Building a Faux Campfire

There really is nothing quite like sitting around a campfire with friends and family. The radiating warmth fends off the surrounding chill. Glowing embers and shifting flames bring an eerie radiance to the faces of those gathered, and reaches out into the encompassing blackness. Stories are told, memories relived, bonds strengthened. The campfire gathering strips away the worries of the day, and becomes a temporary beacon, which opens up the possibilities for the future.

CampfireYears ago, when I was a scoutmaster, I planned on constructing a simulated campfire to use at monthly indoor meetings, and as part of various ceremonies. Well, I never seemed to find the time to get started on it. So, when I was approached a couple weeks ago to create a fake campfire for an elementary school literacy night program with a camping theme, I jumped at the chance.

I thought I would share the process I used as well as the results, with those who might be interested in this type of project. You should know that the techniques I used were all a product of my own experimentation and imagination. I would urge you to look at other sites to see what they offer you in terms of alternative ideas to incorporate into your design.

Before beginning a project, it is always good to assess the time commitment, type of materials you are going to need, what the cost of those materials may be, as well as the skill level required to complete the project.

Obviously there is more than one way to get something done. I don’t claim to have a definitive approach to making a fake campfire. My method may take more time than you are willing to invest. You may prefer working with different materials or stylizing your campfire to meet your needs. What I am trying to say is that I am not attempting to outline an exact method of making an indoor campfire.

Instead, I will go through the steps I used, so you can decide for yourself if you want to use any of  what I have done, as you build your own campfire, keeping in mind that there are dozens of other ways to make a very cool fire pit.

I tend to collect seemingly worthless stuff, in hopes that it will someday be needed for a project I am working on. I am also known for re-purposing elements from past projects and I am not above digging through the garbage to find items I need. Although I am frugal (cheap) I occasionally have to “bite the bullet” and fork out the money to get what I need.

Rocks and Base:

Extruded PolystyreneExtruded polystyrene: For the ground and stones I chose to use extruded polystyrene (XPS). XPS is a rigid foam insulation. It can be purchased at many home improvement stores. I bought 1 sheet (4′ x 8′ x 2″) at Home Depot for around $32, which was just the right amount of material to complete this project. I know, that may be more money than you were expecting to pay, but once you have your XPS you have most of what you need for the build. I like using XPS, which is generally pink or blue, because it is lightweight, reasonably inexpensive and fairly easy to work with.

Expanded Polystyrene: I prefer XPS to expanded polystyrene (EXP), which is easily recognized by the fused beads that are used in it’s production. EXP is most commonly used as disposable cups and coolers. Although, we often call it Styrofoam, Styrofoam is actually a Dow Chemical Company line of products made with extruded polystyrene. Although EXP is cheaper, and lighter, it is very messy to work with because it breaks apart at the beads when cut with a knife, leaving many of these little balls to blow around in the wind, if you are working outside. To make things worse, they can go for decades without breaking down. It also gives whatever you are trying to make, the texture of the beads that remain on the outer surface. Furthermore, EXP is more susceptible to breaking  than XPS. And Finally it can not be painted with most spray paints (those containing corrosive compounds like acetone and toluene) without first applying a coat of gesso or primer to the surface.

Issues with Extruded Polystyrene: I have devoted more time than I had hoped talking about the advantages of XPS over EXP, however XPS does have it’s faults. It too is easily prone to breakage, especially along the edges. It also needs an undercoating before painting, not just because of the effects of the chemicals in spray paint, but also because it may act like a sponge when some house paints are applied. I found this out the hard way on this project, spending several hours trying to sop up the excess paint that continually oozed out of the foam. I finally was able to pull enough paint out of the foam so that it would dry and I could continue the project.

I can not overemphasize the fragile nature of foam, either XPS and EXP. If you desire the finished product to be durable, you might think about using another material, or find a way to harden the foam surface. There are ways to do this, but I have never used any of them.

Other Materials: Before I move on to the building process, I would like to touch on alternative materials for the rocks and base. Be creative about the materials you use. Begin with what you already have around the house. What about balling up old newspapers, tying them with string and spray painting them. Or use paper maché over the newspaper ball for a more realistic effect. Landscape fabric stuffed with batting might also look nice. And let’s not forget the obvious–using genuine rocks. A bit heavy to lug around, but about as realistic as you can get. An adequately sized piece of plywood would work nicely for the base, as would a large sheet of cardboard. Look around your home. Chances are you will find something that will work.

If you are still with me after that lengthy introduction, I will now describe how I fabricated my campfire.

Getting Started with the Foam: I started by cutting out the base, using a little over half of the foam sheet. This left enough material to make enough rocks to surround the campfire. I used a sharp kitchen knife (don’t let my wife know). Using random cuts at different angles helps to create a more natural shape. Please be careful, and never cut towards yourself or a hand that is supporting the foam. If you plan on doing a lot of foam cutting, you might look into some tools that are made for the job such as a hot knife of hot wire bow cutter. They not only make the cutting easier, but also create less of a mess to clean up. As I am cutting, I have a large garbage bag on hand which I throw the excess chunks and small pieces in every couple of minutes, to avoid having a gust of wind spread them all over the yard. Working over a drop cloth also helps to contain the smaller fragments.

To make rocks of adequate height from the two inch foam, I glued some of the pieces together before I carved them. The largest of the rocks contain three layers of foam. I used Elmers-type wood glue. It works okay, but takes forever to dry (two or three days). I hate waiting for glue to dry! It also tends to run out from between the sheets if they are not placed on a level surface. There are products that are especially made for gluing foam. I think next time I might try a foam board adhesive which can be found with the tube caulkings at many hardware stores. Loctite is one brand that makes a glue of this type, and it sells for about the same price as wood glue.

Once the glue is dry, carve away. It is not difficult to make a piece of foam look like a rock, but you will need to remove enough material so it does not just look like a block with the corners rounded. If you are not happy with the shapes you are coming up with, study some real rocks as a guide.

Wire Brushing: One simple trick I discovered is using a wire brush to finish off the rock’s shape. Brushing the corners give them a softer, more natural look. Brushing the entire surface of the foam can create some wonderful textures. If you brush heavily across the side of the foam it gives a real sense of the rock strata. And brushing the top changes the smooth flat surface into something resembling a more authentic stone. Force the wire brush straight down in places to create some pitting that adds a nice weathered feel.

Painting or Gluing Pieces First? At his point you can either paint the base and rocks as separate elements, or glue everything in place and paint them all at the same time. I would recommend painting first, because it makes it easier to give the base a different color than the rocks, and apply subtle color variations to rocks to make them look more realistic and interesting. I glued everything together first, so I had to use cardboard sheets as paint shields to allow the paint to go only where I wanted it.

Faux Campfire with PrimerPainting: Remember that it is important to undercoat your foam pieces with something which will not melt the surface or soak in like a sponge and never dry. PlastiKote makes a polystyrene primer specifically for this purpose, but there are other spray paints, house paints and craft paints that will also work. When in doubt, test it on Spray Paint Cansa small scrap of foam. If it dries within a half hour and  hasn’t melted the surface, it should be okay. Once you have sealed the surface with a primer, you can apply pretty much any paint you like. Put something between each piece and the drop cloth when using spray paint, so you will have a good angle to apply an even coat of paint from top to bottom. A small piece of a two-by-four works well for the rocks.

I always have a large supply of spray paint to select from. If you are working with a tight budget and don’t have any spray paint on hand, find a nice medium gray primer coat, and call that good. you will still get some tonal variations from the texture of the foam and the shadows created by the angles of the cuts. The bulk of my pallet consists of black, light neutral gray, white, tan, terracotta and dark brown. I applied a common base coat to all the rocks first, and then went a little grayer with some rocks, a bit more brown with others, and so on.

Fake Campfire Rock DetailsTo achieve even more realism, spray light touches of multiple colors to each rock. This give each rock greater depth and textural interest while also giving some color cohesion to the whole group. Spray lightly in layers allowing some of the under-painting to show through

Assembling the Fire Pit: Play around with the positioning of the rocks in a circle around the base until you are happy with the arrangement.

Keep the pile intact, removing just what is necessary to glue one of the rocks to the base. Continue around the pit until all the rocks are cemented to the base. If you have a second row, glue them next. And finally, glue in any small rocks that are positioned in crevices between larger rocks. Follow the directions on the particular adhesive you are using, and put weights on any foam pieces you can.

Using Expandable Foam Filler-Adhesive: The foam board adhesive mentioned above would be a good choice to affix all the pieces together, however I used an expanding foam insulation & adhesive. Great Stuff is one of the popular brands, but there are several others as well. Expanding foams dry quickly and stick amazingly well. In fact, if you don’t wear gloves, you will find yourself with adhesive stuck to your hands for several days. If you use expandable foam for gluing, be aware that it will expand to several times the size it is when it comes out of the can over a ten minute period. You will need to keep an eye on it during this time as it may lift the pieces, creating unwanted gaps. While the adhesive is drying, you can push any pieces that have moved, back into place. After a half hour it should be dry and any material that has oozed out can be trimmed, sanded or painted.

Additional Painting Tips: If you are going for a realistic look, there are a couple things you can do once the fire pit is assembled and painted. Spraying black on the lower areas of stone that stick the furthest into the center as well as the bottom of the fire pit, will give the impression that this is a well used campfire complete with a buildup of soot. Likewise, a light dusting of orange paint on some of the upper surfaces inside the fire pit will add a warm glow. I had a yellowish green spray paint I used to represent mosses and lichens on a few outer edges of the campfire stones.

Spray painting on a windy day is nearly impossible unless you are able to rig up some kind of shielding. Most of the paint won’t make it to the target and you will lose any amount of control you would otherwise have. My recommendation: Instead of wasting paint, just wait for a day with no breeze.

Fire and Burning Embers:

Fake Campfire-Hot CoalsThere are many ways to create artificial flames or burning coals. You can create or buy fake flames which employ hidden lighting, a small fan and a piece of silk cloth to simulate flames. An inexpensive, and popular method is to use tissue paper or cellophane in shades of yellow, orange and red to make the flames.

I chose to focus on creating pretend embers. I scrounged three clear containers from the garbage in order to form the structure for my embers. In this case, the top of a plastic cookie container, a drink bottle with the top cut off (a small Cascade Ice was just the right size), and a plastic disposable drinking glass, with the top cut at an angle and melted in places to make it look less uniform.

making Embers for a Fake FireplaceI randomly applied some of the expandable foam filler mentioned above to the surfaces of drinking bottle and drinking glass, making sure that once the substance expanded there would still be plenty of areas not covered by the expandable foam.

Before foaming the cookie container, I marked the area in the center of the fire pit where it would sit, and then cut a 2″diameter hole through the bottom of the base in the center of that location. The cookie container was foamed while sitting in the middle of the fire pit so it is permanently glued there.

For all three containers, I popped some of the bubbles before they grew too large and cut the tops off of others once the adhesive was dry.

As you will notice by the photos, the expandable foam I used is black. This is a special type specifically formulated for ponds and waterfalls. Since I just finished working on a waterfall, I had some extra and it was ideal for making the coals. I also used it to glue the rocks to the base. I got this Touch n’ Foam Landscape Exterior Filler-Adhesive at Fred Meyer for around $6, just a dollar more than their other expandable foams. I have seen another brand at a building supply store for as much as $15.

A hundred light Christmas string was used for the embers in the cookie container and drink bottle. The lights were clear with half of them being twinklers and the other half set to burn steady. I think this is a perfect combination to give a constant glow with random flickering that is always changing. Blinkers would be too uniform to look real.

Next, a crinkled sheet of foil was placed on the the base under the cookie container. Then red sheets of cellophane were placed around the inside perimeter of the drink bottle and up against the top of the cookie container.

Don’t worry that the embers may look too symmetrical at this point. They will be partially covered before you are finished and chances are they will look completely natural.

On the bottom side of the base, a groove was cut extending from the hole in a straight line to the outer edge of the base. This was for the cord of the lights to fit into so the base could be set flush to the ground. Do not cut the groove any deeper than necessary. The groove could create a weak spot that could break the sheet of foam if handled roughly.

P1060616I fed the cord down through the hole, and used duct tape to keep it in the groove. The string of lights was evenly distributed in the two containers.

The drinking glass contained cellophane as well but was powered by a double-flashing bicycle tail light.

Fake Campfire LIghtingSeveral other individual twinkling tea lights were wrapped in red cellophane and placed in the fire pit. I got the tea lights at the dollar store in sets of two. These lights were not particularly bright, but they were good for bringing a little flickering light into the areas of the fire pit that were a little dark. I believe they really added to the overall effect.

Fuel for the Fire:

Fake LogsI had planned on using swimming “noodles” to make my logs. Unfortunately, October is not a good month to try to find them in the stores in my area. However, I found a couple in my backyard that had been buried in some blackberry bushes for several years. It turns out that the weathering gave the noodles a nice bark-like look because the shinny outer coatings had been worn away. A new noodle will require a little more work to transform it into a log.

Cut your “logs” into appropriate lengths makings some edges ragged and some angled. You can even bevel some to look like they have been cut with an axe.

Faux Campfire LogsThe large bright orange noodle was the perfect color as it gave the appearance of glowing coals once it was spray painted with black and dark brown colors. Turning the blade of my knife sideways and randomly dragging short shallow lengthwise gouges completed the bark texture.

I also had a smaller light green noodle which I used the same treatment on. The faux logs I made from this noodle looked like green wood, which is generally not used to make a fire. I could have spray painted more heavily and changed them to any color I wanted, but I liked the way they looked and left them the way they were.

For the smaller, kindling-sized wood, I bought a length of pipe insulation. I wanted this size to look more like birch to add some variety, so I used mostly a light gray spray paint over a dark gray insulation. I sprayed a puddle of white spray paint onto the drop cloth and lightly rolled the insulation in it. This effect could also be done with a brush and house paint using a dry brush method.

Both the noodles and the pipe insulation are tubes with holes in the middle. The way I dealt with that was to push a spare piece of the material into each end hole, trim it to be Faux Campfire Detailsflush with the rest of the end, and it was hardly noticeable after it was painted.

To finish off the logs and kindling,  blacken the ends you plan to have in the heat of the fire. To really make them pop, add some red or orange glitter glue to small areas of the blackened end. The glitter will catch the gleam of your light source and heighten the effect of burning embers.

Optional Add-Ons

It is really a question of how much of the outdoors do you really want to bring inside to create the illusion of a campfire. Here are some ideas of how to introduce even more detail to the project:

  • P1060609Give the base, which represents the ground an added dimension of  realism by coating it with  wood glue and spreading a combination of sand and cat litter on it. I did this, but only in selected spots, because I didn’t have enough glue on hand to cover the entire base.
  • Include a few small twisted branches. It won’t add much weight and will break up the uniformity.
  • Place some moss in a few of the larger gaps between stones on the outside of the fire pit.
  • If you have any, mix in some leftover coals from a real fire. Add some red or orange glitter glue in spots to make them look hot.
  • Get some red or orange foil wrapping paper, cut it into small amoeboid shapes and place them in gaps on the fire pit ground. I found a red foil at the dollar store that had a wonderful wavy pattern that looked great.
  • Place a few large leaves and pine cones on the base and out where people will be sitting in order to add some color. I gathered some great Autumn maple leaves to enhance my fire.
  • If you can find some, a few small, fake pine trees would bring an impression of the forest into the room.
  • Consider adding campfire sounds. I though of this only minutes before I was going down to set up the campfire for the event. I scrambled around and found a sound effects selection on i-Tunes, downloaded it onto an i-Pod and found an i-Pod port with speakers. I think it was well worth the rushed effort.
  • I never went this far, maybe because I didn’t think of it until just now, but you could also involve the sense of smell in some way, possibly by placing a couple pine scented air fresheners around the area or bringing in a couple pine branches.
  • Why leave out the final sense–taste? If it is appropriate for the event make some microwave smores ahead of time, and serve them around the campfire.
  • Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned the use of a smoke machine. Years ago, someone set one up for an event I was in charge of. Our event was delayed for almost an hour because the smoke machine set off the fire alarm and we had to clear the gym until the fire department came and shut it off. So, use a smoke machine indoors at your own risk.

Completed Indoor Campfire

P1060673 Adj

Final Thoughts

Years ago when I was involved in the scouting program, there was a little saying: KISMIF which stands for Keep It Simple, Make It Fun. I never had a problem with making it fun, but keeping it simple is just not in my nature.

If you are need to build a fake campfire, it can be as simple as:

  • Finding a large sheet of cardboard
  • Placing some stones in a circle around the cardboard
  • Arranging a couple pieces of firewood and some broken branches in the fire pit
  • Adding some red, orange and yellow tissue paper in the shape of flames

This should make a wonderful faux fire. But if you are like me and have to take it a couple steps further, I hope that I have given you some ideas on how to proceed.

I would love to hear comments of how you went about constructing your campfire, or you could send photos or links showing the final result.

Kids Around Fake CampfireGood luck!


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4 Responses to Building a Faux Campfire

  1. That’s great! I used to have an extremely large HO railroad set and I had to become a model maker too. It’s amazing what you can come up with if you give it a little thought. Your glowing coals are great. I’m not sure if I would have thought of that!


  2. Pingback: A Spooky Halloween Terrain made of Polystyrene | btweenblinks

  3. Pingback: Cinderella’s Pumpkin Coach Photo Op – A Rigid Foam Board Project | btweenblinks

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