Which Outdoor Fireplace? Clay vs. Cast Iron Chimineas

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Let’s say you already know you want a freestanding, wood-burning outdoor fireplace.  Like me, you love going camping without actually going camping, or even backing out of the driveway.  And like me, you delight in splitting the perfect log, coaxing a beautiful flame into existence, and (the best part) watching family and neighbors drop what they’re doing to come and join you fireside.  

But there are an awful lot of chimineas to choose from, so there’s still a decision to make.  Would you be happier with cast iron or terracotta clay?  What about aluminum or copper?  And steel?  Well, it depends.  So let’s consider what owning them is like, and then look at a few available options, as well.

The Pros and Cons of a Traditional Clay Chiminea

  • Weighs less than cast iron, but can still be pretty heavy depending on size
  • Rustic and charming, fits in beautifully with most backyard settings
  • No assembly
  • Requires seasoning and warmup, sensitive to freezing temps and rain
  • Clay is delicate
  • It can be tricky to find a good, handmade, Mexican fireplace

I’ve noticed in recent years a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the idea of buying a clay chiminea.  “Oh no, you don’t want THAT!  No, it’s mass produced junk, it’ll crack, a waste of money, etc.”  And you will certainly see a LOT of poorly produced clay chimineas out there.  But there are some very beautifully crafted, artisan-quality clay chimineas available, too, and this is what you should look for if you decide you want clay. 

First, the advantages of having a good clay fireplace outside. They’re lighter in weight than a good cast iron chiminea, so they’re easier to move around and to tilt slightly when you’re scooping out ashes.  But you might be surprised by how heavy the larger ones, especially, can be.  The exterior still gets hot, but not as hot as metal, and this safety aspect is not to be overlooked if you have small children or pets.  Or just someone around who’s a little clumsy and accident prone.  They’re very charming and what I call “soft on the eye,” as they mingle nicely in a backyard setting of bricks, grass, trees, and plants.  They’re made of earthenware, after all, and it’s easy to find clay chimineas embellished with flowers, fish, sunbursts, and other traditional design elements.  There is no assembly required, except maybe to place it on its metal stand.

However.  Clay is more delicate and prone to thermal shock.  So you always want to start by filling the bottom of your new clay chiminea with an insulating layer of play sand; and next you want to “season” the interior with a small kindling fire, creating a thin layer of soot before building your first, big (but not too big) fire.  And any time you want to use your clay chiminea, start by building the same kind of small fire until the exterior is warm to the touch.  This will help to prevent cracking.

I actually fashioned a makeshift wooden poker for our old clay chiminea because I often nicked the interior when using metal pokers.  And if you happen to back into your clay fireplace with the lawn mower (no, it wasn’t me), well at least you’ll have a good supply of terracotta shards for the potting bench. 

Clay can be also over fired, leading to cracks.  You don’t have to build a huge fire to have abundant radiant heat.  In fact, you never want to see flames shooting out of the top of the flue.   I recommend burning only hardwoods in a clay fireplace, or pressed logs that do not contain waxes or resins.  They burn more slowly and consistently and won’t create hot spots which, again, could lead to cracks. 

Also, when shopping around for any type of outdoor fireplace, think about the size of the fire chamber in relation to your wood source.  You can order almost anything cut to any size, but if you have stacks and stacks of wood already available, consider whether you’d have to cut it down further to make it fit in a new fireplace.  I actually find this kind of thing to be a superb stress reducer but, of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

Seating a clay fireplace on a noticeably uneven surface could create hot spots and—cracking.  And when it’s bedtime, always extinguish it with a bucket of sand, not water.  Or just stir the sand layer up over the embers and place a metal spark screen (you should have one) over the front opening.  Of course, you’ll need to cover and protect a clay chiminea from rain and freezing temperatures.

All this sounds a lot worse than it really is in practice.  I actually LOVED using our old clay chiminea, and prefer this type of fireplace for summer evenings, when we tend to have larger crowds.  I used to burn a lot of fragrant hickory wood in it, and noticed fewer pesky flying insects, even mosquitoes, whenever I did.  It’s worth a shot if you get a chiminea and are plagued by flies or gnats when you’re trying to relax in the backyard.

You’ll have much better luck with authentic, handmade, Mexican chimineas, designed with just one wide opening in the fire chamber and a wide flue. This creates proper drafting and keeps the smoke to a minimum.  A lot of the chimineas you see at the grocery store are factory produced and have both material and structural flaws that get patched up for quick shipping and cost effectiveness.  You might have to go to a local, independent garden shop (if you’re still lucky enough to have one) and talk to the staff about how they source their terracotta products.  It’s worth the extra effort, and you don’t need to spend a fortune to have something safe, reliable, and absolutely beautiful.   

HERE’S WHAT I RECOMMEND IN A CLAY CHIMINEA

It’s the Sempra Clay Chiminea from Gardeco, delivered right to your doorstep.  And here’s why.

  1. It’s handmade in Mexico using Chimalin, a special clay mixture that resists cracking.
  2. It has a 5-year guarantee! 
  3. You don’t have to season it first.
  4. You can build bigger fires without fear of it cracking.
  5. Suitable for charcoal and any type of wood.
  6. It’s about 32 inches tall without the stand, perfect for summer nights on a small patio.
  7. It’s finished with a beautiful black glaze, creating a moisture proof exterior
  8. Weighs 66 lbs, with an 11-inch wide opening in the fire chamber.

I’m not sure what else you could ask for in a little clay fireplace!  But let’s take a look at cast iron and some other metals before you go…

The Pros and Cons of a Cast Iron Chiminea

  • Cast iron is very beautiful, but heavy
  • Not sensitive to freezing temperatures
  • Can burn any type of wood or charcoal in it
  • No warmup period required
  • Durable and long lasting
  • Weight makes it an unlikely target of thieves
  • Requires regular maintenance
  • Tendency to rust

The most obvious advantage of an iron chiminea is that it’s not as sensitive as clay, so if you tend to be heavy handed, this might be just your kind of thing.  You can perform a log toss or practice your drum solo on its fire chamber.  Stoke it with manufactured logs, charcoal, or that big branch that fell from the neighbor’s tree onto your newly restored vintage bike.   As with clay, it’s a good idea to “season” the interior with a few small kindling fires, but you don’t really need to warm it up for subsequent uses.  Freezing temperatures are not an issue.  Big fires are not an issue but remember, early humans mastered fire almost two million years ago, so stick with the program and don’t let yours get out of control.

Cast iron chimineas have a graceful, solid, well-established look that really says “home.” Perhaps one reason for this is that they’re heavy and hard to move by yourself.  You’ll likely pay more for a high quality cast iron vs. clay chiminea, but you want something of very good quality because you’re dealing with fire here.  It’s not the place for flimsy sheet metal construction, ill-fitted rivets or sharp edges.  Another problem with cast iron, if this sort of thing bothers you, is rust.  Even if you cover it and haul it out of the weather on rainy days, it will develop some rust.  Although at a much slower rate if you happen to live in a dry climate.  And, of course, you can minimize this issue with regular maintenance. 

A side note on copper.  It looks gorgeous right out of the box, but not for much longer.  I steer clear of it when choosing outdoor fireplaces.  Fire is an aggressive element and it simply takes too much maintenance to keep copper looking, well, coppery.   Steel chimineas tend to be made from sheet metal and, in my experience, are short lived and a disappointment.  If it isn’t stainless steel it will rust, and quickly.

HERE’S WHAT I RECOMMEND IN A CAST IRON CHIMINEA

All that said, if you’re going for the unmatched beauty of an authentic cast iron fireplace, then go for the best quality and have a look at The Blue Rooster’s line of Cast Iron Outdoor Fireplaces. The Garden style and the Venetian are both beautiful, well crafted fireplaces.  All of The Blue Rooster’s chimineas:

  1. Are designed for proper drafting, and burn with little or no smoke.  Your neighbors will love you!
  2. Have carry handles and a cast iron grilling insert.
  3. Are backed by The Blue Rooster’s commitment to top quality and customer service.

The medium-size Garden style is distinctive, impressive (and fun!), and would be so appealing in an eclectic or a cottage-style backyard.  It’s also functional and versatile, being designed for use as a fireplace, grill, and oven—you can even bake pizza or bread in it!   At 44 inches high, it’s medium sized.   Cast iron, 44 x 22 inches, approx. 172 lbs. 

The stately, elegant Venetian style is larger at 52 inches high, but if you’ve got the space for it, it’s worthy of consideration.   It, too, is very functional and versatile, and can be used as a fireplace, grill, and oven. It would add a graceful note to pizza night, and it can bake bread, as well.  Oh the possibilities!  Cast iron, 52 x 22 inches, approx. 200 lbs.

But, no worries, there is a low maintenance solution to the conundrum of really wanting a cast iron chiminea, without the regular maintenance and potential for rust… 

HERE’S WHAT I RECOMMEND AS A LOW-MAINTENANCE ALTERNATIVE TO A CAST IRON CHIMINEA

It’s the solid Cast Aluminum Outdoor Fireplace from The Blue Rooster.  And here’s why.

  1. It has the look of cast iron.
  2. It’s not as heavy as cast iron.
  3. It’s made of solid cast aluminum, not sheet metal.
  4. It won’t rust the way cast iron does.
  5. It’s durable and long lasting.
  6. Like all Blue Rooster fireplaces, it’s designed for proper drafting, and burns with little or no smoke.
  7. It has carry handles and a cast iron grilling insert.
  8. It’s available in several finishes and styles, including the small-scale Etruscan and the handsome Gatsby.
  9. The Blue Rooster has been in business since 1997, and they pride themselves on excellent quality, proper design, and exceptional customer service.

The simple and compact Etruscan style is the perfect focal point and foot-warmer for a small patio.  It can hold a 10-inch log and, at 29 inches tall, it’s small enough to carry inside on rainy days and fill with candles. Cast aluminum, 29 x 15 inches, approx. 30 lbs.

The Jazz Era-inspired Gatsby style is a medium-size chiminea.  At 44 inches tall it can work very nicely in smallish outdoor spaces.  Its delightful, sturdy curves and generous fire chamber (holds logs 12 – 14 inches) will make this fireplace an absolute pleasure to own!  Cast aluminum, 44 x 20 inches, approx. 65 lbs.

A Quick Summary

If you love the traditional look and charm of a clay fireplace, and you don’t mind pampering it a little, then you’ll be happy with a high quality, handmade, authentic Mexican chiminea.  I recommend the Sempra Clay Chiminea from Gardeco. Weighs 66 lbs. at approx. 32 inches high (without its metal stand).

If what you’re after is the timeless look of a beautiful cast iron chiminea, and you don’t mind doing a little regular maintenance, then go for it—and go for the highest quality out there, The Blue Rooster Cast Iron Outdoor Fireplace. The Garden (medium size) and the Venetian (large size) styles look very different, yet both are functional and versatile, and can be used as fireplace, grill, and oven!  The Garden weighs approx. 165 lbs. at 44 inches high; the Venetian weighs approx. 200 lbs. at 52 inches high.  (FYI:  Both styles are available in cast iron and cast aluminum.)

If you want something durable, solid, and beautiful, with the look of cast iron but without all the maintenance, I highly recommend a Cast Aluminum Outdoor Fireplace from The Blue Rooster.   Both the small-size Etruscan and the medium-size Gatsby styles are available in cast aluminum. The Etruscan weighs approx. 30 lbs. at 29 inches high; the Gatsby weights approx. 65 lbs at 44 inches high.

Toasted marshmallows, anyone!!??

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