Saturday, April 21, 2007

New Home for Home Improvement

After using Expression engine for a while, I got a bit tired of fighting spam. The Expression engine tool was nice but as a demo, it offered no captcha upgrade and configuring it was a long slow learning process. So, here, I have relocated my posts for your reference and enjoyment. Please be aware web searches for these articles may still point to On this now site, I hope to spend more time posting about what will occupy most of my time this summer - home improvement - D.I.Y., of course. Cheers!

Creating a Stone Stair


One of the best values in landscaping is a truck load of stones of varying size. You can usually get three or four tons for around $100 depending on your local economy and availability of materials. In the mid-west there is an abundance of "river rock", usually rounded organic shapes rocks that were pushed around by the glaciers during the last ice age. Typically any quarry in the mid west that offers sand and gravel has a pile or two of stone to offer too. I'm not familiar with the types of stone available in the South, New England, the North West or the South West, but the general specifications for this project are the same. You want a number of stones between 12 and 24 inches wide and between 6 and 14 inches high of varying depths. The easiest way to come by these is to have a load of randomly sized rocks delivered. I say random as opposed to screened by size as the random lot will provide materials for other project's I'll be discussing. You'll have a pile of rocks in the yard for the summer but the kids will love you and some of your neighbors may even confess to a little envy. Either way you go, a small sized load (often you can pick your own if you can transport them yourself), or a large random selection should produce a nice set of stones suitable for a simple staircase.


You'll want a sturdy shovel (the kind with the rounded end, not a spade), a good pair of work gloves (the new latex coated elastic kind I find have a superior grip and wear to leather work gloves) and some common sense: always lift with your knees, not your back or groin. Optionally, you may want a stone boat and or pry bar for transporting and manipulating larger stones. In my case, I made a simple stone boat out of a discarded car tire and a tow chain attached to my garden tractor. The tire slid harmlessly over my lawn and driveway and was slick enough that I was able to pull a 100 lb. stone with my tractor.

My Stair in the woods
Selecting Stones

Using natural, as opposed to manufactured, stones gives a very rich and pleasing look and feel to your work. Manufactured blocks provide precise edges and can have their appeal, but a really professional look can be achieved with stone. Ideally, you're going to pick stones that have one or more large flat sides. This will be the run of the step that stone will become. Pick, if you can, stone colors that contrast with or compliment the color of your house and other surroundings. Picking colors that are too similar to your house can create a bland appearance where the stone work fails to stand out against the backdrop of the house. The same goes if you are installing your stair near a deck or gazebo. You want stone color that won't clash or disappear. Light colored sand stone is a value shift, color wise, from browns and tans. Red granite is a value shift from redwood, and white or grey granite a value shift away from cooler grays and blues. Red granite with a blue house creates a bold contrast which may possibly be what you are looking for, but keep in mind the curb appeal (even in the back yard) of your house is derived from what most people will think about it, so choose wisely. My personal favorite is the white to light grey granite as it goes with the most colors and settings, whether near a pond, a flower bed or an old half of an oak whiskey barrel. What you get may be random as well, which only adds character and interest. In the example shown here, I have availed myself of limestone, granite and other igneous rocks that have good density and resist splitting. The limestone probably won't hold up as long as the others, but it was a freebie (pushed into my yard when the house next door was built). Pick what you find pleasing if all else fails.

Site Selection
Someone elses nice work

Any part of your yard with a good amount of slope to it will do. Generally something with a 4% or 6% grade (about 30 to 45 degrees if viewed from the side) will provide a good location. But that's just the mechanical aspect of it. Aesthetically, you want the stair to serve as a transition between one area and another, leading someone through your garden or other landscaping through a particular point in space. This funnelling of foot traffic makes planning the rest of your landscaping much easier as you now have a set of focal points to plan around: the view from the bottom of the stair, the view down the stair, and the view to either side of the stair while ascending or descending. In my case, I had a foot path through the dense honey suckle shrubs that have taken over a portion of my lot. Most fortuitously, there was also a geed deal of slope along the path, which made the ideal spot for a stair. Take a look at some other examples.


If your site is ideal as mine, you may be able to get away with minimal work. All I had to do was carve out a bit of ground for each step, starting wit the bottom step and working my way up, and then use some fill dirt packed in around the edges. You may need to adjust your stone several times to get the run (the flat top) sufficiently level. Use gravel or earth which is free of organic matter such as weeds and sticks for leveling by throwing a handful at a time under the stone and checking the level each time. Stand and jump on each step as you go to help seat it and to determine if you have a snug enough fit. You don't want them to wobble any at all as it could lead to injury. After it is seated in place, fill around the edges with more dirt and use the handle of your shovel, inverted, to pack earth in around the edges.

To minimize shifting of your stones over time, you may want to dig them into the ground deeper, or if this is an integral part of other landscaping where no shifting and settling can be tolerated, consider digging twice as deep as you need and start with a bed of well packed gravel and other smaller stones. The Romans built their roads to last and typically put the largest monolithic stones on the bottom and then progressed to smaller, tightly packed stones ending with cobble stones. Laying a foundation of other large stones will minimize shifting from freeze and thaw over the years. In my case, it's a foot path in the woods and occasionally shifting (and maintenance) is acceptable to me, so one layer of large stepping stones suits my needs.
Someone elses nice work

To wrap it up, I'll be adding some Sweet Woodruff as a ground cover on either side of the stair owing to the shady and dry soil in this area. When completed, it should be a very pleasant surprise for anyone strolling through my wood.

Building a Simple Block Fire Pit

Update 6/15/2011: after three or four years, this is the most popular article on this blog by far.  You people really like your block fire pits!  As you read below, put special emphasis on sighting.  Where I built ours is too far away from the house for regular use and it sits disused most times.  Something to think about when picking a spot.

Update 9/12/2013: I've written a follow up and have included some tips for cooking with a fire pit and making your own charcoal.

Generally, a good fire pit contains the burning items (hopefully some nice dry wood) but still radiates a pleasant amount of heat and light. A great fire pit can support a coking grate over hot coals or open flame. On a camping trip I took with friends in '05, I did all the cooking and everything except the eggs was cooked over an open flame. (I used a portable butane stove top for the eggs... too much close contact for the cook to use a camp fire). An effective fire pit will draw air from the sides into a sheltered interior. This keeps the fire from blowing out and allows it to draw oxygen so combustion can occur. If your fire pit is deep enough (from rim to embers) this inlet of air also helps the smoke go straight up instead of into your eyes, nose, and clothes. An finally, a really nice fire pit looks good. It doesn't stand out as the place you burn stuff in the yard. Ideally, it adds to rather than detracts from your landscaping.

Fire Pits as seen on Google Image Search

So, tall order. We want a good or great, effective, really nice looking fire pit. To meet all of these criteria, I chose to make use of some of the extra landscape blocks I had from another project I intentionally over estimated materials on so I could do this project. (The customer didn't mind - it was me!) You can really use any non-flamable material. Steel, iron, rock, brick, even earth if you have a high enough clay content. I chose block for its consistency of shape and dimension. Flag stone, which is flat and can be selected for uniformity of height, would also make a good choice.

Start by selecting a location. If you cool your home ambiently (leave the windows open in the summer as opposed to running the AC) don't place it too close to your house or up wind if you can help it. A flat and level area is preferable as you will want to have stable footing for chairs and small tables around your fire pit. Also, you don't want to place it directly under an over hanging tree. While this seems very cozy, the heat from the fire can wilt, scorch and even kill your tree.

To prepare the site, outline the area you would like to transform into a fire pit with string, biodegradable marking paint, or my favorite, a garden hose. You'll want to excavate the sod and or weeds (depending on your lawn maintenance schedule) and an inch or two of top soil. If you are building your fire pit on top of an existing foundation, such as a concrete patio, skip this step. Be warned though that the heat from your fire could potentially age your concrete prematurely through uneven heating and cooling. Which brings to mind the method by which you will extinguish fires in your new pit. In the case of stone, concrete or any masonry, let the fire burn down when at all possible. Pouring cold water on a hot fire, more specifically, on hot stone or brick work, will lead to rapid temperature changes in the material which will most likely crack. The exception would be ceramic. If you use earth to make your fire pit and then fire the clay used for about two days at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, you will have a monolithic mass that can withstand quite a bit of abuse. But since you aren't likely to do that, build small fires in your pit, not bonfires, and keep sand in a bucket handy if you really need to put it out quick.

The way I outlined my area to dig was to lay a coursing of block right on the ground in a circle the size I wanted my pit to be. The ground was a little soft from a recent rain, so dancing around on them for a few minutes (jumping up and down, hard) left some nice impressions and the perfect digging guide. I used the dirt to fill in some dog holes. Dogs live in holes? No, but they sure act like they want to when they find one occupied by a rabbit.

After that, I laid in some crushed #6 gravel. Do you need crushed #6 gravel? No. Sand will do. Pea-gravel will do. #4 crushed gravel will do. You want something that will compact to a level building surface. Replace all of the dirt you removed with your leveling granules of choice. Organic matter is not a good choice.

Then I threw up three concentric courses of block. The first two levels were of larger circumference than the top two to leave gaps for ventilation between the blocks. The top level was the only one that I set with the blocks all flush to one another.

Once the block was all in place, I filled the first coursing with more gravel (because I had some left over) and the second coursing with fist size rocks, the look I wanted in the bottom of my fire pit when people happened to look in. The rocks are easy to refresh later if I decide the current set has become too blackened with use.

As an optional final step, you can lay a patio or skirt of smooth gravel around the fire pit. It's nice to have the grass not growing right up to the edge of the pit, and adding a patio (not covered in this article) really raises the bar for back yard entertaining. In my case, we have a fire pit located remotely from the house and I used smooth gravel on top of weed barrier (plastic) as a 2' (two foot) skirt around the fire pit. Makes for a nice weed free place to set down a cooler, firewood, or whatever else you don't want wet from late evening dew on the grass.

Here's the materials list for my specific implementation.

36 4" x 11 " tapered landscape blocks (Old Castle "Old Forge" blocks)
10 cubic feet of crushed gravel (purchased by the ton for a larger project the week before)
20 cubic feet of smooth gravel (bartered from my neighbor with 20 cu ft of crushed gravel)
30 fist size round quarry rocks (purchased by the ton for general landscaping purposes)

If you buy the materials in the quantities specified, you will probably spend more money. Still, you should be able to do this for under $150.