Have you ever noticed that above-ground, outdoor fire pits rust so quickly? Reminds me of the tag of a pop-up canopy that I read once—it said the canopy was not waterproof, nor should it be exposed to sun or wind. I mean, what’s the point? I’m sure that there are more expensive fire pit options that you could purchase that would hold up better, but when you’re on a tight budget or it’s for temporary use, more expensive may not be the best option.
My husband and I live in an apartment with a small back patio. It’s not a long-term living space for us, and when we move into a house we want a permanent in-ground fire pit.
That being said, come last spring we were desperate to make better use of our current outdoor space. We wanted an inexpensive, above-ground fire pit that would last us a few years. A past DIY project suddenly popped into my mind: How To Refinish A Rusty Fire Pit. It’s a great post on how to give new life to an old fire pit by using a high-heat, rust-resistant spray paint. The thought crossed my mind, “Could you extend the life of your new fire pit by following the same steps right off the bat?” To me, this seemed like a potentially more budget-friendly way to upgrade an inexpensive fire pit.
Upon some further research, I decided to test out some other tricks including oiling and adding sand to the bowl of the fire pit. I tried out all of these hacks a year ago on a couple of fire pits and then left them out in the sun and rain to weather. And now, this year I can tell you what I’ve learned.
Hack 1: Sanding and painting
The first hack I tried was to sand the entire fire pit right out of the box and apply a high-heat, rust-resistant spray paint. This is the same process we did when refinishing our rusty fire pit, minus cleaning and some more rigorous rust removal. The key with painting metal is to create a rough surface for the new paint to grip to. This doesn’t require very rough sandpaper—I used 220-grit. I then applied multiple coats of the new paint (in matte black).
Hack 2: Applying oil
The next hack was to rub-down the bowl of the fire pit with oil—I used canola. This hack makes perfect sense to me because oil creates a natural protective barrier between metal and rust. This is super quick, easy, and inexpensive to do, but it does require maintenance. This is something you’ll want to do at least once per season.
Hack 3: Adding sand
This is not just a hack, but something that’s recommended for certain fire pits because it soaks up excess water. I think with my specific fire pit it didn’t work terribly well because there are holes at the bottom of the fire bowl to drain out any residual water, which just led to sand slowly draining out of the fire pit. This combined with the low bowl meant that the sand spilled out a lot. Essentially—sand is a great hack that helps absorb water and keeps it from pooling on the metal, but doesn’t work for every fire pit design.
My husband also complained that when the sand was wet (which, let's be honest, is frequently in the Pacific Northwest) it made the fire much more difficult to get started.
The oil hack and the sand hack were specifically oriented to keeping the bowl of the fire pit rust-free, and while that’s important, I noticed after my experiment that all of the rusted areas were near the top of the fire pit. Literally within 48 hours of assembling the fire pit straight out of the box, I could already see rust forming on the mesh cover and the three hooks that held the cover in place. Although I was shocked at how quickly it happened, this wasn’t too big of a surprise. The three hooks were just bare metal not coated in anything, and clearly not naturally rust-resistant.
The fire pit that I repainted definitely lasted longer, but only by a week or two. It wasn’t too long before the edge of the mesh cover was starting to rust along with various seams along the top of the fire pit.
To me, oiling and adding sand are two fairly easy ways to extend the life of your fire pit. Painting everything out of the box took too much time and while it did extend the rust-free state of my fire pit a little bit, it wasn’t long enough to make it worth it. The sand wasn’t a win for my particular fire pit, but when I go to clean out the ashes I’ll be adding another coat of oil. In the end, my personal takeaway was that I’d rather buy a weatherproof cover for my fire pit than anything else.
For more backyard inspiration and projects to help you weatherize your outdoor space, check out how to build an outdoor fire pit, how to build a DIY patio cover, and our DIY all-terrain beverage cart.