Chimeneas - Terracotta, Cast Iron and Clay
Material advantages and disadvantages
Like many good things the chimenea - otherwise spelt chiminea or chimnea - comes from Mexico. For many hundreds of years Mexican tribesmen and their families huddled around this bulb-shaped open clay stove as they slowly cooked fajitas and tacos (well, probably something a bit less interesting, actually) within it.
It was designed to be fuel efficient, weather resistant and easily replaceable: when the chimenea cracked due to heat variations and exposure, the family would simply gather some more clay and make another one.
The chimeneas we 'modern' people use in our gardens often find themselves in rather more temperate climates than the Mexican wilderness, but since we have forked out a lot of money for them instead of making them, we expect them to last a long time. This means that they have to be made of stronger stuff - better clay, cast iron or wire reinforcement. There are advantages and disadvantages with the different kinds. Terracotta chimenea, though attractive, are the most delicate and have to be brought inside during cold winters. Cast iron models can also look great but become very hot - not a good idea, perhaps, if you have small children who may get too close or try to touch it. They also rust, although this is not necessarily a bad thing - it can add an attractive weathered look. Reinforced clay burners are hardy, give off a gentle heat and can look as good as their more 'authentic' cousins, although they may be more expensive (Bushman is one company which makes them).
Chimeneas, like all fire-based appliances, need to be treated with respect and care. They should never be positioned indoors or under something flammable, e.g. a tree or awning. And if you don't want to burn the surface underneath the chimenea, it should be set off the ground. Some already have legs: if not, bricks underneath will do (cast iron models shouldn't go on a flammable substance such as decking in any case though). The traditional chimenea uses wood and has to be heated gently to avoid cracking. Reinforced stoves will take various fuels but if you want to cook with one you should only use wood or charcoal. The tribesmen designed them to use as little fuel as possible (which if you had to spend all day gathering it, is understandable), so don't add too much.