Enthusiasts agree that the most flavorful way to grill is over charcoal. The problem is, lighting a charcoal grill and getting it ready to use is a huge pain. It’s enough of an annoyance that it puts some folks off grilling, except for parties or special occasions.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Using a chimney starter for charcoal grills is the most efficient way of lighting your coals. Let me explain why using these simple devices will have you grilling like a pitmaster!
Sure, there are other ways to start your coals. You can use cubes of paraffin wax to get your briquettes going, or even the dreaded lighter fluid- if you don’t mind the risk of turning your BBQ into a bonfire. Not to mention adding the horrible flavor of burning chemicals to your hamburgers and steaks. Electric grill starters are another option, but they also have risks, and they don’t solve the problem of evenly lit coals.
The best charcoal chimney starters solve both of these problems at once, without adding chemicals to your grilled foods!
- 1 What is a Chimney Starter?
- 2 The Best Chimney Starters for Charcoal Grills
- 3 How to use a Charcoal Starter
- 4 Charcoal Chimney Buyers Guide
- 5 Charcoal Chimney Starter Cautions
- 6 Conclusion
What is a Chimney Starter?
A chimney style charcoal starter looks a bit like a rustic coffee can with vent holes and a handle on the side. Kind of like something your grandfather would have stashed in an old barn. The first time I saw one I asked my friend if he had an outhouse handy. But that hole-punched coffee can really did the trick! So how do they work?
You take a piece of sturdy galvanized metal and bend it into a cylinder or square shape. Punch some holes in the lower and mid part of the tube for air to circulate. Place a grate a few inches from the bottom, above the lower holes, and attach a handle or two to the side. That is the design the best chimney starters are made from.
Add some charcoal briquettes (or lump charcoal wood) to the top of the cylinder, and then ignite it from below. The tube shape channels the heat upward. This creates a vacuum that draws air into those holes in the bottom and sides and circulates it up through the briquettes. The airflow feeds the coals and keeps them burning.
As the briquettes on the bottom burn, they ignite the ones above them, until you have a tube filled with perfectly lit charcoal! Carefully add the burning briquettes to your grill and you are ready to cook.
Using a charcoal BBQ starter solves the two biggest problems with grilling. They are easy to use and get your briquettes ready quickly, usually in 10 to 15 minutes. They also produce a full tube of evenly lit embers. You won’t have problems with chunks of charcoal refusing to ignite. And you won’t need paraffin or starter fluid!
The Best Chimney Starters for Charcoal Grills
So how do you decide which starter is right for your BBQ needs? Most starters share a similar design, and differ mostly on the quality of their construction and extra features. I have picked the best barbeque starters in each category to feature here. Any of these starters will get the job done, so you can spend your time grilling and drinking adult beverages instead of managing charcoal.
Several of these picks are the classic cylinder shape, but I also feature two of the newer square shaped models. There is also a pretty nifty fan assisted unit, and a collapsible chimney starter that folds up for easy storage.
Weber 7416 Rapidfire – Classic Chimney Starter
The Weber Rapidfire is a classic for a reason! It is consistently rated as one of the best BBQ starters you can buy. With a solid design and top quality materials, the Weber Rapidfire will keep you in hot coals for years to come.
Featuring a cone-shaped inner grate that helps your coals catch fire, this Weber has plenty of ventilation to feed the burning charcoal. The body is made from aluminized steel, so it won’t rust and will take a beating. It also has a wide heat shield, and ergonomic, heat-resistant plastic handle. The metal assist handle will make it easy to pour the hot charcoal into your grill or smoker box.
The Weber Rapidfire is the perfect size for any 22.5-inch kettle grill. It holds around 60-100 briquettes at a time and is one of the best ways to light a BBQ.
Weber 7447 Compact Rapidfire – Small Charcoal Chimney
A smaller version of their classic, this Weber Compact Rapidfire has the same design and construction as the full-sized model but is suitable for portable grills. It is about two-thirds the size of the Classic Weber starter.
Designed specifically for the Weber Smokey Joe and Jumbo Joe portable grills, this compact starter has the same sturdy steel construction, wide heat shield and ergonomic handle as the full-sized version. It’s smaller, though, and so it doesn’t include an assist handle (and really doesn’t need one).
This is a great option for portable grills and for starting a charcoal grill. It holds 30-50 briquettes at a time.
Steven Raichlen Ultimate – Square Chimney Starter
The first of our square models, the Steven Raichlen Ultimate is an extra large charcoal starter which has the biggest capacity of any on the market. If you need a lot of charcoal started at once, then this is the model you want!
The Ultimate is made from heavy gauge steel and coated with a protective layer to prevent weathering. There are plenty of ventilation holes, which make this big boy easy to light off. The handle is a heat-resistant Bakelite, and it has a metal assist handle for easier transfer of hot coals. The square shape also makes it easier to control where your coals land in the grill.
This square starter can hold 7 pounds of charcoal at a time, which is enough charcoal to cook on two average kettle grills in one go!
BBQ Dragon – Fan assisted Charcoal Chimney
The BBQ Dragon is a small charcoal starter for those in a hurry to grill. When used with the optional fan (purchased separately), this model can have your coals ready for cooking in 3-7 minutes! This speedy prep time is why the Dragon is one of the best charcoal fire starters around!
The Dragon is a beautiful starter and the clip-on fan makes the gadget-lover in me drool with desire. Made from heavy gauge galvanized steel, the Dragon has an elbow bend in the base where you start the fire. The fan attaches to the side of the elbow once you have the fire going.
This design makes it easier to add more paper or other material if your coals don’t catch right away. The bend channels the air (via the fan) directly into the center of the charcoal plie, forcing more air through the coals. Just like blowing on an ember to restart a campfire, using the fan cuts the wait time for coals in half or more!
The capacity of the Dragon is slightly smaller than the Weber Rapidfire. While you can use it without the additional fan (and just blow in the elbow a bit yourself), why would you want to? To get the most out of your Dragon, add the fire-breathing fan and get cooking in just a few minutes.
Redcamp Collapsible Starter – Collapsible Chimney Starter
The second of our square models, the Redcamp Collapsible is the Swiss Army knife of chimney style starters. Perfect for camping and RV trips, this starter has a lot going for it.
Made from galvanized sheet metal, the Redcamp comes completely apart so you can store it flat. The handle is made with a heat-resistant ABS plastic, and it has a metal assist handle for additional stability. The lower charcoal grate is zinc coated for a longer lifespan. It also comes with a food safe, chrome plated upper rack, turning this starter into its own mini grill!
The Redcamp has the same capacity as the Weber Rapidfire, and holds around 5 pounds of charcoal at a time. It is the ideal portable starter, and is perfect for any situation where you need a quick pot of fire. Start a BBQ, toast some marshmallows for S’mores, or grill up some hot dogs at a picnic- this starter wants to travel with you!
How to use a Charcoal Starter
Starting a charcoal fire is easy when you have a BBQ grill starter. I usually prep mine right on the grill. Grab a beer to drink while you prepare your coals!
- Flip the starter upside down.
- Crumple up a few pieces of newspaper or other plain (not shiny or colored) paper and stick them in the bottom section. Don’t cram it in there; you need room for the air to circulate.
- Flip it right side up. Add your charcoal briquettes to the tube from the top; the grate inside prevents the charcoal from falling through.
- Place the starter in the bottom of your grill, or on a flat, heatproof surface nearby.
- Light the paper using a long match or BBQ lighter through those holes in the bottom. As the paper burns, it will catch the charcoal on fire.
- Watch as the tube of charcoal burns. Drink your beer. Wait until the coals on the top are ready; this can take 10-25 minutes, depending on how big your starter is and how much charcoal you are preparing.
- When the coals on the top are glowing hot and covered with ash, you are ready to add them to your grill.
There are some other tricks that the best charcoal chimney starters can pull off.
- If you leave a few burning coals in the bottom of the starter and top it off with fresh charcoal, the hot coals will ignite the rest of the tube. No need to light more newspaper to get a fresh batch of briquettes ready!
- Feel like making a stir fry along with your BBQ? You can actually cook on top of a charcoal chimney starter! Place a wok or other cooking vessel on top of a fully lit tube of charcoal, and that powerful blowtorch heat will sear your meat and veggies in no time. It also toasts a mean marshmallow!
Watch this video demo and see how easy it is to use a charcoal chimney starter! Also, I’d ask that you help us by subscribing to our YouTube channel.
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Charcoal Chimney Buyers Guide
Size- Charcoal Capacity
Size matters in charcoal starters, so be sure you get a model that has enough capacity for your grill or smoker. As features go, this is probably the key one you will use to narrow down your options. Selecting the best coal lighter for your needs starts with judging its capacity.
It is tricky to compare capacity from starter to starter, because there is no standard way of measuring it. Some manufacturers go by how many briquettes will fit into their starter. Others estimate the weight of the charcoal it holds. Each manufacturer seems to pick a different way of measuring capacity.
The capacity of a starter is also going to vary depending on the type of fuel you are using. Briquettes are usually a standard size and shape, but that size will vary from brand to brand. Lump charcoal is not evenly sized, and wood chunks, of course, can be any size. See why it is hard to compare capacity? Luckily, I did the work for you!
Comparing the Capacity of Chimney Starters
A regular sized charcoal chimney starter, like the Weber Rapidfire and the Redcamp, can hold, on average, about 60-100 briquettes. This works out to roughly 5 pounds of charcoal. That’s enough to fill a standard kettle grill with a half-inch of burning embers. The Steven Raichlen Ultimate can hold two more pounds of charcoal, making it ideal for larger grills and smokers.
The Dragon’s capacity, on the other hand, is approximately 4 pounds of charcoal. That means it can hold about 20% less than the Weber Rapidfire and Redcamp. If you are using the optional fan, however, you can still get 2 rounds of coals from your Dragon in the same time as it takes the others to prepare a single batch of coals. This evens things out in the end.
The smallest chimney starter, The Weber Compact, can hold about 30-50 briquettes, or around 3 pounds of charcoal. This is the perfect amount for a portable grill. But if you try to use a compact starter for a full-size grill you will have to start the coals in batches.
A last thought on capacity. It’s also important to take into account who will be using the chimney starter. I once used a huge one at a buddies house, and then had a heck of a time shifting the coals into the grill. It was awkward to lift and dump 14 pounds of burning hot coals and metal, even with two hands. Don’t be like me; consider this point before you light the match.
Shape and Durability
Is it better to have a square-shaped or round charcoal starter? Which design is more durable?
Truthfully, and without making you think you are back in geometry class, the answer is that the shape doesn’t affect the primary function of setting coals on fire and getting them ready for the grill. But the shape does control how much capacity the starter has. Square starters can hold more charcoal than similarly sized cylindrical models.
But a square starter may not be as durable, long term, as the classic style. Those corners create weak spots, and over time that can warp the starter. As this children’s experiment shows, even paper cylinders are stronger than square columns.
If durability is your primary concern, then you will probably be happier with a classic cylindrical starter. If, however, you really want to prep a lot of charcoal at once, or need a collapsible model, then go with the Ultimate or the Redcamp. They are great starters! You might just have to replace them more often than the Weber or the Dragon.
The most reliable charcoal chimney starters have an extra piece of metal between the tube and the handle. On some models, like the Webers, this shield sticks out quite a bit on each side. On others, the heat shield might just be a bit of metal between the cylinder and the handle.
The shield protects the handle of the starter (and your hand) from the heat of those burning embers and the hot metal tube. This keeps the handle from (depending on the material) melting, catching fire or getting hot enough to brand your palm.
Honestly, the shield helps, but things still get really hot. How well the shielding works will vary, depending on factors like fuel source and the weather. Grilling on a windy day, for instance, could cause the shield to heat up more than usual, leading to a hotter handle.
Be careful and take other protective measures, like using BBQ grill gloves. Your hands will thank you.
Handle or Handles
You are playing with burning chunks of coal, and you have to handle it without getting hurt.
The handles on chimney starters can be made from many different materials. All of the BBQ starters featured here are made with composite materials like ABS or Bakelite, which are forms of heat resistant plastic. Generally, handles are made from things that won’t catch fire and won’t conduct the heat from the tube to your delicate flesh.
Some starters have a second assist handle, and this is a really useful feature. Lifting a filled starter with one hand isn’t really hard, but pouring the glowing charcoal into your grill one handed can be awkward. The extra handle helps stabilize the starter while you pour, especially if you are trying to direct the charcoal to certain places in your grill (creating zones for cooking, for instance).
The assist handle on many starters is just an extra loop of metal. It is usually attached to the upper part of the heat shield, and hangs down over the main lifting handle (the one made from plastic or other heat-resistant material). You can also use this extra handle to hang your starter from a nail or hook when not in use.
Theoretically, these handles should be far enough from the tube (and shielded) to prevent them from getting too hot. Still, it is best to treat the handles like they hot enough to burn you. Before you pick up your starter, test the handle to see how warm it really is, or better yet, test AND use grill gloves. There is nothing like realizing halfway into dumping out your coals that the handle is too hot for you to hold!
Charcoal Chimney Starter Cautions
If grilling over charcoal wasn’t a little risky, then it wouldn’t fun! Still, to keep the risks within reasonable bounds, consider these factors before using a charcoal chimney starter. It’s all fun and games until you set porch on fire. Your spouse might not appreciate that, however much they love your grilling.
It gets hot. I know I keep saying it, but these starters get really, scorching hot. Most people use these starters directly on their grill. You can start them on a patio, but keep in mind that the heat could cause bricks to crack, and leave burn marks on concrete. If you are using one on the ground, like on a camping trip, be sure you have cleared the area well around it and have a bucket of water ready.
Starters can produce a lot of heat, so be sure there is nothing flammable around them. Never touch any part of a starter other than the handle(s) while using, and be sure your clothing doesn’t touch it as well. I once melted a hole in my fancy Gore Tex jacket when I accidentally brushed up against mine on a trip.
Use Gloves. This caution goes along with the one above. Most chimney starters for charcoal grills advertise that they have heat resistant handles that won’t overheat and burn you. Frankly, every starter handle I have ever used has gotten hot enough to burn me at some point. As someone who loves to play around with fire, I consider my BBQ gloves to be the best investment of all my grilling equipment. Get a good quality pair of grill gloves, and use them when handling your chimney starter.
If you are looking for a pair, check out our buying guide for grill gloves!
After use. We have focused this article on buying and how to use a BBQ chimney, but you definitely want to think about what you are going to do with it once it is empty. After all, it’s still hot enough to burn someone, or set something on fire. You need a safe place to put it until it cools down. Pets and children are at particular risk of tripping over a hot starter, so plan this out in advance of your BBQ.
I usually place my starter in the ash pail until it is cool. Since the pail is fire safe and has a lid, it contains the heat and prevents anyone (especially me) from tripping over it. Some folks hang the hot starter from a hook to cool down. They are usually cool within 10-20 minutes after use.
What’s the best way to start a charcoal BBQ? How can you read the thoughts and reviews above and arrive at any other answer? Whether it’s charcoal or briquettes, you simply must use a charcoal chimney starter. Instructions are easy and results are consistently great!
Enjoy playing with your barbeque chimney starter, and be sure to check out our other posts on BBQ techniques and equipment! Happy Grilling!