An outdoor fireplace makes a great gathering spot. It creates a feeling of intimacy while letting you stay outside to take advantage of long summer evenings.
You can install one in a sheltered entry courtyard, along the rear wall of a home, or at the boundary between paved and planted areas. Here's some inspiration for your own setting and help in choosing the right fireplace unit, including some low-commitment choices.
"Good neighbors use chimneys, especially when a wood-burning fireplace is near the property line," says John Crouch of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. The chimney elevates the release point of smoke.
• Burn dry, well-seasoned firewood. This greatly reduces the amount of smoke and particulate (a by-product of combustion).
• Add a spark arrester. Chimneytop units trap and break up embers.
• Avoid burning when fire danger is high or an inversion layer (which inhibits the upward motion of air) is likely.
• Switch to wood substitutes to reduce pollution and minimize the chance of a wayward spark escaping. You can buy wax-based logs, such as Duraflame's Open Air fire log, at home-improvement or grocery stores. Logs made of "densified wood" ― compressed sawdust ― are also cleaner-burning choices. Try Goodwood from Summit Views (877/872-8341).
Notched into a hillside retaining wall, the stone-clad fireplace pictured above is an elegant garden focal point. An arbor tops the gently curving wall, which includes built-in storage for firewood.
Design: Michael Yandle, landscape architect, Ross, CA (415/464-0763).
Patio furnishings: Linda Applewhite & Associates, San Rafael, CA (415/456-2757)
Traditional masonry models ― with footing, a firebrick-lined firebox, and a brick-lined or stone chimney ― are heavy and costly. Here are lighter, less expensive options.
Precast modules (often made of pumice stone) stack together to make the firebox, fireplace, and chimney. Installing these lighter-weight sections is easier than dealing with heavy solid units. Isokern Fireplace Systems makes a 36-inch-wide patio fireplace with options including a firebrick interior and stone, tile, or stucco finish on the exterior ($1,200-$1,700 plus shipping; 866/476-5376).
Another modular fireplace, the Manor House from Nexo (imported by Hearthlink International), comes prefinished with a stone veneer ($1,999 plus shipping; www.outdoorfireplaces.com or 877/337-8414).
Originally made of clay, these freestanding portable units have been updated with more options in recent years. Hearthlink International offers several versions made of cast aluminum. At a relatively light 90 pounds, they're easier to move than the traditional kind. They include spark arresters, small-mesh screens, and leg levelers (for uneven patio surfaces). An optional gas-log set can also be ordered. From $399 including shipping; www.outdoorfireplaces.com or 877/337-8414.
THE FUTURE IS GAS
The safest and cleanest-burning outdoor fireplaces use natural gas and log sets made of a cementlike, heat-resistant ceramic material molded to look like real logs. (The log sets also include molded, ceramic-fiber "embers" that glow realistically.)
Install log sets in outdoor fireplaces that have been plumbed with gas lines. (They should not be installed in open firepits.) A variety of log sets are manufactured by the Robert H. Peterson Company (800/332-0240).
For more information on outdoor fireplaces and related products, contact the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association; 703/522-0086.
More: Modern fireplaces