Purchasing, using and maintaining your Chiminea...
"It was as if a dream, looking into your eyes, gazing at the stars, feeling your warm... chiminea??"
Since the discovery of fire, humanity has always had a fascination with this source of comfort, warmth and sometimes danger. Now, with high energy prices wood burning has become an appealing adjunct to oil and gas heating systems.
The ritual of firestarting is a marvelous blend art and science. The end product...fire... is your reward for all the work involved... gathering, splitting, stacking and tending; all both primitive and sensual. Evolving from that rock-circled pile of wild wood to a modern thermostatically-controlled living room fireplace has taken thousands of years. As with much of human development, this evolution was a child of need, but some subtle joy has been lost in this technological advance.
But fun fire... campfires, bonfires, and that long gone but lovingly remembered autumn ritual of leaf burning by the curbside... can still be yours through the noble chiminea, the popular outdoor potbelly fireplace.
Chimineas are not care-free devices. They need a certain amount of ongoing maintenance to guarantee the longest life. Hopefully, you will read this before you buy one so that you can make an informed purchase.
Originating in Mexico in the 17th century, the original chimineas were used to bake bread. As with the originals, modern chimineas are handmade from raw, wet clay, giving each chiminea its own personality. They are actually made from two pieces... the chimney or "stack" made separately from the wood chamber or "base". After a short period of air drying, they are joined together to make a seemingly seamless fireplace!
The formed chiminea is allowed to air dry for a few more days and then is baked in a 900+ degree kiln. Allowing enough drying time as important since chimineas placed into the kiln while too wet will invariably crack. After thorough cooling, the outside is painted to give a rustic-looking, almost antique appearance. (Personally, I like the antique weathered look... then I don't have to be on "pins n' needles" waiting for that first inevitable blemish!)
Chimineas range in size from table top stoves used as candle holders to multi-hundred pound behemoths that can be used for cooking or as striking architectural accents in yards and patios. The assortment of styles is amazing, ranging from the plain and conservative to truly ornate clay work.
The chiminea is primarily a wood-burning stove. Hard woods burn best and produce the least amount of sparks. Some chiminea users who cook in their chimineas burn charcoal, which gives a longer lasting, more uniform heat than firewood.
Don't ever use any lighting fluid, alcohol or gasoline in a chiminea! There is a possible explosive danger in using any sort of accelerant in a closed stove, This makes the lighting of the coal a challenge! One safe way is to first burn some hard wood to form wood coals, which in turn are hot enough to light the charcoal. You could also use self-lighting charcoal.
I know a lot of you would love to have one of these great looking fireplaces inside your home. Please don't!! Chimineas are not designed to vent into a stove pipe, absolutely essential for an interior wood stove. Choose your poison... you are risking asphyxiation and death from both smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide!
OK... you're really creative and you think you can improvise a venting arrangement. Fine... but there are other reasons to keep the chiminea outside. First and foremost, the breakable nature of the clay make them a serious fire hazard... one that you would have to be very foolish to want inside your very flammable home! Remember that regular stoves and fireplaces are made from steel and cast iron... not nearly as breakable as clay. Secondly, chimineas lack flame control and don't seal tightly. This might be fine for a fireplace since all the burning is done inside an isolated, fireproof chamber. Would you want an uncontrollable fire in your living room? Any questions??
Though burning a chiminea is safer than an open campfire, I would caution against burning yours when the vegetation in your area is dangerously dry. If there are any local restrictions on outdoor burning, be sure your chiminea is not putting yourself or others at risk!
Burdening your neighbors with constant smoke from your chiminea will sour your relationship quickly. Try to locate your chiminea in an area where the smoke doesn't cause hard feelings... or lawsuits!!
There are rules you must follow to make your chiminea experience a wonderful one. The goal is really simple... do everything humanly possible to keep your chiminea from cracking! Though hard, clay is also fragile. Aside from the obvious... e.g. don't beat it with a hammer or drop it... improper burning and lack of maintenance can also cause cracking or breakage.
Think of your chiminea as a big piece of china... fine china! If you drop it on a hard surface, it will probably break. One dealer told me that they didn't guarantee chimineas for breakage because most of them were broken through careless handling before they were even fired up once! "Due care" are the words of the day.
Avoid lifting and carrying your chiminea as much as possible by using a hand truck or cart to move it when necessary. Ergonomically speaking, chimineas are a chiropractor's best friend and any attempt to lift one alone may invite injury! I wouldn't be surprised to see an enterprising chiropractor selling discount chimineas to keep business booming! (Just kidding... I am actually a devotee of chiropractic treatment!)
Because of the chiminea's two-piece construction, the attachment between the stack and base is the main structural weak point. Never ever lift a chiminea by the stack! If you have a strong back and a moderately-sized, liftable-by-mortal-man chiminea, placing one hand in the firebox and the other around the stack as low as possible is probably the best method. Of course, having a friend help is better still.
It is absolutely mandatory to apply a sealer to the outside of your chiminea. The manufacturer recommended finishes are Future acrylic floor finish or a wood sealer, such as Thompson's Water Seal. The sealer keeps moisture from seeping into the clay. Remember that your chiminea is painted, not glazed like ceramic tile, and the paint offers very little protection from moisture. In fact, the sealer will protect and extend the life of the paint finish. The chiminea should be resealed at least once a month during periods of use.
If you use the acrylic floor finish, the easiest way to apply it is to use a trigger-type spray bottle. You can rinse the spray mechanism with hot water and it can be reused many times. You can also use the same type of sprayer for an oil-based sealer, but the solvents may render the sprayer inoperative after one use. (That's why I elected to use the acrylic floor finish on MY potbellied friend!)
Always place your chiminea on the metal stand that (hopefully) came with it, and never place it on an unprotected deck or other flammable surface. You can place it on the lawn (as long as the lawn is not dry and flammable), on slate or on gravel.
There is increased fire danger when hot coals fall out of the chiminea... this can happen when "poking" the fire or adding more wood. This is a very serious problem with "two-hole" chimineas... chimineas with viewing holes on both sides... since it is easy to accidentally push coals out the opposite side while loading.
Even with a properly "seasoned" chiminea (see #8 for more information on those first few burns), there is always the chance that your chiminea may break while hosting a fire.
Don't place your chiminea under low hanging branches or under any flammable structure. Sparks can escape the top of the stack and you don't want to burn your house (or your neighborhood) down!
Sealing is not enough in very wet weather so using a waterproof cover is a must. Most dealers sell them, but they are also available online... just search!
Always cover your cool chiminea if you expect rain. This is because any moisture it absorbs may turn to steam and cause cracks in the clay when heated. If the chiminea accidentally gets soaked, you can either move it to a covered location and let it dry naturally for a few days, or light a few very small fires to drive the moisture out.
You are probably saying to yourself... "So I light a fire, the chiminea is really hot and it unexpectedly rains. What do I do?" Obviously you can't move a hot chiminea and you can't use your flammable vinyl cover. Though most chimineas come with painted clay covers, they are not meant to keep rain out.
One suggestion is to put a large piece of sheet metal over the top of the chiminea and holding it in place with a heavy stone. You could use a thin piece of slate for the same purpose... slate is heavier than sheet metal and will not blow off the chiminea as easily if the wind comes up. Either will keep the water out of the stack and may also keep water out of the firebox opening. With the lack of draft, the fire will initially begin to flame out of the firebox, but will quickly die down to a smolder for lack of oxygen. Chiminea hara-kiri!!
A freestanding, fireproof frame placed over the chiminea is another possibility. This could be designed to stand above the smoke stack and give complete protection from the rain. I would be interested if anyone has experimented with this concept.
One peculiarity in chiminea construction is that many firebox openings tend to be angled so that a driving rain can easily enter it. This, of course, is due to the round shape of the base. You may be able to tilt the chiminea slightly forward so that the top edge of the opening overhangs the bottom, allowing the rain to run off. However, if your chiminea is very hot, cold rain could cause it to crack so the aforementioned metal or slate stack cover may be preferable.
(6) Put sand in the bottom of the chiminea before starting a fire.
Hot wood coals can cause the clay to crack. Protect the bottom of the chiminea by covering it with at least three inches of sand. You can also use a small metal wood rack to raise the wood if you chiminea is large enough, but it is unnecessary.
(7) You can install a simple spark arrestor on your smokestack.
If you burn certain types of wood you may find a large number of hot sparks shooting up the stack of your chiminea. If this scares you... it should... get a piece of chicken wire or small-holed fencing and bend it so it sits either over the top of the stack or drops slightly inside. Hot sparks will extinguish upon contact with the metal and decrease the likelihood of your causing an unintentional fire.
As mentioned earlier, using well-seasoned hardwood and removing the bark (which tends to spark more than the wood) will also help lessen the total amount of sparking.
(8) Season your chiminea... the first fires you light are the most important!
The inside of a chiminea is virgin clay... highly absorbent and unprotected. Since virtually any sealer would burn off quickly (or even catch fire), the inside of the chiminea can be sealed "naturally" by the soot, ashes and creosote produced by wood burning. This both protects the clay but also seals hair-line cracks.
So your first burns must be small and controlled... no more than some kindling and one very small log or a few pieces of hardwood. Let the fire burn out and let the chiminea cool completely before starting another fire.
Opinion is mixed on just how many small fires are necessary to completely seal the stove. Depending on the source, anywhere from four to eight small fires should be completed before the clay is adequately sealed. I definitely vote for eight, but it's your chiminea... and money!
(9) A chiminea is not a blast furnace or an incinerator... self-control pleeease!
Once thoroughly seasoned and with regular exterior maintenance, your chiminea should give you many years of enjoyment. But the quickest way to destroy the romance is to get too hot and out of control... the fire, that is! A good rule of thumb is to not allow the flames from the fire to reach beyond the top of the stack. The outside of your chiminea will and should get very hot... but glowing? That's overdoing it... if you insist on building huge violent fires, wave goodbye to your money!
(10) No matter what you do, your chiminea may crack anyway!! Can it be repaired? THAT'S the question!
No one said life is fair. All chimineas are not created equal. Sadly, some Mexican manufacturers do shoddy repairs on cracked chimineas and sell them as "new". There is no way to really tell from a visual inspection how long your chiminea will last. A poorly made chiminea may break with the first firing... or the tenth. It may seem strong until you try to lift it at the end of the season and the stack separates from the base. These unknowns are part of chiminea ownership and must be accepted if you want to be at peace with yourself.
Unlike clay flower pots, which can be repaired with various waterproof ceramic adhesives, chimineas present a unique challenge due to heat expansion. Probably the best product for repairs would be a high temperature epoxy adhesive. They are commonly used for repairs on automotive mufflers and exhaust pipes and can be purchased at some hardware stores and most car parts stores... including online stores. This product is both sandable and paintable. If you have artistic talent, you can touch up the chiminea with acrylic paints blended to match the original colors.
Another adhesive that might be useful is RTV high temperature silicone caulk. This is the material used to make "instant" gaskets between metal automobile engine parts subjected to high temperatures. Because it is colored red and because it is not paintable, repairs using this product will have a certain "panache" that will set your chiminea apart from the crowd!
One of our readers submitted this photo (left) of his "recovering" chiminea... check out a larger photo with a little text explanation HERE!
If your chiminea has broken into tiny little pieces it is best to retire it. Permanently. It is unlikely any repair will be long-lasting.
You will be amazed at the powerful draft your chiminea will generate. Once the first piece of newspaper begins to burn, the air flow through the firebox opening up the stack is very strong. So use this to your advantage when starting your fires. Ball up a few sheets of newspaper and place them near the front of the chiminea. Lean kindling against the paper. When you light the newspaper, it will in turn light the kindling quickly as the draft up the stack intensifies. Then add either more kindling or a few small logs. It is also recommended that you keep burning wood away from the sides of the firebox.
Chimineas don't have dampers to control burning like a wood stove. However, if your chiminea came with a ceramic lid (and you haven't broken it yet), you can somewhat control the burning rate by placing it over the stack to restrict air flow. This method should be used with caution, because it can increase the internal temperature dramatically for a short while until the burning rate slows down. If you have started too large a fire, you could overheat and damage your stove!
FINALLY.... Don't ever use water to kill a fire... the temperature shock and steam could break the clay!!
If it is absolutely necessary to stop the fire quickly, use sand or a dry chemical fire extinguisher... never a CO2 extinguisher!!