The fireplace, for so long a fixture of interior design, has taken up a new location: outside. Not since the days cattleman ranchers (or perhaps your last trip to summer camp) has there been such a mania for building a fire out under the stars. Homeowners are extending their living space by taking advantage of patio, deck, garden, and yard. An outdoor fireplace can make this even more enjoyable and goose the resale value of your home at the same time.
The most important thing about an outdoor fireplace is that it be weather resistant. Whatever you buy, or whatever materials you use, make sure everything is rated for use outside. Sturdy masonry is one way to do that, but that may involve more than you care to spend. Stainless steel constructions with masonry facing can give you the same look and feel without draining your bank account. Buy an unfinished fireplace and customize it with brick, stucco, tile, or stone to get just the look you want.
A wood-burning fireplace is a natural choice. Nothing beats the smell. And there's something satisfying about handling the rough hewn logs, getting them stacked perfectly, and stoking up a roaring fire from humble beginnings. On the other hand, as the old song says, smoke gets in your eyes. And afterward, there's a sooty mess of charred wood and ash to clean up.
For some, the trade-off is worth it. For others, there's natural gas or propane. Either fuel will burn cleanly and produce an alluring flame without muss or fuss, without cleanup afterwards, and with minimal maintenance and cost. On the other hand, the inability to burn solid fuel can be a hassle. You can't just throw some leaves on the fire. A twig falling from a tree can produce a cleaning and maintenance problem. And if you want to roast marshmallows over a gas fireplace, thing again. The first person to lose their marshmallow just made a costly (or at least a messy and labor producting) boo boo. Still there's a lot to be said for starting a fire with the flick of a switch and enjoying it at the same intensity until you flick the switch the other way. Many people make this choice and are pleased with the results.
Some outdoor fireplaces also include a gas grill. Unlike the charcoal messes of yesteryear, today's grills are clean, easy to use, and rival indoor kitchen stove tops for features. An outdoor fireplace with an attached grill can give you something to do while you're enjoying the fire. And later on, as it gets dark, you'll have something to eat while you continue to gaze into the flames.
As with any fire source, you'll need to take basic precautions to make sure the outdoor fireplace is safely installed and enjoyed. Your local fire department can get you up to date on fire codes and help you ensure that your outdoor fireplace is compliant. Before installing it, check the area to make sure you have plenty of clearance from bushes, trees, the walls of your home or tool shed, and anything else that could catch fire. And once it's in, make sure everyone, especially children, understands how to behave safely around the fire without running or horseplay. Smaller children should be kept a close eye on or, better yet, simply not allowed in the vicinity. Pets that can't be trained to stay away (and that's just about all of them) should be leashed or penned while the outdoor fireplace is in use. That also keeps them from gulping down the plate of raw hamburger that you just set next to the grill!