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Outdoor Fireplaces

Open-air hearths to warm your nights

By Robbin Obomsawin
Published: October 1, 2004
An outdoor fireplace can extend the use of a porch, deck, patio or gazebo well into fall. It can be free-standing, or built against an exterior wall of the home.
Photo by Kindra Clineff/Lake Placid Lodge
There is something hypnotic about watching the popping sparks, dancing flames and glowing embers in the fire’s hearth.
When our boys were young, my husband and I would look forward to evenings when we could huddle around a fire and tell ghost stories late into the night. I still relish relaxing in front of a flickering fire at the end of a busy day.
The ambiance and charm exuded by a fireplace add so much to a cabin experience – especially when that fireplace is outdoors.
When the evenings turn crisp, there’s no reason to abandon the porch, deck, garden or terrace that has served you so well during the warmer days of summer. A fireplace out-of-doors can extend the use of those areas until well into the fall months. And with outdoor spaces being the most often used “rooms” these days, that just makes a lot of sense.

Imagine the Possibilities
A fireplace can easily become the focal point of any outdoor garden, deck or porch, creating a favorite gathering spot. You’ll find yourself spending more and more time there when the space is comfortable and inviting.
Open your mind beyond the typical fire pit. With a full-fledged fireplace, there are great opportunities to design a haven for relaxation.
Imagine a seating area with a raised hearth dressed with pillows so you can get close to the warmth of the fire. This also makes a good perch for spontaneous hot dog grilling or s’more-making. Gather sofas and chairs around the hearth for an inviting sitting area.
Picture a rustic coffee table for snacks and drinks, or a game table for games of cards, checkers or Monopoly. Visualize a rugged pine dining table in front of the fire. Bewitching flames will outshine
candlelight any time.
An outdoor fireplace can be built in so many places. It can be attached to the cabin; placed in a free-standing gazebo; or set off on its own, barbeque style. It can be a stand-alone or part of a larger grouping, such as an outdoor kitchen or entertainment center.
Wherever the outdoor fireplace sits, it should be easily accessible and connected to the main house in some way – by walks or a connecting terrace – creating a flow and functionality where the paths easily and conveniently lead you to a great outdoor space.

Kiva fireplaces are known for their distinctive rounded, fluid shape. The fireplace, traditionally made of bricks and clay, absorbs heat and radiates it outward. Built-in bancos provide seating.
Photo by Roger Wade
Seeing the Whole Picture
You can start creating your fantasy fireplace by collecting pictures of fireplaces you like. Keep in mind that the photo you love may not be the perfect match for your home’s design. So collect several. You may like only one or two features (the way it’s positioned on a porch, the color of the rock, the shape of the firebox). It’s fun and beneficial to collect and study visual ideas that become inspiration for your own fireplace.
As you move forward in planning your outdoor fireplace, ask yourself these questions:

  •   Do you want it on a covered porch, an open air deck or on a terrace?
  •   Will it be attached to the home, or free-standing?
  •   Will it be part of a private area outside a master bedroom?
  •   Or will it be in a more public space with accessibility to the kitchen or great room?

  •   How will you use the area? Will you need seating for lounging, dining or entertaining?
  •   What time of day are you most likely to use the fireplace, and how will the sun’s pattern affect the area’s use?

  •    How big do you want it? Size and height should be in proportion to the cabin, camp or cottage. The wrong combination can detract from a home or create a space that is not inviting or comfortable.
  •    Do you want a rustic look (fieldstone, river rock, etc.), or something more streamlined (clay, brick)?
  •    What color? (There are hundreds of choices of stone and mortar coloration, all of which can greatly change the overall look.)
  •    Raised hearth or ground-level?
  •    Do you want wood storage built into the firebox area or in a separate, detached area?

Nuts and Bolts     
  •   What is your budget?
  •   Do you want a wood-burning or gas fireplace?
  •   Are there views that would benefit the proposed area?

Whether fired by wood or gas, the classic firepit never goes out of style. The surround can be built of concrete, rock, brick or stones.
Photo by Roger Wade
Manufactured Units
Manufactured outdoor fireplaces are very economical compared to the cost of a large masonry fireplace. These outdoor fireboxes are available from several manufacturers and are ready to finish with your choice of brick, tile, stucco, manufactured stone or natural stone. Be sure to purchase a fire box that is specially made for outdoor use, generally one that is made of materials such as stainless steel.
If you don’t like collecting and stacking wood – and waiting for the flames to get going – consider the convenience of a gas fireplace. With a flick of a switch – or a remote control – you can have instant flames that put out a good amount of heat.
A wood-burning unit – whether traditional masonry or manufactured – often can be retrofitted to gas.

Adding One On
A fireplace can easily be added on to an already existing cabin. When attaching a fireplace to an existing structure, your contractor will need to run the base footer down below the frost line. (The depth is dictated by your area’s natural freeze cycle. In some areas this is only 1 foot; in other areas it may be 4 feet or more.) Also, a bit of engineering is needed to determine the proper height and weight of a tall chimney so that, once attached to an existing structure, it will allow for expansion and contraction of the house.
When building an outdoor fireplace onto an existing structure, consider whether the planned chimney stack would interfere with the roofline’s ability to shed water or would compromise a major structural support of the home. Also, an outdoor fireplace connecting to a home must clear a minimum of 3 feet from the roof’s peak to ensure proper draw of air and to meet code requirements.
Building a chimney onto a home is rarely a do-it-yourself project. There are many tricks to any trade, and a good craftsman’s work is never as simple as it appears.

Lessons Learned
On my first fireplace project years ago, I hired a professional mason to construct the three-story fireplace box and footers. I thought my husband and I could save some money by doing the surface stonework ourselves. After 20 hours and reaching only 4 feet in height – and realizing it had the lousiest joint work (or pointing) between the stones we had ever seen – I knew I had to call a professional mason to re-point my work and finish the rest of the fireplace stonework.
You would think that would be a good lesson. As a general contractor, it is my job to know the best trade people who can do a cost-effective and professional job. A-l-t-h-o-u-g-h … 18 years later I again have the urge to build an outdoor fireplace with massive oversized boulders and a mortarless, loose lay stone. Time will tell if I have again bitten off more than I can chew.
On the other hand, some people just have a natural knack for certain things.
A few years ago a husband and wife – biologists by trade – chose to build their own fireplace. They researched the process and took a one-week, hands-on course on building fireplaces. I must say they did a wonderful job.
Their fireplace is a mix of light flint cobblestone, red brick and gray slate. The proportions of the materials and the mix of colors make it an artistic masterpiece that has become the property’s focal point.
It has become a favorite gathering place for family and friends – a spot they’ll enjoy for many years.

Robbin Obomsawin is the construction manager and general contractor for Beaver Creek Log Homes of central New York. ( & ). She’s also a well-known and prolific author (her book titles include “The Not So Log Cabin,” “Small Log Homes,” “Best Log Home Plans,” “Log Cabin Classics” and her latest, “The Arts & Crafts Cabin”).

Fireplace Tips & Techniques

  • Cast iron fire-backs may be placed behind the fire to protect the masonry work, while absorbing and radiating additional heat into your outdoor room. 
  • An overhead covered porch can help trap the warm air into an outdoor room radiated by the fire.
  • A few added outdoor heaters can extend an area’s cold-weather use.
  • During the design stage you may wish to consider creating a double-sided fireplace by utilizing the same fire box both outside and inside the home. Flue enclosures and stonework can be shared by backing the two units against each other, thus reducing the cost of construction.
  • Be sure not to compete with scenic vistas by placing an imposing fireplace right in the middle of the view, from either the inside or outside of a structure.
  • The outdoor fireplace can give an adventurous cook the opportunity to try a hand at preparing creative meals over an open flame. It may even be a fun way to cajole the kids into making a meal!
  • Just because it is an outdoor fireplace does not mean you should neglect its cleaning and maintenance schedule. Be sure to sweep the chimney flue on a regular basis. Seal exposed mortar joints or pointing to keep freezing water from breaking up the mortar surface.
  • In some fireplace configurations radiant tubing can be placed to run through the “hot spot” of the fire box that, in turn, heats the outdoor patio slab to melt ice and snow away.

Up in Flames

If your budget or space does not allow for a full-fledged fireplace, consider these options. Some are mobile and can be moved easily to other parts of the outdoor room.  

Fire rings cast in concrete, copper or many other decorative mediums. Fire rings can be portable or permanent, wood-burning or gas. Fiberglass-reinforced concrete fire pits come in many different sizes and styles. Some fire rings are metal pans with dome screen lids while others are square configurations.

Chimineas made of metal or clay. They are often fashioned after the Southwest style pot-belly, outdoor kiva, elevated off the ground by legs made of clay or hand-forged iron. If you plan to have a chiminea out in the open that will be exposed to severe weather, consider a metal one. Clay is porous and will absorb water like any clay pot would over the winter, and the freeze-thaw cycle will lead to crazing, flaking and cracking. If the clay chiminea is for seasonal use, store it in a safe, dry place over winter.

Campfire pits.
These are an alternative to fire rings. Resembling a traditional campfire, these pits are not elevated off the ground. They are quick and easy to set up and can use clean burning gas with no sparks and no smoke. You purchase the central components of a stainless steel burner and ceramic concrete logs, then you add your own decorative surrounding by using local rock, bricks or imported stones.

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