Building an Outdoor Fireplace – What to Know Before You DIY

by on November 8, 2012Wilma Stordahl

If you’re going to build an outdoor fireplace as a DIY project, there are a number of things to consider before you start clearing the area and buying materials. It’s important to take some time to think about the space you wish to create, how you will use it, and what materials to use. A little planning at the outset of your DIY project can save you headaches and regrets later.

Although this article is primarily about building an outdoor fireplace, many of the considerations discussed here, with a few exceptions, can be applied to building an open, outdoor fire pit as well.


Is it OK to Build an Outdoor Fireplace DIY?

With any building project, it’s best to check your city ordinances for restrictions and requirements before you start your DIY project. Read these building codes before you start designing. If a permit is required, make sure you understand the timelines and fees involved to avoid delaying your DIY project.

If you’re planning to build an outdoor fireplace and you want it connected to a gas line, you will very likely need a permit. Again, understand what the city’s building and permitting department will require, if inspections will be needed, and whether or not building it yourself is even an option. When there are gas and electrical lines involved, you may need to hire a licensed professional to install these utilities for you.

Finally, will building an outdoor fireplace cause any changes in your homeowner’s insurance policy? Check. It’s better to find out before you start working than after.

How Will Your Outdoor Fireplace Function?

Designers always say that “form follows function.” Basically, you should consider how you will use your outdoor fireplace before you design it or choose what form it will take. Do you want your outdoor fireplace to act primarily as an additional source of warmth and evening lighting, casting a warm glow on your patio? If your primary goal is to create ambiance, a traditional fireplace like the ones you see indoors is your best bet.

If you want to use your outdoor fireplace for outdoor cooking, however, you may want to consider building a fire pit instead. If cooking will be a function of the fireplace, you will want to install a metal grate to cook on. What about counters? Would it make sense to build some counter space while you’re at it?

These same considerations can help determine the location as well. Should you build your outdoor fireplace in close proximity to the kitchen or back door, or do you want its location to be more intimate and remote? Put some serious thought into how you will use your outdoor fireplace before you start to build your DIY project.

Sketch out the minimum dimensions you need to create a fireplace that functions as you want. Besides, you’ll need these measurements later when you start calculating material quantities.

Choosing a Location for Your Outdoor Fireplace

When choosing a location for your outdoor fireplace, an important element to consider is wind. Locate your outdoor fireplace in a spot that will minimize the negative impact that could be caused by gusts from strong prevailing winds. You don’t want smoke blowing into your living spaces, and into your face, every time you cook something.

Call before you dig! Check for the existence of any cables, gas and sewer lines as well as electrical conduits. You won’t want any underground utilities under your outdoor fireplace. It would be a shame to have to demolish your the fireplace if a sewer line fails.

You’ll also want to locate your outdoor fireplace a safe distance from the house, any other buildings, and overhanging trees.

Finally, choose a spot that’s fairly level. Make sure water flows away from the location you’ve chosen, and build your outdoor fireplace in a place where water will not accumulate.

Designing an Outdoor Fireplace

Once you know how you will use your outdoor fireplace and where you would like it to be located, think about its design. That’s right, I said design. Sure, you could slap something together in a weekend, but there’s no reason why your DIY project has to LOOK like a DIY project. When you take time to design your outdoor fireplace, people will be amazed that you built it yourself.

Consider the architectural style of your house and the decorating style you use on the interior of your home. Is it modern? Eclectic? Traditional? Your outdoor fireplace should complement this style. Let’s face it: A traditional brick fireplace may look out of place if you have a modern home and garden.

What materials will you use? What materials and colors do you have on your house? If you have stone, is it going to look right to build a brick fireplace?

The firebox on a traditional fireplace should be constructed of flame-retardant firebrick. You can’t use river stones inside a firebox or around a fire pit. They will explode. However, once you have the minimum one inch of non-combustible fire brick between the flame and any flammable materials, you can select outer materials to match your home. This could be stone, brick, or concrete.

If you’re also designing walls or countertops when you build your outdoor fireplace, choose materials for your capstones and countertops that will complement other elements of the house and garden. For example, if you have a patio of Pennsylvania bluestone, use this same stone for your wall caps. Concrete countertops and wall caps are also nice, and you can add integral color to the concrete mix and really have some fun. The bottom line: Design your outdoor fireplace so it looks like it belongs there.

Planning for Accessibility and Circulation Around the Fireplace

Accessibility and circulation near and around your outdoor fireplace are important. If you have disabled or older friends and family members, you will want them to enjoy the space too. The ground surface surrounding the fireplace should be stable and free draining.

There should be a minimum of 3 feet between any seating and the fire, and a clear space of at least 30 inches wide if the space will need to accommodate a wheelchair. If you’re building an outdoor fireplace for cooking, make the cooking surface accessible for someone in a wheelchair by designing it at a height of 24 to 30 inches. Similarly, the minimum height for a cooking grate on a fire pit should be 18 inches.

It might seem like a lot to consider, but if you put the effort into designing an outdoor fireplace now, your DIY project will go much smoother – and you’ll be able to enjoy the result of your efforts for years to come.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bridget January 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm

If you have a home owners association, you may want to contact them as well. They may have restrictions on what you can and cannot do.


Joe Mama January 26, 2014 at 4:46 pm

screw HOAs. Retired people with nothing better to do…


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