Monday, January 11, 2016

Terracotta and Stone Fire Bowl

I’ve always wanted a tabletop fire. The flames swirling and twisting are so pretty, but I wasn’t sure how to make one so I searched Google and looked at the DIY projects on the Internet.

Discouragingly, most DIY tabletop fires are pretty ugly because you can see the can of gel fuel. The gel cans were generally nestled in a bed of shattered glass, but a few were nested in small rocks. There were a few projects with instructions for making the bowl part from concrete, which seems like a lot of effort, and a bunch projects with flowerpots and bowls. The projects seemed like exercises in publishing a project that matches the fire bowl fad without really considering the success of the end product. Other than the cement projects, the ones I saw the used the minimum amount of thought in the construction and just seemed thrown together to create content. Why waste any time on something that is so disappointing? 

Sources clockwise from left: bowl/,,

I wanted an organic feel to the fire bowl and I like the contrast between rough terracotta and smooth river rock so I went with a large terracotta flowerpot saucer I already had and some rocks left over from various other projects.

At first, I thought I could cover the ugly cans by putting a screen of some sort on top of them and then cover the screen with the rocks. I needed the screen to be sturdy enough to hold the rocks on top of it in place when it was lifted to replace the cans.

To do a proof of concept test I decided to use the top of a basket intended for use on the barbecue because it was quite rigid. I put three cans of Sterno in my flowerpot saucer, surrounded them with rocks, lit the cans, put the basket lid over the cans, and covered that with more rocks. This was not a success. The major problem was that Sterno flames are small, blue, and not particularly pretty. Some blogs mentioned a gel fuel called Real Flame, which might have a small yellow flame, but it isn't available where I live. It also became apparent that the screen idea wouldn't work because I would have to rebuild the fire bowl every time the cans ran out. Therefore, I had to go with plan B.

Plan B was to use propane as my fuel. On the positive side, you get a beautiful flame, it's cheap, the flame is adjustable, you don't have to change out the fuel frequently, and once the fire bowl is set up you won't have to touch it again. On the negative side, a hole would have to be drilled through the ceramic saucer and the gas ring and line would have to be sourced and built from scratch.

Sourcing the parts was the most difficult part of this project. The 12" stainless steel gas ring was purchased from eBay as my local barbecue shops were charging twice as much for the exact same part. Most of the other parts came from our local hardware store and propane supplier. The only thing my husband and I truly had trouble finding was the regulator that goes from the propane tank to the adapter to the valve. After a lot of frustration, I remembered our old gas tabletop heater and Tony was able to take it apart so we could use the regulator inside.

The final fire bowl parts list (in order):
12" stainless steel fire ring
15" flowerpot saucer
Miscellaneous drill bits in various sizes
Stepped drill bit
Wood to support the saucer during drilling
Connector from ring to the hose
Adaptor from the hose to the valve
Adaptor to regulator
Propane tank
Small rocks
Medium rocks

Drilling the hole in center of the saucer was much easier than I expected. I think the secret to our success was that the saucer was never expected to support it's own weight while we drilled the center hole. When my husband, Tony, drilled from the top, he drilled into some wood below. When he turned the saucer over to drill from the other side, we filled it with smaller pieces of wood so the brittle ceramic never felt any downward pressure. Tony started with a smaller bit and went up a few sizes to make the hole bigger and bigger, but we had to use the stepped drill bit above to get the hole big enough for the adapter for the hose to go through. We should have drilled the hole a little larger than the hose because we had some problems with the saucer not draining properly after it rained. The fix was pretty easy - we just jiggled the hose and the rain drained out, but we should have thought this through better.

Once the hole was drilled, I put the gas ring in the saucer and Tony attached the adaptors, hose, valve, regulator, and the propane tank. We had a problem with the small propane tank falling over on its side so I put it in a flowerpot, which had the weight needed to keep it upright. This is important because you want the propane gas, which sits on top of the liquid propane at the bottom of the tank. We used a small tank and refilled it from our larger tank because the large tank won't fit under our table. You can find adapters for this on Amazon.

When I put the rocks in, I put a few small ones under the gas ring so rainwater would drain from the hole and then covered the ring. It's best to use a mixture of small and medium rocks to cover the gas ring. You'll need the small rocks to fill in between the medium ones to get maximum coverage. Don't worry about blocking the gas holes.

In the interests of full disclosure, we did have one major problem. Since we didn't use rocks specially sold for this purpose or maybe because we didn't use a particular type of rock, we did have problems with rocks cracking apart during use. We used the extremely unscientific popcorn method for resolving this problem. We put our fire screen in front of the bowl to catch anything flying out until the popping stopped, which took 5-6 uses.

Now we have a beautiful fire bowl that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch while we sit and talk outside. As a bonus, it warms us much better than out tabletop heater ever did.

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