Mexican chimeneas are those charming, hand-decorated terracotta outdoor fireplaces you see for sale at marketplaces and tourist sites in California, Arizona and other western states. While some people use their chimeneas as accent pieces or as garden art on the patio for that rustic or Southwestern look, a chimenea can be a functional fire feature in your outdoor living room. They've been around for hundreds of years, and not as a decorative fashion statement.
The chimenea's origins go back at least to the 16th or 17th century, when chefs in small Mexican villages used them as cooking vessels and families gathered near them for warmth. Traditionally, a chimenea was made of clay and designed in a wide-bottom vase form, with a narrow, vertical chimney through which to direct smoke and a wide mouth on its side for the fire pit. The chimenea's design allows it to be used in the rain without the water extinguishing its flame.
Basically, a chimenea is the same concept as the old-fashioned potbelly stove, which is a cast-iron wood-burning stove. In Eastern European countries, a similar type of stove, called a kotao, is fed with wood and used for cooking many popular dishes. Large, round cooking pans are placed on the kotao.
Unlike a wider, more open fire pit, a chiminea is contained. Aromatic woods like cedar, hickory, mesquite or pinonwood are popular choices for the chimenea, which will blow smoke up and out. After igniting, chimeneas can reach full burn in 15 minutes, giving off a great deal of heat. The fire can be controlled like any wood-burning outdoor fire pit or fireplace.
What to Look For Before You Buy
Don't get carried away by those lively flowers and Spanish motifs decorating the chimenea you've been eyeing online. Before you invest in a chimenea, consider the following:
- Overall shape and design. Is it crooked? Is the funnel / chimney too thick or thin?
- Materials: The traditional is clay or terracotta, but chimeneas can also be made of copper, cast iron, steel or cast aluminum.
- Is there plenty of space in the fire pit to fit standard-size pieces of wood? If not, you'll have to chop or special order chips, chunks or smaller pieces of wood.
- Do you live in a zone that bans wood-burning fireplaces, both indoors and outdoors? If so, and you really want a chimenea, then look for a model that runs on gas or propane.
Where to Put a Chiminea
For safety reasons, you want to place the chiminea in a location where the flames are visible from inside your house. With this in mind, obvious spaces would include a patio, deck, courtyard, etc. A chiminea works more effectively if its back faces a breeze or wind -- which isn't always predictable, of course. For its funnel-like chimney to work properly, the chiminea needs to be set up straight and vertical. This positioning ensures sooting occurs inside the fire chamber.
Consider the surface upon which your chimenea will be placed. Concrete, brick or stone patios are fire-safe paving choices. If your outdoor space is a wood deck or terrace, place pavers, flagstone or brick in a small area -- about 3 x 4 feet -- to serve as a platform or patio hearth. Place the chimenea on the hearth, and make sure there aren't eaves, a patio roof or some type of overhead cover that could catch on fire.
Caring for Your Chiminea
Chimeneas are heavy and prone to cracking because they are made of clay, often with a low-fire glaze or simply painted. Before using your new chimenea, apply an acrylic finish or sealer, and reapply every 6 to 8 weeks during seasons of use. An acrylic finish will protect your outdoor fireplace from water and moisture, which will soften the clay. For that reason, it's a good idea to have a chimenea cover to keep it from cracking and eventually falling apart. In rainy weather (or worse), it's smart to store the chimenea in a shed, basement or garage, along with other patio furnishings.
Put sand, lava rock or pea gravel at the bottom of the chimenea fire pit to help clean out ashes. The sand-ash mixture can be put into a bucket, hosed off, set out to dry, and returned to the pit. You can also rake out the ashes and turn over the sand or gravel for a clean chimenea.
Using common sense and safe behavior can make a chimenea a warm and cozy addition to your outdoor room.