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When Fire Pits Turn Into Life Lessons

'I kept at it on my own with no one to guide me and only my own skills to work with, and in the end, I found that I was much more capable than I thought,' writes columnist Dr. Molly O'Shea.

A fire pit. That's what we went to Home Depot to get. Simple, right?

I wanted to get a relatively deep one that would allow the ashes to settle and not blow all over the yard. One that would encourage a whole evening of sitting outside listening to the sound of crackling wood and leave my clothes infused with the smell of hardwood. A fire pit that would bring us all out for the evening to chat and enjoy the pleasure of summer nights.

When we got to the store, Conall and I looked at our options. Most were black metal, shallow bowls with mesh tops that stood on small, curved feet. Some had chimney-like extensions and looked more like something you'd see in the desert Southwest than in a Michigan backyard. One was more decorative with a deeper bowl and a faux stone edge, but none seemed to fit my romantic vision.

Fire pit from scratch

Conall was the first to spy the fire pit liner. It was a lonely item, the only one of its kind wedged in between the other fire pits, and Conall suggested we build our own fire pit.

Build our own? I had never even considered that. He explained that we would get the liner and use pavers to create the structure to hold it and it certainly seemed like a better design stylistically than the options I'd seen. But there was no template or "how-to" guide to use, no directions to follow to ensure it turned out right. And frankly, no man to help with the heavy lifting and help ensure a working, safe structure.

I am not afraid of challenging projects and have spent many hours building things and fixing things over the years. When I was married, my husband and I actually built a family room addition. We built the walls, put in the windows, ceiling and floor. We rewired the room and it was terrific.

Even though I was a steady, hard worker wielding hammer, drill, saw and screwdriver, I never felt that I was the foreman of the job. I was part of the crew, following someone else's lead and giving input. Until now, though, I hadn't quite thought about it in this way. I had prided myself in my ability to construct things and talked about this and other projects as if they were equally mine. I realize now they weren't.

As we stood in the aisle at Home Depot the thought of something as simple as a fire pit felt daunting. We calculated the circumference of the liner and then estimated how many pavers we'd need to make the structure 3 rows high in order to insert the liner. We discussed how deep to dig the pit itself and that the pit had to be the right diameter so the pavers wouldn't be in there, too, but rather form the perimeter.

We thought through what we would put over the exposed earth to ensure a safe place to build a fire. We laid out a practice layer of the pavers and measured the diameter to fine tune our estimate of the number of pavers. We then loaded up the 39 pavers, sand, fine pebbles and liner and headed home.

Harder than it looks

After figuring out exactly where we wanted the structure to sit, we carefully placed the liner on the ground to mark exactly where the circle for digging should be. We transplanted the sod, dug the hole and laid out the pavers.

Our first snag.

We had correctly calculated the circumference and determined it would take 12-13 pavers per row, but, of course, it didn't end up being an exact number. We spread out the pavers with some space between them, stacked them up and placed the liner in.

Our second snag.

Although we had prepared the hole for the pit, we neglected to level out the ground and the whole thing listed a bit to one side. It would have worked and would have been safe, but I felt that I needed to correct it. I didn't want my first real project to be lopsided.

We disassembled the structure and using the dirt we had saved from the pit we dug we leveled the ground and built it again. This time the structure was stable and level but the gaps between the pavers concerned me. We had put gravel and sand in the bottom of the pit but I still worried that embers could sneak out through the gaps and the surrounding area would be at risk.

Our third snag.

We disassembled the structure again and this time we interwove the pavers differently so the structure could be tight but still not be too narrow or too wide for the fire pit liner to fit snugly in. We redid the rows a couple of times, ensuring tight joints, until we found the right combination of pavers to have tight joints, staggered layering and still fit the liner. Whew! We added some more sand to the bottom and voila, we had a fire pit!

DIY Life Lessons

Conall was a great teammate, but at times I could see and feel his frustration as we rearranged the stones to make it just right. For once, I was the foreman on the job and, OK, wasn't good enough. I didn't need it to be perfect, but I really needed it to be a point of pride for me.

In a way, conceiving the plan and executing it through a series of drafts was like life. I knew I wanted a fire pit, but when I decided I needed to make it on my own, the challenges of fitting all the pieces together to have a good-looking, functional structure proved harder than I thought.

In the past, I could have turned to my partner for advice and guidance, or in reality, given up some responsibility for the plan and its execution. It would have been easy to fall back into that place of worker bee had a partner been there as well.

I am so glad he wasn't. I kept at it on my own with no one to guide me and only my own skills to work with, and in the end, I found that I was much more capable than I thought, and the structure is beautiful and sound and all mine.

S'mores, anyone?

The Duke of Royal Oak May 21, 2012 at 02:42 AM
How does one control the flow of smoke from a burning fire outdoors? Most property lots are close to another home. That is suburban living which is different from country living.
The Duke of Royal Oak May 21, 2012 at 02:43 AM
You can wear a mask, that may help you.
The Duke of Royal Oak May 21, 2012 at 02:46 AM
One must consider others.
SJMEnterprises57 May 21, 2012 at 03:15 AM
As I mentioned, I reside in a township of Grand Rapids, which is a suburb of GR, and bit more rural than in the city proper. In their revision the township made a requirement that any fire pit must be at least 25 feet from a structure in any direction of the fire pit. I guess in terms of the smoke issue, I would think that it is a personal responsibility issue on both the part of the persons who have started the fire AND on the person who might be sensitive to smoke. We cannot legislate EVERYTHING in this world that can cause harm to people. Sometimes people just have to just deal with the bad things in life - and I know this from my own life experience. I am disabled and in a wheelchair, and have learned that sometimes in the real world that there are times when I cannot do a given thing, and must instead work around it. It is NOT the job of mankind to accommodate the world & its limitations around ME.
Jeff Jones September 04, 2012 at 07:28 PM
Successful concern troll is successful.

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