavation areas with stakes and string, while others put a block of wood on the ground, and then place the level on the string or wood to check.
Once base levelness has been determined, you're ready to construct the surround.
Excavating & Building Surround (drawings)
Step 3: Building Surround
Assemble your tools and already selected materials, wall-stone blocks, and perhaps cap stones for the top. Be certain that the foundation is level.
Some sources recommended a fire pit height of five layers, also called courses, but one stated never to go higher than seven. Stagger as follows (see second drawing above):
- For the base course, place your blocks around, lining out from the inside fire pit diameter for a circular surround. Using tapered circle blocks (see below) makes this job easier.
- Continue the next course, only place the blocks on top of the joints of those blocks on the bottom layer.
- Repeat until you have reached your desired height. If blocks in courses jut out, check the vertical alignment with your level and tap them back in place with a mallet.
You might want to dab masonry adhesive on the top of blocks in each course except for the two top layers. You certainly would not want to look at dabs of anything on your cap stones at the very top. Some advice stated being able to remove them from the second to last layer, in order to thoroughly clean and service your fire pit insert. The steel bowl supporting the fire pit insert can rest upon the surround wall, or on these top cap stones, depending on the type of surround constructed.
Make an opening space (typically 3" x 5") for the control mechanism (gas on and off valve). A nearby shut off must always be located for emergency purposes. Some vendors also suggest allowing two openings (3" x 6" or larger) for ventilation across from each other. Lower openings might also provide necessary drainage. By the way, for a surround constructed on an existing surface, provisions need to be made at the base for water to escape.
A fire pit insert is easy to install, but you might prefer having a specialist do it when hooking up the gas. You must arrange for such service ahead of time.
One more point. Protect your gas fire pit when not in use (see "Cover" above right). Covering with a stainless steel or copper-coated lid, for example, equates to putting a period at the end of a sentence. Your gas fire pit is now complete with a nice-looking-yet-practical finishing touch.
Courses of Fire PIt Blocks
Illumination PracticeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Looking at Gas Fire Pit Kits
Below are various gas fire pit models to peruse. Look, look, look. I remember my mom telling me that her design professor in college assigned students to browse through magazines to learn about current day design elements.
How this exercise pertains is familiarizing with what's available online, in print, and in store. It's the best way to get comfortable with and informed about the topic. While doing so, play around with a flash or shop light (see "Illumination Practice" above).
Also, keep in mind (and tally) the costs of purchasing a gas fire pit. The nonprofit Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association (HPBA) included a helpful digital checklist about fireplaces that I adapted for gas fire pits (see "Estimating Costs").
Building Yourself: Pros & Cons
Will you build your entire gas fire pit yourself?
My indoctrination into this topic was running across a video in which the author did just that (see to your right). For me the value of watching it (for 10+ minutes) was twofold:
- Better understanding of the steps necessary to personally build and install.
- Learning more about the process by gleaning from comments posted.
Many replies mentioned adding an air mixer to resolve a too-much-soot problem. My dad and others thought the fire needed more oxygen. Lots of folks viewed the endeavor as pretty "dangerous." Remarks went on and on, heeding benefits and pitfalls.
What a tremendous forum for finding out if you should tackle this do-it-yourself (DIY) project or not. Becoming familiar with jargon, such as fire bricks, stone walling, Venturi effect, and so forth, is an added bonus.
The exchanges reminded me of high school when our librarian would recommend we peruse the opposing viewpoint volumes. Exploring issues from varied perspectives helped us formulate more-broadly-informed decisions.
I wasn't sure when to tell you about this video, near the beginning or toward the end of this article. I chose here because I wanted you to acknowledge the pros about the process, rather than be immediately overwhelmed by the cons. Do watch it when you get a chance and skim some of the discussions.
A DIY approach depends on guts and gas: Your skill level and local code requirements. You certainly can change your mind in mid stream. For instance, the author (of the above "How to Make Your Gas Fire Pit From Scratch" video) ultimately suggested "buying a proper kit rather than doing it [his] way."
In the final analysis, what will you do?
Ready to Sit Down and Entertain
Building a Gas Fire Pit Your Way
"Firepits are hearth appliances that are closest in style to an old-fashioned campfire because they radiate heat in a complete circle" (HPBA). Yet, we now know that there's a lot more to gas fire pits than circles of sentimentality.
This article has served as a starting point, to explain and illustrate gas fire pit design factors, gas benefits, operation and surround particulars, and more. However, you'll know which approach you'll take by acquiring the knowledge that's necessary for you to make your decisions. It's OK to ask questions and feel uncertain. Unless you are a gas fire pit expert, how else will you know what to do?
Kits are available for DIY gas fire pit inserts and surrounds. Do you prefer to drop in a ready-made insert and then build the surround yourself? Do you simply want to learn more and have a gas specialist install and a contractor build? Are you artistic and want to custom create everything after you've apprenticed with an experienced artisan?
Your real-life gas fire pit journey begins. Go get started and enjoy the process!