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It doesn’t matter if it’s an elaborate stone grotto or just a battered 50-gallon oil drum — parties around a fire are always memorable. And even if you don’t have a backyard, you still have a lot of options. We looked into all kinds of fire pits — chimineas, outdoor fireplaces, pits, rings and bowls, and of course the basic hole in the ground. But remember, what’s most important is relaxing with friends and sharing stories — warmth, we discovered, may be optional.
Chim Chim Cheroo
Chimineas.These outdoor furnaces are built with a firebox in their base and a chimney above to draw air in and smoke out. They are traditionally made of clay, but can also be found in cast iron and a lighter-weight cast aluminum. The metal ones conduct more heat than clay but require a bit more maintenance — they need to be repainted with a high-temperature-resistant coating every few years. Avoid cheap sheet-metal ones, and be sure to check the thickness — thin ones can melt, and their enamel coating can chip, making it vulnerable to rust. Also watch out for thin sheet-metal chimneys on cast-iron models. Rain caps are a nice bonus; they prevent a soggy firebox.
Heat-o-meter: Small chimineas provide more atmosphere than real warmth. If you’re gonna get a chiminea, go big or not at all — you can always make a smaller fire in a large chiminea.
Safety: Don’t place a chiminea directly on a wooden patio or grass; use a fire pad or slab of slate under it. Make sure your firebox has a screen for protection. Some even come with spark arresters, which are mesh caps that fit at the base of the chimney to prevent burning embers from escaping.
Blazes: Cast-iron and cast-aluminum models are the longest-lasting types of fire pit. Another highlight is that the smoke that would otherwise make its way into your guests’ eyes, clothes and hair is drafted up and away.
Burns: The fire is only visible from one side, so guests sitting behind it can’t enjoy the flames.
Can you roast a pig on it? Sadly, not a whole pig, but maybe pork chops? Many metal models come with racks you can insert for cooking food inside the firebox, and some have a removable chimney for grilling.
Available at gardening stores, Home Depot (www.homedepot.com) and The Blue Rooster (www.thebluerooster.com).
Bowl You Over
Fire Pits. Fire pits come in all sizes and shapes — from cut-out steel bowls and fancy copper cauldrons to granite-lined pits with curvy wrought-iron legs. Whatever vessel you choose, you want to make sure it’s deep enough to protect the flame from wind and your guests from burning embers. You also want to make sure it has a decent thickness and has been fire tested at high temperatures; thin ones can melt and warp. Smaller ones are great for a cement balcony off your apartment or a small stone or brick deck.
Heat-o-meter: It’s simple — the larger the pit, the bigger the fire, the more heat.
Blazes: Some pits come with a footrest bar so you can keep your tootsies toasty, and some fancier models can be turned into coffee tables when not in use. And unlike a heavy chiminea, fire pits are easy to move around.
Safety: Make sure yours comes with a screen to prevent burning embers from escaping. Check the guide that comes with your model; some can’t be used on wooden patio decks.
Burns: That pit sure is nice lookin’, but we’re here to manage your expectations — after a single use, that shiny copper will dull to black. Also, some pits come with wrought-iron or cast-iron legs, which can rust and stain your patio.
Can you roast a pig on it?Why, yes. Yes you can. Some models come with a spit for roasting, and most come at least with a grill rack.
Great selections at www.outdoor-fireplace-guide.com and www.sojoe.com; also available at outdoor-furniture stores, most Target stores (www.target.com) and Smith & Hawken in Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Costa Mesa (www.smithandhawken.com).
Portable Fireplaces. Portable outdoor fireplaces usually come with wheels, making them easy to scoot across the patio or lawn — plus, they’re rugged and durable.
Heat-o-meter: These can get hot: With a 360-degree view of the flames, every guest has direct access to the heat.
Blazes: You can pack these up and take ’em anywhere — picnicking, fishing or camping.
Safety: They come with a surrounding screen, making them very safe. The screen can be removed and the lid lowered onto the bottom to snuff out the fire.
Burns: They aren’t that attractive.
Can you roast a pig on it? No, but you can cook wieners nonetheless, or your catch of the day.
Available at camping stores and online at www.coleman.com and www.outdoorfireplaces.net.
If you have a big backyard, and a place where a rising flame won’t pose a threat to your home or neighbors, you can dig your own pit. (Check your local fire codes.) Here’s how to dig one: