5 Ways to Become the MacGyver of Stopping Fire Pit Rust

Image of the word rust in front of a rust covered fire pit

Home | Fire Pit Tips

By J. Herwick

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Like anything you put out in your backyard or patio, your fire pit will take a beating in several ways.  

Hail, rain, wind, local wildlife, and your neighbor’s kids, to name a few, can all do a number on your fire pit’s finish and structural integrity.  

All are formidable opponents in the battle to keep your fire pit looking and working well, but none hold a candle to fire pit rust in their ability to destroy your favorite backyard toy.

Hopefully, you won’t sit back and let bad things happen to your fire pit.  I know MacGyver wouldn’t.

Your fire pit’s future may depend on it, so grab whatever tool you have nearby (or make a run to Home Depot) and get ready to defeat fire pit rust before it starts…or maybe a little after that..or the next week…or whenever.

In all seriousness, you’ve got to get after rust as soon as you notice it popping up. So let's talk about how to get it done…

Five steps you can implement today to stop fire pit rust:

  1. Keep the fire pit clean and free of debris that retains moisture and aids rusting
  1. Protect the fire pit from rain and moisture by using a well-fitting cover, or by storing the fire pit indoors to hinder rust formation.
  1. Use a natural heat-resistant barrier in the fire pit bowl, like sand or lava rock, between the fire and the fire pit’s metal to protect the finish and preserve metal strength
  1. Inspect the fire pit regularly for early signs of rust, remove the rust, and apply touch-ups with heat-resistant paint before the rust spreads
  1. Apply a light coat of vegetable oil to the interior of the fire pit after cleaning to slow rust formation

Fire pit rust is not entirely preventable, it's going to happen, but you can slow it down and manage it by taking a number of steps that protect it from weather and high heat exposure, all while slowing rust formation by keeping it clean and going after rust before it becomes a problem.

Note:  When referring to fire pits in this article, I am exclusively talking about wood-burning fire pits, not propane (LPG) or natural gas-type fire pits.  Thanks!

Let's talk briefly about how fire pit rust gets started to help you get in front of it or understand how to prevent it in the future if you are already dealing with it.

Why is My Fire Pit Rusting?

With extended use, a fire pit’s heat-resistant coating or finish (if it has one) and the metal the fire pit is made of can break down to a point where rust shows up and starts compromising its components and support structure.  

Extended exposure to high temperatures weakens a fire pit’s metal over time, making it less resistant to rust and more prone to structural failure at some point.

Add regular exposure to rain and other moisture (fog, humidity, etc.) and the rust problem gets much worse, much faster.

Do All Fire Pits Rust?

Most fire pits will rust to some extent, but the process can be slowed before long-term damage occurs.  

Some fire pit options like fire pit rings (the kind you just throw on the ground, add wood and light) are made from galvanized steel, which takes a very long time to rust, but they will rust. 

They’re great and all but you are limited to where you can use them.  See what I'm talking about below. 

Most metal fire pits are made from either carbon steel or 304 stainless steel and on some occasions both.

Fire Pit Rust: Carbon Steel Fire Pits   

Most fire pits available today are made from carbon steel and are typically painted with an anti-corrosion(i.e anti-rust) heat-resistant coating to extend the look and function of the fire pit. 

Once that coating starts to burn off (and it will burn off) the exposed carbon steel is most likely going to start rusting.  

Some fire pit manufacturers have stopped using any type of heat-resistant coating altogether on their fire pits, basically saying there is no point to it.  It’s going to burn off anyway, so why bother? is their position.

Columbiana, Ohio-based fire pit builder, Ohio Flame, states why they don’t paint their fire pits on their site:

“We no longer offer painted Fire Pits.  There are no known finishes out there that we have found that will not burn off after use.  We don't feel that this matches the quality that we represent at Ohio Flame. For that reason, we choose to not offer paint finishes of any kind.  There are some high-heat engine enamel spray paints out there in a wide variety of colors and metal finishes if you are set on having a painted Fire Pit.  These too will burn off after some use.”

One thing that's important to point out, Ohio Flame’s fire pits are considered heavy duty and they use thick gauge carbon steel when making them.  

Sure, you’ll get some surface rust and some people don’t mind it (some actually like it, referring to the surface rust as patina) but it will take a while for rust to begin eating through the metal in any meaningful way.  

In fact, Ohio Flame has a lifetime guarantee on their fire pits, promising they won’t rust through.  Similar heavy-duty fire pits will have similar durability and resistance to rust damage over time.  

It's the thin lightweight steel fire pits picked up at your local home and garden store or big-box hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowes that have a hard time holding up long-term to rust damage. 

Many are made overseas with low-grade materials and coatings so it's not surprising they don’t last very long, especially if they’re not taken care of.

Don't get me wrong, these less-heavy duty fire pits are great options, considering their low-cost and decent performance, but understand they’re not built to last. 

That being said, there's a lot you can do to make them look good and extend their useful life. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Fire Pit Rust: Stainless Steel Fire Pits

A number of fire pit brands make their fire pits from what is called 304 Stainless Steel.  Naturally, this type of steel is designed to be more rust-resistant on its own, but make no mistake, it will rust over time.  

These fire pits typically come without a high-heat coating as it's considered not needed.  Popular brands that use 304 stainless in their fire pits include Breeo and Solo Stove

Because they use stainless steel, fire pits from these brands tend to cost a little more compared to their carbon steel counterparts.

Even though these stainless steel fire pits do resist rust better, there are steps we’ll cover that you can take to keep rust from attacking your fire pit.

Manufacturers choose to use either carbon steel or 304 stainless steel for fire pit fabrication for a number of reasons that include strength, durability, looks, and cost.

In the end, though, it's going to come down to steel thickness (or gauge) when it comes to a fire pit’s ability to fight off damaging rust.

Because of this, lighter-weight fire pits will require more of your attention if you want them to last more than just a couple of years. 

How Can I Make My Fire Pit Last Longer?

Keeping your fire pit in good shape is pretty easy to do and as long as you take a few minutes here and there, it should last you quite a while, years maybe

How long will depend on the quality of the fire pit, the thickness of its metal, and your local weather (lots of humidity, fog, rain, etc., or dry) primarily.

Let’s take a look at what you can do to keep fire pit rust from ruining your day.

1. Keep Fire Pit Dry, Covered, and Out of the Elements When Not in Use

Not surprisingly, the basics of keeping fire pit rust away are to keep your fire pit dry by limiting its exposure to direct water, moisture, etc.  

Rain, fog, and humidity in the air will do a number on your fire pit, and it's hard to keep them away from your fire pit completely, but there are some things you can do to slow rust down.

Using Covers to Stop Fire Pit Rust

Many fire pits on the market today come with covers, however, most do not.  

Some fire pit makers sell covers separately and you should check to see if they do before you buy a “one-size-fits-all” option on Amazon or at your local home and garden store.  

Fit is important in a fire pit cover and you should look for one that’s made just for your fire pit model by its manufacturer.

If your fire pit maker does not sell a separate cover, there are a number of solid options available online and in stores like Home Depot and Lowes. 

A decent entry-level fire pit cover should run you about $25 and should get the job done as long as you’ve measured your fire pit well, have a good fit, and secure it properly to your fire pit.

Let me add though, that if you wind up spending a lot on a fire pit, don’t go cheap on the cover.  Construction and fit are the most important factors in choosing a fire pit cover.  

A well-fitting cover, made from durable materials, will not only protect your fire pit well, but the cover itself will also last longer too.

Check out my article Do Gas Fire Pits Need to Be Covered? for tips on buying a fire pit cover. It's about covers for gas fire pits, but the instructions included for measuring your fire pit and picking the right fire pit cover are the same for wood-burning fire pits.

Before you put a cover on your fire pit, make sure it is bone dry.  If you don’t, you may speed up the rusting process and also create a perfect environment for mildew which will not be good for your cover.

If you are looking for some help in choosing a cover, check out Covers and All. They'll make custom a cover to your fire pit's specs, or they will help you pick one from their stock of ready-made options. Don't be afraid to ask for their help in measuring so you get the right fit the first time.

Storage Indoors to Stop Fire Pit Rust

If your fire pit is the portable type, storing it in a cool dry area in your home is another option to protect it from the elements. 

Allow the fire pit to cool completely, remove all remaining contents (ash, unburned firewood, etc.), and wipe down all surfaces to make sure they are clean and dry before storing the fire pit.  

2. Use a Natural Barrier Inside the Fire Pit to Protect Surfaces

Regular fire pit use is going to burn off paint or other coatings the manufacturer has applied prior to shipment. 

Also, over time the metal in your fire pit is going to weaken and become more prone to rusting. Rust weakens the metal and the next thing you know, you have a hole in your fire pit.

What Do You Put in the Bottom of a Metal Fire Pit?  

One way to slow down the paint burn-off and weakening of your fire pit’s metal is to use sand at the bottom of the fire pit

This sand layer will act as a thermal barrier between the fire itself and the bottom of the fire pit’s bowl, the part of the fire pit that takes the most abuse.  

Fire-proof silica sand (link to Home Depot) is the best option for this job as it's an effective heat barrier, easy to find locally, and cheap.  It's much more granular than normal sand (see below) you might use for a sandbox or for landscaping as it's commonly used in gas fire pits.   The more granular sand allows propane gas to flow more easily to the surface. 

Image of sand on the bottom of a fire pit
Should I put sand at the bottom of my fire pit?

Use a sand layer of about 1.5 to 2 inches at the bottom of the fire pit to provide adequate protection.  We’re still talking about wood-burning fire pits, but this type of sand is great in both situations.

This larger grain sand is also better for the evaporation of water that accumulates at the bottom of the fire pit.  Less water accumulating, less fire pit rust.

You can even add a layer of lava rock (Home Depot link) to the top of the sand to up the level of heat protection.  Your firewood, kindling, tinder, etc. will rest on top of this layer of sand, lava rock, etc.

Should I drill holes in the bottom of my fire pit?  

Speaking of water in your fire pit, a common question many have is whether to drill holes in the bottom of their fire pit to help drainage. 

Unless your fire pit has an ash pan (or you make one) to prevent embers and other hot things from falling out of the bottom and making contact with the ground, flammable items, etc., I wouldn’t do it.  

This is the reason fire pit manufacturers don’t typically drill holes in the bottom of most wood-burning fire pits, the fire or burn risk. 

You will see some fire pits, typically the smokeless wood-burning types (Breeo, Solo Stove, etc.), that will have holes in the bottom, but these are for airflow and don’t allow embers, ash, etc. to escape outside the fire pit when burning. 

Yes, drilling holes in the bottom might keep standing water in your fire pit from causing rust, but you’ll have a whole set of new problems every time you light a fire.

I’ll finish this section with an answer pulled from the webpage FAQs posted by Cowboy Cauldron, a cast iron fire pit maker.  It's no-nonsense and right to the point – this is in response to a question on whether there are holes in their fire pits or not:

“None. No holes. No holes at all. And for very good reasons, too. Believe us, we’ve thought this through. First, you don’t want sparks falling out the bottom. This would be NFG. Second, you also don’t want ash water dripping out on your patio.”

Enough said…

3. Keep Your Fire Pit Clean and Free of Debris

Another way you can keep rust from becoming a problem is to make sure your fire pit is cleaned out after each burn.

Accumulated ash and other debris at the bottom of your fire pit can retain moisture over time if allowed to sit.

Cleaning your fire bowl out each time will minimize this exposure and slow the rusting process in this vulnerable area.

Once your fire pit and its contents have completely cooled, scoop out or dump ash and other debris into an ash bucket or similar metal container to store them temporarily until they can be used or disposed of.

Use a dust-pan brush or similar to remove light debris from the fire pit after removing unburnt firewood debris and ash. 

If you use a smokeless fire pit with an ash pan, air inlet holes, etc. a compressor can be used to blow debris that has collected in the hard-to-reach cracks and crevices of your fire pit.

After 2-3 fire pit sessions, wash the fire pit bowl with soapy water (Simple Green or a little dish detergent will do) and hand dry if possible to lower the risk of rusting while the fire pit dries.

Lay the fire pit bowl on its side to allow it to drain and dry completely.  Once the fire pit bowl is completely dry, cover it or store it indoors.

4. Keep on the Lookout for Fire Pit Rust and Fix

Even with a lot of effort, you most likely will start seeing some rusting over time.  As soon as any rust appears, you’ll want to treat the area to keep it from spreading.

A little surface rust now could turn into a bigger problem later if not taken care of regularly.  Rust removal and painting are the likely actions depending on what type of metal your fire pit is made from.

How Do You Get Rust Off a Metal Fire Pit?

Once you’ve decided to restore an old fire pit with a rust problem or spotted new rust on your fire pit you can remove it in a variety of ways depending on how much is present.  

If you’ve determined that the rust has eaten through any of your fire pits metal components, especially the bowl, and that the metal is ready to crumble or fail in any way you may want to stop here.  We’ll get to what’s next when that happens a little further down.

If the rust you have is primarily surface rust you’ll need to remove it, taking the fire pit down to the bare metal.  Depending on how dedicated you are and how bad your rust problem is, getting this rust off your fire pit can be done in any number of ways.

Removing Light Fire Pit Rust on the Surface (spotting, patches, etc.)

For light surface fire pit rust, I’ll cover methods for removing rust from both stainless steel and carbon steel fire pits separately.  

Stainless Steel Fire Pits Rust  

Stainless steel fire pits are, by design, rust-resistant, but over time you’ll start to see it pop up if you use your fire pit regularly and keep it outside:

  • Consult with your fire pits owner’s manual first, but absent any advice in the manual, I recommend making a baking soda/water paste and using a medium/soft toothbrush to scrub the rust away from the affected areas;  
  • Once you are done, wipe the area clean with a wet rag or paper towel – ½ cup of baking soda with a tablespoon of water should do the trick for relatively small areas
  • Fight the urge to use steel wool or scouring powders to remove light surface rust as they will create scratches, swirl marks, etc. on your fire pit’s stainless steel finish
Painted and Unpainted Carbon Steel Fire Pits 

If you intend to paint your fire pit after removing the rust, the better the job you do here, the longer the fire pit and your new finish will last

Light to medium fire pit rust can be effectively removed using a wire brush, steel wool or heavy grain sandpaper, or a combination of each.

Once the rust has been removed and bare metal is exposed, the fire pit should be wiped down with mineral spirits to remove excess metal and rust particulate, dirt, tree sap, etc. – this will help the new primer and paints to stick if you decide to go the refinishing route vice leaving the bare metal exposed.

Removing Heavy Fire Pit Surface Rust

Heavy fire pit rust is going to take a little more elbow grease and time to get the job done; decide early on if the effort is worth it and whether your fire pit will survive your efforts to remove the rust. Here's how to do it:

  • Effective tools for heavy fire pit rust removal include wire brushes, paint scrapers, and angle grinders, or the combination of any of these
  • Once the majority of the rust is removed, use orbital/hand sanders with heavy grain sandpaper to smooth things out, followed by finer grain sandpapers will get the metal surface ready for painting;  as mentioned above,
  • Thoroughly wipe the fire pit down with mineral spirits after removing metal and rust particulate prior to applying primer and paint

Can You Paint a Rusty Fire Pit?

Yes, you can paint a rusty fire pit.  Let me be more specific, you can paint a formerly rusted fire pit that’s held up to the rust removal process. 

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t many high-heat coatings that will hold up over time and you may have to do some touch-ups here and there.

But, if you are looking to restore the look of your fire pit and keep rust from coming back, it can’t hurt if you don’t mind putting in the effort.

Be sure to take the time to remove the rust and prep the surface.  Paint applied to rust won’t adhere and you’ll be back to where you started in no time.  

What You’ll Need to Paint a Fire Pit:
  • Primer such as Rust-Oleum High Heat Flat Gray Spray Primer (Amazon link) – using primer is not necessary prior to painting but it will add an additional “barrier” that will help fight rusting in the future and make the paint adhere better to the fire pit’s metal surface.

If you’ve done a lot of work on your fire pit it may be worth the little extra cost and effort; if you do go the primer route; I personally don’t mind the extra steps if I like the fire pit and want to salvage it for further use.

I’d do two coats with some light sanding (~400 grit) after the primer dries to give the paint something extra to hold on to – 400 Grit Sandpaper like this pack from 3M (<–Amazon link) for rough-sanding primer.

  • A drop cloth to protect surfaces during painting

You can easily pick up any of these products at your local hardware store, or at Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, etc. as well.

How to Paint a Fire Pit

At this point, all rusted surfaces have been taken down to bare metal, your fire pit has survived the rust removal process without any holes appearing, and you are ready to paint.  

Primer (if used) and paint will be applied to all surfaces, except the bowl where the metal is exposed to direct flame. 

There’s no high-heat paint that I know of that’s available to the average Joe that will hold up to direct flame for any period of time.  

Remember Ohio Flame from earlier in the article?  If you don't, that's the company that stopped painting any part of their fire pits altogether. 

If you decide to paint, focus on the metal surfaces on the exterior of the fire pit, and outside the bowl.  Here’s what to do:

  • Ensure all surfaces are wiped clean with mineral spirits to remove excess dust, dirt, rust particulate, tree sap/pitch, etc.
  • If you opt to use a primer to refinish your fire pit; this is where you will do that;  

I recommend two coats, with rough-sanding in between each coat (with 400 grit sandpaper); you are just scratching up the surface of the applied primer, not sanding it offbe careful not to sand through to the metal.

Doing this will help the next coat of primer, and eventually the paint, to adhere better. 

Allow for 30 minutes to 1 hour of drying time between primer coats, and no less than an hour of drying before the first coat of paint.

  • Apply at least two coats of high-heat paint to your fire pit’s metal surfaces outside the bowl; with the spray can between 6-12 inches from the surface being painted, move in a side-to-side sweeping motion during application with a small overlap on each row; this kind of paint dries quickly so you’ll be able to apply multiple coats one after the other.

Give your fire pit at least 12 hours of real drying time (24 if you can) before handling it or using it for a fire.  

During your first burn after painting, don’t be surprised to see some smoking or fumes from the recently painted surfaces of your fire pit.  This is completely normal and should burn off in 5-10 minutes.

Lastly, Use Vegetable Oil to Fight Fire Pit Rust

You might have been wondering what you can do to keep the rust away inside the bowl of the fire pit since we didn’t recommend painting it.  

After cleaning all debris from your fire pit after each burn and wiping down the inside of the bowl, apply a thin coat of vegetable oil (canola, corn oil, etc.) to its exposed metal surfaces.  

Using a clean rag with a generous (but not too much) amount of oil, wipe down the metal surfaces evenly inside the fire pit bowl. 

You may get some light smoking at the beginning of your next burn due to the oil but it's nothing to worry about and should stop as quickly as it starts.

You’ll have to be vigilant about this to keep fire pit rust away after every cleaning.  Rust never takes a break and you can't either.

Increase your odds of success by using a cover or storing your fire pit indoors after treating the fire pit bowl with a light application of vegetable oil.

Is It Safe to Use A Rusty Fire Pit?

The answer to whether it's safe or not to use a rusty fire pit is…it depends.  If you are using a heavy-duty fire pit with significant rusting you might be ok. If you are using a lightweight fire pit with surface rusting you will most likely be ok as well.  

A rusty fire pit becomes unsafe when rust has weakened the metal of a fire pit to the point that it has failed or is ready to fail.  If you can see daylight through your fire pit bowl, it's not safe and has failed.

If you are not sure that your fire pit may fail or is about to fail, make sure it is cleaned out and inspect the bottom of the bowl for areas that may be compromised by rust. 

Gently feel around for spots where the metal is thinning and susceptible to crumbling due to rust build-up. If it feels like you might be able to break through with very little effort you should stop using that fire pit until it's repaired or replaced.  

Deterioration in your fire pit's metal caused by rust could result in burning fire pit contents breaking through the bottom of the fire pit, causing injuries and potentially starting a larger fire in the area surrounding the fire pit.  

Bottom line…repair your fire pit or pick up a new one.  It's not worth someone getting hurt or your property being damaged.

Best Rust Proof Fire Pits

If you are looking for the best no-rust fire pit, stop looking, because they don’t exist.  If your current fire pit is in bad shape though and not worth fixing, there are a number of options out there that are made well, keep rust at bay, and are easy to cover or move.

I’m a big fan of Breeo and Solo Stove fire pits – if you’ve read other articles on this blog that shouldn’t be a surprise.  

Both companies’ basic wood-burning fire pits come in stainless steel and are rust-resistant out of the box.  They are all smokeless (an unrelated but nice feature), simple to clean, and relatively easy to move around if you want to store them inside and bring them out each time you want to have a fire. 

Breeo’s Double Flame fire pits come in two sizes, 19 in. and 24 in., and Solo Stoves come in 13 in. (the Ranger), 17.5 in. (the Bonfire), and 26 in. (the Yukon).  Those sizes represent the interior diameter of each fire pit.  

There are other options out there of course, but these fire pits are probably the most low-maintenance options on the market and perform very well from a heat perspective.  Throw in the low-smoke feature and they are definitely worth taking a look at.

Just a quick side note:  If you are a fire pit griller or are looking into it, Breeo’s are a good bet.

In Closing: Stopping Fire Pit Rust

In the end, the key to keeping your fire pit as rust-free as possible is regular maintenance and protection from the elements.

Keep it empty, clean, and dry when not in use and cover it or take it indoors to protect it from rust-producing moisture.

Consider using sand and/or lava rock in the fire pit’s bowl as a barrier to protect surfaces from metal-weakening and paint-destroying direct flame.

Always be on the lookout for rust as it appears and be ready to fix it before it becomes a problem.

If your fire pit already has a rust problem that goes beyond simple maintenance, busting rust with a variety of tools and refinishing your fire pit could extend its useful life for a number of years.

If your fire pit’s structural integrity is in question and a potential danger to you and your property, determine whether it is worth fixing or replacing it.  Don’t take any chances with a fire pit that’s not up to the job – it’s not worth the risk.

Finally, if you need a new fire pit due to an overwhelming rust problem or are looking for one that will rust a little more slowly, ask around, do some web research, and see what’s out there that will meet your needs. 

Be sure to check out the rust-resistant stainless steel fire pits I mentioned above for high performing low-maintenance (i.e. rust-resistant) options. 

If you still have a question regarding fire pit rust, don’t hesitate to drop me a line at john@backyardtoasty.com.

Good luck in your battle against fire pit rust and thanks for reading!


Image of a backyard fire pit