Modern outdoor fireplaces come in three essential forms: the firebowl, the chimenea and — I apologize for the redundancy; no other title exists — the outdoor fireplace (that is, the indoor prefabricated fireplace erected almost point for point out of doors). Let us tackle the least elaborate of the three first — the firebowl.
Firebowls — also called firepits (and if there is a difference between the two, it escapes me) — are exactly that: wide, fairly flat bowls, sometimes cradled between metal supports, in the center of which sits a particular type of fuel. Squat and highly portable, firebowls can be moved about the backyard and even transported to a vacation spot with minimal difficulty. As to fuel, firebowls burn as many varieties as do indoor prefabs. Most burn wood, which is easy to procure but dirty to burn (producing both smoke and after-fire residue). The cheapest, least elaborate sorts of firebowls burn gel or ethanol, both of which burn fairly cleanly but are expensive to resupply. One can also opt for a (typically more costly) propane or natural gas-burning firebowl, although the addition of a separate fuel tank reduces the firebowl's portability dramatically. Propane-burning firebowls require propane tanks, which can be weighty. Natural-gas burning firebowls, tethered as they are to a fixed natural gas line (which keeps the firebowl continuously supplied with fuel), are completely immovable.
Like their indoor analogues, the heat output of a given firebowl depends on its size and fuel type. Gel and ethanol-burning firebowls are often relatively small, and, as fuel, gel and ethanol tend to emit less heat than either wood or gas. Wood, as we saw earlier, offers the best BTU output per square unit of fuel; wood-burning firebowls, however, are not large, and so they may exude less heat in toto than (what tend to be) the largest types of firebowls — those that burn propane or natural gas. Of course, much of the charm of the firebowl — a summery device mainly — rests not in the warmth it provides but in the ambiance it exudes, and on the question of which sort of firebowl is most aesthetically and emotionally attractive, personal tastes necessarily reign. Some, perhaps most, prefer the earthy, smoky, slightly atavistic aspect of burning wood; others, the quiet, clean, slender beauty of a gas- or gel-fueled flame.
Crucial, too, is the design of the firebowl itself: Some wood-burning firebowls look rather like coal-burning grills, although not a few feature cast iron leggings that in their sinuous weaving remind the observer of fin de sičcle Art Nouveau. Gel and ethanol-based firebowls are typically compact, sleek, modern-looking things, often crowned with glass tubing (within which sits the firebowl's gel or ethanol canister). Propane and natural-gas firebowls are large, monolithic presences — quasi-totems whose obtruding, stationary aspects dominate the backyard and inspire in their owners sensations that might very well be called tribal. Tarzan, king of jungle, had but trees and vines to serve as testimony to his lordship; for those who fancy themselves kings of the suburban outdoors, there exist propane and natural-gas firebowls — grand, glowing objects that by dint of their effulgent flames illuminate all that comes under the suburban Caesar's outdoor domain.
The chimenea (sometimes spelled chiminea) is an elongated front-loading fireplace, bulbous in shape and composed, as a single piece, of a firebox and chimney. Invented several centuries ago in Mexico, chimeneas are made traditionally of clay, although many latter-day chimeneas are made of cast-iron, steel or aluminum — materials deemed by manufacturers more suitable to the damp and the cold of the northern United States climate. Most chimenea's burn wood, although propane- and natural gas-burning units are by no means uncommon. In their metallized guises, wood- and gas-burning chimeneas tend to both look and perform similarly. The most idiosyncratic — and, according to many, the most visually attractive — kinds of chimeneas are those made of clay (each one “a work of art,” to quote the clay chimenea specialists Dancing Fire, Inc.), and these always burn wood (and at very high BTU outputs). Clay chimeneas are cheaper, too, than their cast-iron brethren, although far more fragile, with the typical life span of a decently maintained, well-made clay chimenea being about three years, after which cracks and chippings begin to appear.
third major type of outdoor fireplace is … the outdoor fireplace.
That a type of object should share the same name as the class of
objects to which it belongs is indeed disorienting, and one might
legitimately wonder if the designation doesn't implicitly exclude the
other two types of “outdoor fireplaces,” the firebowl and
chimenea, from classifying as valid members of the outdoor fireplace
family. But of course, firebowls and chimeneas are, literally
speaking, places for fire, designed for the outdoors, and so what
else should we call them, if not outdoor
Yet they are not outdoor fireplaces as we mean it in this particular
case — that is, as almost brick-for-brick reconstructions of the
classic indoor fireplace, but placed out of doors. And what else
should we call these
indoor-cum-outdoor fireplaces if not … outdoor fireplaces? Perhaps a more imaginative person could devise a different, less redundant designation, but, whatever word he or she might come up with, it could scarcely be more perfectly descriptive — more utterly commonsensical — than the term currently in use, which so handily sums up the fact of the matter, namely, that the type of outdoor fireplace we call the outdoor fireplace is precisely that, an indoor fireplace placed out of doors.
Having already discussed the various kinds of indoor fireplaces, it should be no mystery to us the varieties and builds of the various kinds of outdoor fireplaces. There are three main types: wood-burning and propane- and natural-gas burning, featuring all the advantages and disadvantages posed by the three types of fuels mentioned hereunto. Many of them, both wood- and gas-burning, are made of brick or stone, although smaller versions are available that are simply self-contained metal boxes — freestanding fireboxes, in essence, lined internally with brick and possessed of short, stubby chimneys. Brick- and stone-built outdoor fireplaces have all the mechanics of an indoor masonry fireplace — a hearth, firebox, a smoke shelf and a chimney — and consequently are often quite large, much larger, on average, than the largest types of firebowls and chimeneas. They are also, need it be said, the most expensive of the various kinds of outdoor fireplaces, with top models exceeding $5,000, not including installation costs.