How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

Last Updated July 6, 2023
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A chimney starter can be lit in at least a million and one different ways. Today I’m going to show you the most common way to use a charcoal chimney and the fastest and most practical way (using household materials most pitmasters will have lying around).

So, you’ve purchased a charcoal grill or smoker, prepared your food, and all that’s left to do is light the charcoal. It ought to be fairly simple, right?

Before they even leave the starting gate, so many people stumble here. You’ll frequently witness the ignorant pitmaster dousing their coals in lighter fluid to get them ablaze quicker. You really don’t want your food to taste like smoky petroleum!

Fortunately, a charcoal chimney starter is an imaginative yet easy-to-use alternative to lighter fluid or chemical fire starters. I had to include this little beauty on my list of necessary grilling accessories because it is so useful.

The simplest method for lighting your charcoal is using a chimney lighter because it is secure and straightforward to use. You won’t ever use anything else after you experience how simple it is to use.

How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

What is a Charcoal Chimney

An old-fashioned coffee can with vent holes and a handle on the side would be a good comparison for a chimney-style charcoal starter. similar to what your grandfather could have hidden in an old barn. When I first saw one, I enquired of my acquaintance if he had access to an outhouse. But the coffee can with the hole in it actually worked!

You bend a solid piece of galvanized metal into a cylinder or a square shape. Make some holes in the lower and middle portions of the tube to allow air to flow through. Affix a handle or two to the side, then place a grate a few inches from the bottom, above the lower holes. The best chimney starts are created using this pattern.

The top of the cylinder should be filled with charcoal briquettes (or lump charcoal wood), and the bottom should be lit. The heat is sent upward by the tube. Through the openings at the bottom and sides, air is drawn into the vacuum created by this, where it circulates up through the briquettes. The airflow fuels and maintains the flames on the coals.

As the briquettes on the bottom burn, they light the ones on top, until you have a tube full of perfectly lit charcoal. You are now ready to cook after carefully adding the burning briquettes to your grill.

The two main issues with grilling are solved by using a charcoal BBQ starter. They are simple to use and ready your briquettes in 10 to 15 minutes. Additionally, they generate a whole tube of evenly ignited coals. You won’t have trouble getting large pieces of charcoal to light. Additionally, you won’t require starter fluid or paraffin!

How to Use a Charcoal Chimney Starter – Standard Method

First, you’ll need a chimney starter as well as a few simple items.

Lighter cubes – To help light your chimney starter, you’ll need something to place beneath it. Here, some people just use newspapers, but since lighter cubes are more dependable, I prefer them. I think the extra cost is well worth it because they’re also reasonably priced.

BBQ gloves – The issue with many chimney starters is that safety hasn’t always been a top priority for many manufacturers. As a result, the handles on chimneys don’t always have good insulation or aren’t covered with a wooden or plastic grip. You’ll need a decent pair of BBQ gloves since, as you might guess, the metal of a chimney starter can get scalding hot very rapidly.

You must first find a secure location to put your chimney. I often utilize the grill grate or charcoal grate of the BBQ I intend to use to cook on.

Then, add charcoal to your Chimney Starter until it is completely full (you can use less charcoal if you aren’t cooking as much food).

Light a few lighter cubes then place them on the charcoal grate.

Place the Chimney Starter immediately on top of the lighter cubes. The charcoal will start to burn as a result of the fire from the cubes, and the flames will spread upward from there. Depending on the weather, the coals should be sufficiently lit to pour into the grill in 10 to 15 minutes. When the top coals have begun to turn a little gray with ash, you’ll know the coals are ready.

The coals should now be added to the charcoal grate or charcoal baskets, and they should be arranged according to whether you will be cooking with direct or indirect heat.

Once the burning coals are where you want them, put the grill grate back in place and put the lid back on. When the grill is hot enough, you can start cooking. The grill is deemed pre-heated after it reaches 500–550°F, which should take about 10-15 minutes. Now, alter the dampers on your bowl and lid to the desired cooking temperature.

After you’ve added the coals to the grill, don’t forget to put the charcoal chimney somewhere secure; you don’t want your pets or visitors to step on it while it’s still hot.

Fastest Way to Light a Charcoal Chimney

If you regularly use paper towels at home, you already have the tools necessary to try this method out. Inserting a cardboard tube in the middle of the chimney will speed up lighting by allowing the fire to spread from the bottom of the coals, up through the middle, to the top (cardboard tube, you know, the brown tube that’s left behind when you complete a roll of paper towels).

Place the charcoal briquettes all around the tube so that when the fire is set, the flames will pass through the tube and, in essence, ignite every piece of charcoal at the same time. You’ll be lighting the chimney from the bottom and the center, which will move things forward much more quickly than just trying to light the entire chimney from the bottom.

After the pile of charcoal has been piled around the tube, I advise taking a few tumbleweeds or paraffin fire starter cubes and placing them close underneath the tube. Instead of lighter fluid, use a lighter cube to spark the initial fire more quickly and efficiently. Under my Weber chimney, I prefer to use Tumbleweed firestarters or Wax lighter cubes to get the job done.

Fastest Way to Light a Charcoal Chimney

The lump charcoal (check my favorite brands of lump charcoal here) or your favorite charcoal briquettes, depending on what you choose, will remain where they were when the paper towel tube was there, acting as a funnel for the heat after the tube has burned away. This allows more charcoal to catch fire by allowing heat to rise straight up through the center as if the tube were still present.

The Weber rapidfire chimney starter is my preferred kind of charcoal chimney. I recommend it since it will maximize the amount of oxygen that can affect the charcoal while also being reasonably priced. For individuals who don’t require a full chimney for each cook, there is even a smaller version available.

How Does a Chimney for Charcoal Operate?

The “chimney” effect, or stack effect, governs how a charcoal chimney starter functions. In structures, where hot air escapes at the top and cold air enters at the bottom, this idea is present.

In essence, the stack effect is air movement brought on by a thermal differential.

Due to the fact that warm, heated air is less buoyant than cold air, the heat from the burning firelighter pulls into the chimney. As the hot air escapes, it creates net negative pressure (a vacuum), which allows cold air to enter through the vents on the bottom and sides.

How Much Charcoal to Use

The chimney should be flipped over so that the air vents are at the top if you plan to cook food slowly using the minion method or one of its derivatives, such as the Donut or the Fuse. That gives you the ideal amount of room to start your smoker. So the chimney is upside down for low and slow cooking techniques.

You don’t need a full chimney to cook with because these techniques just need a few burning coals to be piled on top of a big mound of unlit coals.

The entire assembly can then be placed on top of a fire starter or even some crumpled paper.

You can even take off a portion of the charcoal bag and crumple it up into a ball to make the most of your purchase of charcoal.

If you’re going to be grilling hot and fast I’d recommend filling the chimney with as much charcoal as you can, this will differ depending on the chimney you have purchased.

What to Look for in a Charcoal Chimney

A good chimney starter may do a variety of different jobs in addition to starting your coals. It will complete the task quickly, simply, and all at once. Oh, and since it is sturdy and durable, you won’t need to buy a new one each time you light the BBQ.

A chimney starter does not require an electrical outlet, in contrast to an electric charcoal starter. Additionally, unlike lighter fluid, it won’t give your meat a kerosene taste. To start a fire, put the chimney starter on the grill, add coals, and then light the fire by tucking crumpled newspaper beneath the base. The embers will become red hot and ready to be used as a source of cooking heat in 20–25 minutes.

Let’s look at a few of the features that will make it easier for you to quickly heat up your coals and bring them to the grill.

Charcoal Capacity – Size

Make sure you purchase a charcoal starter that has enough capacity for your barbecue or smoker since size counts. This is arguably the most important feature you’ll utilize to reduce your chimney options. Begin with assessing its capacity to choose the best charcoal starter for your requirements.

Because there is no accepted method for calculating capacity, comparing starters can be challenging. Some producers measure how many briquettes their starter can hold. Others speculate about the charcoal’s weight. There seems to be a different capacity measurement method chosen by every manufacturer.

The sort of fuel you use will also have an impact on a starter’s capacity. Although the shape and size of briquettes are typically uniform, the size varies from brand to brand. Wood pieces can, of course, be any size, and lump charcoal is not uniform in size. See why capacity comparisons are challenging?

Comparing the Capacity of Chimney Starters

The typical capacity of a regular-sized charcoal chimney starter, such as the Weber Rapidfire and the Redcamp, is between 60 and 100 briquettes. This equals to 5 pounds of charcoal. That will produce enough smoldering embers to fill a typical kettle grill to a depth of half an inch. The Steven Raichlen Ultimate chimney is perfect for larger barbecues and smokers since it can store two additional pounds of charcoal.

On the other hand, the Dragon can hold about 4 pounds of charcoal. It can hold around 20% fewer than the Weber Rapidfire and Redcamp. However, even if you choose to use the optional fan, your dragon will still produce two rounds of coals in the same amount of time as the other starters. In the end, this balances everything out.

The Weber Compact, the smallest chimney starter I recommend, has a capacity of 3 pounds of charcoal or 30 to 50 briquettes. This is the ideal quantity for a barbecue that is portable. However, you will need to fire the coals in batches if you attempt to use a tiny starter on a full-size grill.

One final note on capacity. Additionally, it’s critical to consider who will be using the chimney starter. At a friend’s house, I once used a large one, and I had a terrible problem getting the coals into the grill. Even with two hands, it was difficult to remove and dispose of 14 pounds of blazing hot metal and coals. Don’t make the same mistake I did and think about this before lighting the match.

Shape and Robustness

Is a square or a circular charcoal starter preferable? Which style is more resilient?

The basic purpose of lighting coals on fire and preparing them for the grill is unaffected by the shape. But the starter’s capacity is governed by its shape. The capacity of square starters is higher than that of comparable cylindrical versions.

However, a square starter could not last as long as the traditional design. These corners lead to weak spots, which eventually cause the chimney to distort.

A traditional cylindrical starter will undoubtedly make you happier if durability is your main priority. However, if you require a folding model or need to prepare a lot of charcoal at once, choose the Ultimate or the Redcamp. They might need to be replaced more frequently than the Weber or the Dragon chimneys tho.

Heat Shield

The charcoal chimney starters with the best reliability have an additional piece of metal between the handle and the tube. This shield protrudes quite a little on each side of some models, such as the Webers. On some, the heat shield may only be a thin strip of metal positioned in front of the handle and cylinder.

The starter’s handle (and your hand) are shielded from the hot metal tube and flaming embers by the shield. This prevents the handle from melting, igniting, or becoming hot enough to brand your palm (depending on the material).

Although the barrier is helpful, things still get really heated. Depending on the fuel source and the weather, many elements will affect how well the shielding performs. For instance, grilling on a windy day could cause the shield to heat up more than usual, making the handle hotter.

Use grill gloves and other preventative precautions. Your hands will appreciate it.


You are playing with hot pieces of coal, and you have to be careful not to get burned.

There are numerous materials that can be used to create handles for chimney starters. The heat-resistant plastic composites ABS and Bakelite are used to make each of the BBQ chimney starters presented in my guide. Typically, handles are manufactured of materials that won’t burn and won’t transfer heat from the tube to your tender skin.

A second assist handle is a highly helpful feature that some starters have. One-handedly lifting a starting container is not particularly challenging, but pouring blazing charcoal into your grill might be challenging. The additional handle stabilizes the starter as you pour, which is very useful if you want to direct the charcoal to specific areas of your grill (like cooking zones, for example).

On many starters, the help handle is simply an additional metal loop. The primary lifting handle, which is typically made of plastic or another heat-resistant material, hangs down over it and is typically attached to the top of the heat shield. When not in use, you may hang your starter from a nail or hook using the extra handle.

These handles should ideally be shielded and far enough away from the tube to prevent overheating. However, it is best to treat the handles as though they could burn you. Hold the handle of the starter for a second to see how hot it really is before you pick it up, or better yet, try and wear grill gloves. There is nothing worse than starting to dump out your coals when you realize the handle is too hot to hold any longer.

What Firelighters Are Best?

Products designed specifically to ignite a charcoal fire are called firelighters. Although they make lighting a charcoal fire exceedingly simple, firelighters are not necessary.

The following are the primary types of firefighters:

  • Cubes of paraffin wax
  • Tumbleweed fire lighter
  • Squares of compressed material

Since they all function well, I have no preference as to which firelighter to use. In actuality, the cheapest firelighter is the best.

These items are all designed exclusively to ignite charcoal; the only distinction between them is the price.

Wax Cubes are often the least expensive of these options, costing around $5 for a 24-pack.

A 16-pack of Royal Oak tumbleweeds typically costs $6–7. I’ve also noticed a few companies that sell compressed materials. Kamado Joe is a well-known company that produces them; a 24-pack of them costs about $10.

Since the wax cubes are sometimes out of stock at the BBQ store I frequent, I will then typically pick up a box of Tumbleweeds.

Do I Need Firelighters? No.

They just make the procedure foolproof. To ignite the charcoal, however, you are free to employ any method.

Remember that most paper works well, including outdated publications like magazines and newspapers or even your junk mail.

Dangers of Using a Charcoal Chimney

It wouldn’t be enjoyable to barbecue over charcoal if it wasn’t a little perilous. However, before utilizing a charcoal chimney starter, take into account these elements to keep the dangers within acceptable limits.

It gets hot. I know I keep saying this, but these chimneys for burning coals get very, very hot. Most people use these chimneys on their grills for this reason. You can start them on a patio, but keep in mind that the heat could crack bricks and leave burn marks on the pavement. If you use it on the ground, like when you’re camping, make sure the area around it is clear and have a bucket of water ready.

Make sure there are no combustible materials next to starters because they can generate a lot of heat. When using a starter, only ever touch the handle(s), and make sure your clothing doesn’t come in contact with it. On a camping trip, I accidentally brushed up against a hot chimney and it melted a hole in my expensive Gore-Tex jacket.

Use gloves. This warning complements the previous one. The majority of charcoal chimney starter companies will tell you their chimneys feature heat-resistant handles that won’t overheat and burn you. I’ll be honest and say that every starter handle I’ve ever used has occasionally become hot enough to burn me. My BBQ gloves rank as one of the best investments I’ve made in any cooking accessory since I enjoy playing with fire. When handling your chimney starter, invest in a decent pair of grilling gloves.

Visit my grill glove shopping guide if you’re looking for a pair!

After use. You should absolutely consider what you’ll do with the chimney when it’s empty. After all, the temperature is still high enough to burn a person or ignite a fire. It must be kept in a secure location until it cools. Plan this ahead of time for your BBQ because youngsters and pets are particularly susceptible to stumbling over a hot starter.

Until it is cool, I normally keep my starting in my ash bucket. The bucket retains the heat and keeps people (particularly myself) from stumbling over it because it is fire-safe and has a cover. To cool down, some people hang the hot starter from a hook. After use, they normally cool within 10 to 20 minutes.

Can You Start a Chimney with Leftover Charcoal?

People appear to mistakenly believe that once you use your charcoal, it is no longer usable for some reason. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Even in the images in this article, you can see me utilizing old charcoal. I also used the leftovers for the subsequent cook.

According to the fire triangle, there must be oxygen, fuel, and heat for a fire to exist. Fire cannot exist if any of these components are absent.

You can close your intake damper to remove the oxygen once you’ve finished grilling. This will stop the charcoal from burning anymore and means you’ll be able to reuse it

FAQ – How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

As you embark on your grilling adventures, using a charcoal chimney can significantly enhance your charcoal lighting experience. To help you make the most of this valuable tool, we’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions to address any queries you may have. Whether you’re a seasoned grill master or a novice backyard cook, this FAQ section aims to provide clear answers and valuable insights into the world of charcoal chimneys. From understanding how they work to ensuring safety and getting the best results, we’ve got you covered. So, let’s dive into the common questions and expert answers about using a charcoal chimney effectively for your BBQ delights!

What is a charcoal chimney?

A charcoal chimney is a cylindrical metal container used to ignite charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal quickly and efficiently. It consists of a main chamber, a handle, and ventilation holes.

How does a charcoal chimney work?

The charcoal chimney utilizes a chimney effect to light the charcoal. You fill the main chamber with charcoal, place a fire starter or crumpled newspaper underneath, and light it. As the fire spreads upwards, the heat and airflow from the ventilation holes ignite the charcoal uniformly and from the bottom up.

Why should I use a charcoal chimney instead of lighter fluid?

Using a charcoal chimney eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which can leave a chemical taste on the food and be harmful if not used properly. Additionally, lighter fluid can produce large flames that may pose a safety risk. A chimney allows for a cleaner, more natural way to ignite charcoal.

How much charcoal should I use in a chimney?

The amount of charcoal depends on the size of your grill and the cooking method you plan to use. As a general guideline, filling the chimney about halfway (around 4-5 pounds or 1.8-2.3 kilograms) is often sufficient for most grilling sessions. Adjust the amount based on your specific needs.

How long does it take for the charcoal to be ready?

The time it takes for the charcoal to be ready depends on various factors, including the type of charcoal used, weather conditions, and the efficiency of your chimney. On average, it takes around 15-20 minutes for the charcoal to reach a glowing red-hot state suitable for cooking.

Should I wait until all the charcoal turns gray before cooking?

No, you don’t need to wait for all the charcoal to turn completely gray before cooking. Once the charcoal is red-hot with a thin layer of gray ash, it is usually ready for cooking. The gray ash helps provide a consistent and even heat for grilling.

Can I reuse partially burned charcoal from a previous grilling session?

Yes, you can reuse partially burned charcoal if it is still in good condition and not excessively ashed over. Before using it again, shake off any loose ash and place the reusable charcoal on top of fresh charcoal in the chimney for better ignition.

Are there any safety precautions to keep in mind when using a charcoal chimney?

Yes, it’s essential to follow safety precautions when using a charcoal chimney. Avoid placing the chimney on flammable surfaces, always use heat-resistant gloves when handling the hot chimney, and keep children and pets away from the area. Ensure the chimney is fully extinguished and cool before disposing of the ash.

Can I use a charcoal chimney with other types of grills?

Absolutely! A charcoal chimney can be used with various types of grills, including kettle grills, ceramic grills, and even portable grills. It provides a convenient and effective way to light charcoal regardless of the grill you’re using.

Can I use a charcoal chimney indoors?

No, a charcoal chimney should never be used indoors. It produces flames and releases smoke, which can be hazardous in an enclosed space without proper ventilation. Always use the chimney in a well-ventilated outdoor area away from any flammable materials.

Final Thoughts

Simply said, a chimney starter ignites coals more quickly and evenly than anything else. I enjoy seeing the looks on my friends’ faces when they witness me using it in front of them for the first time. They always promise to purchase one before their next grilling session. I, for one, have not missed using lighter fluid on even one occasion.

It’s acceptable if you like to light your charcoal using other devices. There is no one single ideal method for lighting charcoal. There are several different charcoal starters available that work well with any barbecue. There are different levels of speed in how to light charcoal; there is no right or wrong approach.

About Brian Hamilton

Brian Hamilton is a BBQ grilling enthusiast and has the expertise and knowledge to have created Brian specializes in all methods of grilling and bbq equipment and is a self-proclaimed backyard Pitmaster. Qualified at degree level he gained a BEng Degree in Engineering in the United Kingdom. Brian is a well-traveled and cultured individual and has lived and worked in several countries in Europe and has gained quite a reputation amongst peers for his skills and commitment on the grilling circuit.

How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

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