What Is a Chiminea and How Is It Used?

Heat up the Patio With a Portable Fireplace

chiminea in garden

Claire Takacs / Getty Images

Chimineas are those charming, hand-decorated terracotta outdoor fireplaces you see for sale at patio stores, marketplaces, and tourist sites in Mexico and Western states like California and Arizona. While some people use chimineas as garden art on patios for an authentic rustic or Southwestern look, chimineas can be functional fire features in outdoor rooms. They've been around for hundreds of years and are not just decorative accent pieces.

Chiminea History

Traditionally, a chiminea is 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 chiminea's design allows it to be used in the rain without the water extinguishing its flame.

Basically, a chiminea is the same concept as an 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 pinon wood are popular choices, which will blow smoke up and out. After igniting, chimineas 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.

Fun Fact

The chiminea's origins go back to the 16th or 17th century when chefs in small Mexican villages used them as elevated cooking vessels, and families gathered near them for warmth.

What to Look for Before You Buy

Don't get carried away by those lively painted flowers and Spanish motifs decorating that chiminea you've been eyeing online. Before investing in a chiminea, do some research and know where it will be located on your property. Also, consider the following:

  • Overall shape and design. Is it crooked or misshapen? Is the funnel/chimney too thick or thin?
  • Materials: While clay and terracotta are traditional, but chimineas can also be made of copper, cast iron, steel (like the vintage-inspired ModFire collection), 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 chiminea, then look for a model that runs on gas or liquid propane.
chimenea
 

Where to Put a Chiminea

For safety reasons, it's smart 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 chiminea will be placed. Concrete, brick, or stone patios are fire-safe paving choices. If your outdoor space is a wood deck or terrace, place fire-safe pavers across a small area to serve as a platform, or patio hearth. Place the chiminea on the hearth, and make sure there aren't eaves, a patio roof, or some type of overhead cover that could catch on fire.

What Is a Patio Hearth?

A patio hearth creates a fire-safe area on a wood patio or deck, on which you can place a chiminea. It's generally created by covering roughly a 3-by-4-foot area with pavers, bricks, or other fireproof materials.

Ideally, the wood should burn down to ashes in your chiminea. If necessary, the flames can be doused with buckets of water or low embers can be doused by using a shovel (not a garden trowel) and turning the sand/gravel mixture at the bottom of the pit.

Patio with chiminea
John Keeble / Getty Images

Caring for Your Chiminea

Chimineas are heavy and prone to cracking because most are made of clay, often with a low-fire glaze or simply painted. Before using your new chiminea, 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 buy a chiminea cover to keep it from cracking and eventually falling apart. In rainy weather (or worse), it's smart to store the chiminea in a shed, basement, or garage, along with other patio furniture.

Put sand, lava rock, fire glass, or pea gravel at the bottom of the chiminea 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 chiminea.

Concerned About Burning Wood?

In an effort to positively impact air quality, the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association (HPBA) partnered with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create volunteer woodstove changeout programs throughout the country. Find out if there is a changeout and incentive program near you.

Using common sense and safe behavior can make a chiminea a warm and cozy addition to your outdoor room.

Pronunciation and Spelling

Chiminea or chimenea, pronounced che-meh-NEH-yah. Spanish for chimney. The spellings are used interchangeably.