Purchasing, using and maintaining your Chiminea...
a.k.a. the "Outdoor Fireplace"
"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
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
What is a chiminea?
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.
What can be burned in a chiminea?
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.
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
Chimineas are for outdoor use only!
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
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??
Be alert to drought and
flash-fire conditions in your area!
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!
Be considerate of your neighbors!!
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!!
If you want your chiminea to last... treat her with
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.
(1) Chimineas are easily breakable and difficult
to lift. What an evil combination for your back and wallet!
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
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.
(2) Seal the outside of your chiminea
before first use!
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!)
(3) Give your chiminea a safe home and keep your
Always place your chiminea on the metal stand that
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)
(4) Purchase a protective cover and use it!
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
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
(5) Prepare for rain emergencies!
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.
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
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
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
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
Starting a chiminea fire is easy...
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
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!!