How to Build a Secret Backyard Fire Pit

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 15, 2013 · 58 comments

in Manly Skills, Projects


When Kate and I bought our first house two years ago, one of its biggest selling points was that it sits on a little over an acre of land. That may not sound like much if you live out in the country, but in suburban Tulsa, it’s like having a small farm.


The view from our back deck.

Most of the land is in the backyard, where there’s a woodlot consisting primarily of oak and a few maples and redbuds. Our acre backs up into another wooded tract, so there’s a good bit of forest out there. Ever since we moved in, I have wanted to create a trail that led from the house all the way to the back of our property. At the end of the trail, I wanted to make a secret fire pit where I could go and ponder manful thoughts while poking a crackling campfire or enjoying the company of my family (weenie roast!).

I finally got around to working on my trail this fall. It took me about two months to complete. I probably could have finished it sooner, but I usually just had Saturdays to work on it.


I used a hoe and a Woodman’s Pal to clear the path for my trail. The toughest part of building the trail was when I got past the trees. There’s a spot behind the treeline that’s just a giant briar patch. That crap was a booger to clear. I have the scratches from the thorns to prove it. The Woodman’s Pal was particularly handy here.

After I got the trail path cleared, I made several trips to Home Depot to get bags of pine bark nuggets. I laid those down on my cleared path to keep weeds and other plants from growing back. I think I ended up using over 60 bags of pine bark nuggets. Here are some shots of the completed trail:


The trail begins. Falling leaves have largely covered up my wood chippage.


The trail goes up a slight hill.


Top of the hill…


into the briar patch…


and nearing the secret fire pit…

After I completed my trail, it was time to make my secret fire pit. There are a lot of plans out there for backyard fire pits, but none of them appealed to me. They all look like those foo-fooey, sleek and modern suburban “fire features” you see on HGTV backyard renovation shows. I didn’t have the time, nor did I want to spend the money on something like that. Besides, it’s not my style. I wanted my backyard campfire to look like something you’d stumble upon in a state park — rugged, crude, and functional.

I read some basic info on how to safely make a campfire area and got at it. Even if you don’t have an acre of woods in your backyard, you could still build a fire pit. But you’ll have to check your local city guidelines to see what’s allowed. And of course, the layout and number of trees/bushes on your property will determine whether or not you can make it “secret.” Here’s how I built mine:

Clear Your Campfire Area


Smokey the Bear recommends clearing a 10-foot diameter circle around your fire pit. You’ll want to remove all grass, leaves, and hanging tree limbs from that 10-foot clearing. You want an area of just dirt. I used a hoe and the Woodman’s Pal to create my fire pit area.

Dig the Fire Pit


Mark out how large you want your fire pit to be and start digging a hole. Your fire pit should be about 1 foot deep. I tried just using a shovel for this part, but found that clawing with my hoe and then hoisting out the loose dirt with my shovel worked better. I actually created my ring with rocks first and then dug. While I was digging, I realized it probably would have been better to first make the hole.

Encircle Pit With Rocks


To keep your fire at bay, circle your fire pit with rocks.

The woods behind my house are filled with really hard, yet porous, Oklahoma sandstone rocks. I wanted to use what nature made available to me, but I’ve heard urban legends about campers getting killed by exploding campfire ring stones. Before I gathered my wife and kids around the fire pit, I wanted to make sure the sandstone rocks I planned to use would not assassinate them.

My research on the internet brought up surprisingly little information on exploding campfire rocks. I did find an article on ehow that suggested sandstone and other porous rocks like limestone weren’t safe for fire pits. From the article:

Air- and water-permeable rocks are much more likely to explode than dense non-permeable rocks. This is because air or water is absorbed by the rock when it is cool, and then the air or water molecules trapped inside the rock expand faster than the solid rock when it heats up next to the fire . If there is a high enough volume of water in a hot, porous rock, the rock will explode when the force of the expanding steam gas inside is greater than the rock can contain.

Well, that put a damper on using my bounteous sandstone supply.

But it was an article on ehow. How reliable could it be? So I took to Twitter looking for an honest-to-goodness geologist for an answer. Enter Mark Benson. His response was that most stones are safe for fire pit use provided that they’re not sopping wet. According to Mark, as long as your rock is hard, dry, and has a uniform color and grain you can use it for a fire pit perimeter. So my sandstone rocks were a-okay after all. Mark did suggest that you avoid using chalks and limestones because the heat from the fire will cause the calcium carbonate to break down. He also recommended not using rocks with voids or crystals in the middle. So no geode fire pit rings I’m afraid.

Assured that my sandstone rocks were fire pit safe, I started gathering. I wasn’t scientific about this. If it was a medium to large stone, I picked it up and hauled it to my fire pit area. I layered the rocks with the big ones on bottom and the smaller ones on top. I filled gaps between the rocks with dirt.

Build Some Crude (But Sturdy) Campfire Benches

You need a place to sit while you bask in the radiant warmth of your backyard campfire. I wanted some simple wood plank benches, so I looked online for some plans. I found plenty of sophisticated ideas — but they required handyman skills above my pay grade. So I just decided to wing it. I drove over to Home Depot, looked at the various types of lumber, and came up with a plan in my head right there on the spot. I was pleasantly surprised with how my impromptu benches came out. Here’s how to make them:

Gather Materials


(4) 18″ 4x4s, (2) 40″ 2x4s, (1) 48″ 2×10, drill, 3-inch screws, wood glue

Materials for One (1) Bench

  • (1) 48″ 2×10
  • (4) 18″ 4x4s
  • (2) 40″ 2x4s
  • 20 3″ wood screws (to be safe, go with 3 1/2″ screws)
  • Wood glue
  • Drill

Because I was just going to leave these out by the fire pit, I tried to make my benches with pressure treated wood in order to prevent termite and fungal damage. Unfortunately, Home Depot didn’t have 2X4s that were pressure treated.

Create Bench Base


Apply wood glue on one end of 4×4.


Place one end of the 2×4 onto the glue on the end of the 4X4. Screw in two 3″ wood screws. Repeat process on the other side. That’s one side of your base. Create the second side of your base by repeating the above process.


Screw the two sides of your base together so you get something that looks like the above. I used four 3″ screws in the 2x4s. Two on each side.

Attach Seat to Base


Apply wood glue to the tops of the 4x4s. Place the 2×10 on top of your base. Screw down into each 4×4 leg with two screws.


Finished product. She ain’t purdy, but she’s sturdy.


I made four benches. Hauling them up to the secret fire pit was a workout. Each bench weighs a good 100 pounds. I need to level out my campfire area a bit. The benches are a little wobbly on the uneven ground. I think I might actually bury the legs an inch or two into the ground.


A view looking towards our house. Our fire pit is behind a tree line and can’t be seen by the neighbors either. That’s what makes it “secret.”


Enjoy Your Backyard Campfire


Time to light that fire! Check out our guide to building a campfire to learn how.


I kept this fire small. It was late and kiddos had to get to bed.

Practice Good Campfire Safety

Make sure to fully extinguish your campfire after you’re done — don’t want to burn down the neighborhood! Here’s what Smokey the Bear recommends:

  1. Allow the wood to burn completely to ash, if possible
  2. Pour lots of water on the fire, drown ALL embers, not just the red ones
  3. Pour until hissing sound stops
  4. Stir the campfire ashes and embers with a shovel
  5. Scrape the sticks and logs to remove any embers
  6. Stir and make sure everything is wet and cold to the touch — if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave
  7. If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix dirt or sand with the embers. Continue adding and stirring until all material is cool. Remember: do NOT bury the fire as the fire will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire that will eventually get to the surface and start a wildfire.

So that’s how I made my secret backyard fire pit. Pretty basic, but you can experiment with the design to your heart’s content. However you do it, you’ll be glad to have a place to retreat to this winter, where you can kindle a fire, stare into the flames, and ponder how to become the best man you can be.

{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bryan J. Oates November 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm

This is something I have been looking forward to doing one day myself. Faithfully, I will have that house and property one day and will be able to make my own “secret” pit!.

Bryan J.
(Lacey, Wa)

2 Bruce November 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Instead of the screws you used, I would recommend using either bolts or lag bolts. These will be MUCH stronger than the “deck” screws that it appears you used (these aren’t intended for load bearing). Lag bolts or screws will require pilot holes, though.

3 Eric November 15, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Nice article! I built a pit last year in the piece of land next to the house. It was fun to do. I hadn’t thought about benches though. Thanks for the idea!

4 Adydye November 16, 2013 at 6:20 am

That’s a great piece of land you’ve got there!
I’d like to add that flint stones are a big no-no for the stone circle. Not only do they explode but of course they splinter into the needle- and razor-sharp fragments that our ancestors found so useful.

5 Helen November 16, 2013 at 7:50 am

I love it!! Excited to see it!

6 Todd November 16, 2013 at 8:47 am

I built my fire pit when I built my house, it is a keyhole shape. It gives a bit of versatility in that one end I could build a fire for grilling for some occasions, and the larger ring end would be used for a bigger bonfire for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. I used limestone gathered from around my property to line it.

7 omar carreto November 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

Brett & Kay

Once again another great reading material thanks for the guide on the secret backyard fire pit good job on those benches…anyway I think mine won’t be secret need to grow me a few trees first and please pick me for the aviator watch. I would love to own one.

Best Regards,
Omar Carreto

8 Terry November 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

Dear Brett,

Thank you for sharing your fire pit project. I’m contemplating one myself. I can imagine very cool and spooky Halloween-time bonfires on your property, with the nice woods behind your house. Of course in Oklahoma you can enjoy it year-round. A little tougher up here in Minnesota in January, but it can be done. Thanks again for a wonderful website.

9 Martin Wilderspin November 16, 2013 at 12:34 pm

If you want your benches to last, be wary of burying wood into soil as they will rot quite quickly. Concrete them or find some other way to stop water getting to the wood.

10 N.S November 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm

So manly.

11 cheryl November 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Not only will porous rocks explode, they can also become airborne and hurl themselves several yards. While attending a party/bonfire several years ago, I was standing at least 75 feet from the fire, when suddenly I heard/felt something hit the ground near me. After it happened a couple more times, we realized it was rocks being thrown from around the fire pit.

12 Maggie November 16, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Don’t advise to pour lots of water on the fire to extinguish. Water expands 1500 when it turns into steam and you run the risk of some serious burns, not to mention splashing of near boiling water. Safety first! Sprinkle and stir. It doesn’t take much water to extinguish a fire and by stirring you ensure that the embers are out as well. Wtg mentioning the rocks that explode. Many people don’t know about that. Enjoy this for many years to come!

13 Trina November 16, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Ours is no secret, our landlord told us we didn’t have to water (we live in the desert) if we kept the weeds down and he doesn’t care what we do if when we move there are no holes.
Our pit is Huge and resembles a shallow grave as we have hard pack clay so the edges are perfectly straight and it is 6′ long, 3′ wide and 20 inches deep. My husband didn’t fool around digging and he is very proud of it so I enjoy it just for that much less the great fun at parties people have just sitting around, stirring it up and visiting.

14 Johnny November 16, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Just bring some scary stories and you’re done :D

15 Greg G November 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm

That looks like a great place to roast some s’mores with your family. I’m jealous.

16 Mac D. November 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I’ve been looking forward to having a backyard fire pit since I was a kid. My plans for having one will have to wait a while longer though. Gotta finish school and not have a landlord. I like the idea of having it in a secluded/ semi secluded place though. Great article.

17 Richie2Shoes November 16, 2013 at 9:47 pm

I put a fire pit in this year as well, only it isn’t a secret pit. I had red brick left over from an addition, and used about 50 of them in the project with a little mortar. I dug the pit so that the first two layers of brick would be below ground, then just laid the brick in a circle, 8 brick per level with a little mortar on each end of the brick to hold it stable. 2 rows under ground and 4 rows above made a nice suburban pit.

18 Peter Dunstan November 16, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Love the pit/property. On the topic of exploding stones, I don’t know about people dying, but my boy got a good bruise on his leg and a fragment smashed a glass bottle about 5 metres away. Not a story of certain death, but not bad just the same.

19 Victor P November 17, 2013 at 6:41 am

Article reminded me of Richard Proenneke and his exploits in Alaska. Just watched Alone in the Wilderness.

20 Frank November 17, 2013 at 7:03 am

The best reason to have a backyard fire pit is because it helps your kids as they live their own Hero’s Journey. As you know, one of the aspects of the H.J. is the ordeal with a near-death experience. There will be plenty of near-death experiences with a backyard fire pit.

21 Rob F November 17, 2013 at 7:58 am

We built something very similar a few year ago but the pit is about 5 feet in diameter so we can host some large fires. Last month we built a second much smaller pit closer to the house so we can have small fires without as long of a walk back to the house. Both serve a purpose and it is nice to have the option.

22 Evan November 17, 2013 at 8:50 am

This is great! I was, this very day, planning to work on one. Great timing, now I have to. Nice bench design by the way.

23 Jamey November 17, 2013 at 10:49 am

Thanks for the post, although I’m jealous now. You may find me hiding out using your firepit some day, I live in the Tulsa area too, but a much smaller backyard in the subdivision. Way cool man!

24 Native Son November 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

One cautionary note. BE VERY sure to check your state and local ordinances before building and using a fire pit. One BIG reason the DIY shows feature gas fire pits is that burning wood, etc in your yard (or anywhere on no-agricultural zoned land) is illegal in a lot of places.
Yeah, it’s a bit of the nanny state, but I grew up in a semi-rural county with lots of vineyards and orchards, back when smudge pots were used to fight frost. But if you’ve ever seen smog in literally multi-colored layers, you know why open fires are a pain. Some places even restrict using wood burning fireplaces.

25 Lee Norris November 17, 2013 at 3:41 pm

The only objection I have to the fire pit is if it’s used in warm weather and there are neighbors living close enough that the smoke will come in through their open windows. Every summer, about twice a week, we’re forced to close our windows because a neighbor two doors down feels the need to sit on his patio with a fire pit. Outside, the aroma of an evening fire might make for a cozy, intimate setting. But in a house at bedtime, wafting into open windows, not so much!

26 zīļuks November 17, 2013 at 4:53 pm

hello. I am an expert of exploding rocks. Here in northern europe we use river rocks, they are found in and near the rivers, they do not explode.

There are not many cases when rocks explode. They have to be thermally stressed in order to explode. For instance when you have your sauna ready, you should get the river rocks, otherwise ordinary field rocks can be very dangerous when somebody pours cold water on them. Note – when in sauna – never pour cold water even on river rocks, use lukewarm instead.

27 Todd November 17, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Nice article. Thanks.

I’ve seen porous sandstone rocks explode when used around a campfire. They didn’t hurt anyone when it happened, but I wouldn’t do it again.

28 James November 17, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Cool post, I’ve always wanted a fire pit in my backyard. I suppose I better start by getting a house with some land though ha!

29 fireman November 17, 2013 at 8:57 pm

I wanted to add to what Martin said, you’ll be rebuilding the benches soon if you bury them. I would suggest finding some more rocks and using those to hold the bench up.

You can bury the rocks so they are all even (or close enough).

30 RJ November 18, 2013 at 4:57 am

Built a similar pit on my Texas property about five years ago. I also had to build a trail. It provided such great joy to the family to sit around the fire. I just purchased five acres in western Arkansas, just over an hour from the suburbs of Tulsa, and I plan to build the fire pit before I build the cabin. Thanks for sharing.

31 dogg November 18, 2013 at 7:47 am

Brett, coming from the same area as you (Jay, Ok), there is one other type of rock to be careful about exploding. Flint rock, of which there is plenty in our area, explodes very easily, and as you know, flint is comes with razor sharp edges.

32 shopken1 November 18, 2013 at 8:23 am

Living in Oregon wooded areas- The fire pit has been a living tradition. Burning massive piles of slash and debris on a cold winter night or around the yard fire pit.

A word on benches; If you have large enough diameter rounds from logs- cut to height. I have also chain saw cut out chairs with backs from madrone, oak or fir rounds. Snap a chalk line on a log and you can cut out pretty impressive beams for benches as well.

33 Brian V November 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

Very nice. I like the benches. I made benches for my firepit out of some logs that I sawed in half (it’s neat, I saw the log in half, then carve out a “ditch” along the center curve of one of them and then just fit the other one curve down inside of the ditch. It leaves a flat surface for sitting on an “hourglass” shaped bench.) I’ve also seen people make wooden molds and the pour out concrete benches.

34 Brian V November 18, 2013 at 9:23 am

OH! I just remembered, when I was young I’d have to go clear thistles and briars off of my grandparents’ land with my father. We always used a reaping scythe and a long-handled tree pruner. Just reach in, snip the trunk at the base, and fling the whole bush with gloved hands. Easy peasy.

35 JT November 18, 2013 at 10:09 am

Filson Seattle Cruiser looks LEGIT.

I love fire pits. A good friend just built a very extravagant one right in the middle of town. He is required to get a permit and inform the authorities every time he wants to use it. It sucks that in this day and age we must get permission to do manly things…

36 chris November 18, 2013 at 11:13 am

exploding rocks….even solid rocks can shear off projectiles if doused with really cold water after a roaring fire. While fire circles are nice, the smoke always finds me. While it does drive off the skeeters, well it burns the eyes .But if you gotta have one see if you can fins a good clay source and build something Just as nice and rustic. you can use red clay bricks if they are cheap enough. People rip down houses or rip up walkways and they are free to take. check freecycle in your area. Ciao

37 DJ November 18, 2013 at 11:19 am

For another bench idea, check out “Leopold Bench.” Easy to build and you can make a pair from pressure-treated for $50 or improvise with what you’ve got laying around.

38 Brandon November 18, 2013 at 11:20 am

Awesome article man. Projects like these are the ones that make city folk jealous. Could just be me, but man that looks like alot more than an acre.

39 Phillip the Bruce November 18, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I notice you screwed the bench into the end grain of the 4×4 legs. While that will probably last, I would suggest putting an additional screw near each end into the 2×4 spreader. The grain is stronger that way and the screws less likely to pull out.

40 David November 18, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Now you need to built a little rainwater collection system to have water on hand for fire control. :)

41 Frank November 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Do cynderblocks work? I’ve been thinking of doing the same thing but just buying some cynderblocks

42 John November 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Never use any porous rock in or around a fire. I would also suggest sawing the tops and the bottoms of the legs at the same slight angle so that when you attach the legs to the bench the bottoms are wider apart than the top. This will make the bench considerably more stable. Especially as the bench as build is only 10 inches wide. The last thing you want is for the bench to tip toward the fire. Use 2 x 4′s for the legs, they are strong enough and if you can’t find them at Home Depot or another place like that it would be because they are temporarily out of stock. This will also make the bench lighter. Also, you can place a bar across the base of the legs, about 2 inches from the bottom, to make them even more stable. It doesn’t have to be thick, a piece of 1 x 2 will do OK.

43 kg November 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Why not use a truck tire rim for your ring? I have one and bought a steel grate that fits exactly for cooking.

44 John Clark November 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Tree companies often give away wood chips for free to avoid paying to dump at county landfills. Sometimes small branches are mixed up in it, so it might not be quite as nice as the 60 bags from the Home Depot. After a few years, it will become a much smaller volume of nice topsoil.

45 Pete November 18, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Awesome! Just a suggestion – you might want to add some x-braces to your benches otherwise they will get wobbly over time. The x-brace prevents that. The joint for the legs to the bench on there currently is not a “moment-resisting connection” to put on my engineer hat LOL and will therefore wobble as the joint loosens up. Just lag-screw some 2×2 or 2×4 diagonal across, one on each side of the bench, on opposite diagonals. NOW you have a proper stout bench. Thanks!

46 P.M.Lawrence November 18, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I tried just using a shovel for this part, but found that clawing with my hoe and then hoisting out the loose dirt with my shovel worked better.

You shouldn’t have been using a shovel at all, but a spade. USA-ians often use the terms “shovel” and “spade” interchangeably, as though they were the same things. They aren’t, they are different in much the same way as a soup spoon and a dessert spoon.

A shovel has a scooping, lifting action for loose material, with a short lever arm so you can lift with your back and a short, wide blade with raised edges to keep the load on better. A spade has a cutting, levering action for firm material, with a long lever arm so you can pry firm soil loose and a long, narrow blade without raised edges to get into the soil more easily.

In that photograph, you are showing a shovel – which is completely the wrong tool for the job.

Make sure to fully extinguish your campfire after you’re done — don’t want to burn down the neighborhood! Here’s what Smokey the Bear recommends: … Pour lots of water on the fire, drown ALL embers, not just the red ones …

That part is BAD advice, at least the way it is written, because anyone who is inexperienced might take it literally and just dump a lot of water on in one go – and that can scatter embers etc. if the water flash boils enough. What you SHOULD do is, pour a little water on at a time – SLOWLY – and then repeat until everything is out. That will end up using a lot of water, but at least you aren’t dangerously dumping a lot on. Maggie’s comment of November 16, 2013 at 1:37 pm got it right.

47 P.M.Lawrence November 18, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Oops! I meant to write “… with a short lever arm so you can lift with YOUR LEGS NOT your back …”.

48 Fred November 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Some people call it a Woodman’s Pal, I call it a sling blade.


49 Bike Bubba November 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

Next time you dig a hole in clay, use a shovel with a point. Your back will thank you.

Points are well taken on the use of nonporous rock that does not shatter due to steam. Granite?

50 Janice November 20, 2013 at 4:11 am

Oh yeah, we’re big believers in the backyard firepit. Have one at our summer cabin, back in the woods, like this one. Also one at our suburban home, ringed with iron. Noted the article with the three types of fires – snack, cooking and comfort. We’d add a fourth – the “science” fire, where we burn random small stuff (safely!), just to see what happens. I’ll take a firepit, husband and cocktail over a big screen TV any day of the week.

51 P.M.Lawrence November 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Bike Bubba, that’s not a shovel at all, that’s a spade, the very thing I was talking about. Using the wrong name is what leads people to use the wrong tool.

52 Matthew November 21, 2013 at 5:23 am

2-step process to building secret fire pit:
1) Build fire pit
2) Tell no one.

53 Dylan G November 21, 2013 at 10:38 am

I’m from farm country. For our firepit, we used a tractor wheel. A farmer hit a bridge and bent up the rim. He gave it away since it was no good anymore. We removed the tire and put an old grill rack over the center axel hole. The ashes fall into the bottom half of the wheel. Air comes up from the gaps along the ground to feed the fire. We put old oven racks across the top to grill steaks. It’s a beast.

54 Bike Bubba November 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm

PM; you’re correct that most “norteamericanos” do not use the terms right, and it’s right that if you know the terms well, you’re more likely to make a good decision.

That said, envisioning how the tool is going to be used will help too. Kudos to our host, BTW, for on the job learning. It’s how I’ve learned to work with wood, too. Each project gets a bit better, and I’ve still got all ten fingers. :^)

55 Tom Humbert December 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

Each bench weighs 100 lbs? That seems a bit high for such small benches.

Cool design. I would suggest making the base a bit wider. That way, it would be less likely to tip backwards.

Nice article. I just added this to my winter project list.

56 Rob H December 18, 2013 at 9:46 am

I agree with both of Brandon’s points – very jealous of this, living in central London where affordable land is at least 50 miles away – and it looks like more than an acre! but the camera can be deceiving…

57 Jim December 22, 2013 at 8:44 pm

good article but if you want to dig a hole use a spade shovel instead of a scoop shovel

58 Britton Wesson January 22, 2014 at 10:36 am

Very cool. Especially in an urban area. To those correcting him about water: Apparently you’ve never been camping or in the outdoors at all. Best way to extinguish a fire is pouring dirt or sand on the fire. Puts it out. Covers the embers and doesn’t spread anything. So, there ya’ go.

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