Charcoal chimney, or chimney starter, was invented in 1962 under the name Automatic Dump Type Charcoal Lighter. To this day, it is one of the best grilling tools ever designed. For those of you who are still unsure of such a handy device, this article will show you how to use one properly.
I’ll begin with what the tool is and the purpose of it. Then we’ll talk about the fuel and the equipment we need. After that is the main tutorial on how to use a charcoal chimney starter, followed by some tips and tricks.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty of this article, I have…
An Important Message!!!
“Please stop using lighter fluid to light your charcoal!”. You probably heard it many times before but it is still worth repeating.
Lighter fluid is a by-product of kerosene, which is what they used as jet fuel. When lit, it gives off harmful smoke and imparts a petroleum taste to your food (Yuck!). Some folks suggest waiting until the lighter fluid burns off before cooking. However, most people usually don’t have the patience and time to allow that to happen.
Some instead opt for instant- or easy-light charcoal that is already infused with lighter fluid. Please also avoid it since the kerosene is still there. Traditions are great to keep but starting your grill with lighter fluid isn’t one.
Light your charcoal with a chimney starter instead. No lighter fluid needed.
What Is A Charcoal Chimney Starter?
A chimney starter is shaped like a giant metal drinking cup with a sturdy handle. It has two chambers, upper and lower, which is divided by a grate. Let’s take a closer look at each component.
- Body – mostly cylindrical, sometimes square, rectangle, or V-shaped. You will see a series of holes along the body, both on the upper and lower chamber. This allows airflow to help ignite and spread the fire quickly within the chimney.
- Upper chamber – usually ¾ of the body length. This is for your charcoal.
- Lower chamber – accounts for the remaining ¼. This is where you start a fire to light the charcoal.
- Grate – used to separate the chambers. It is either flat or conical. Conical is better since it draws more air from underneath. It also lets charcoal sit at different levels, making it light faster because of the increased surface area.
- Handle – wood or plastic. It is grippy, non-conductive, and securely attached to the body. Some chimneys also have an extra helper handle that gives you some leverage when dumping the charcoal.
- Heat shield – in between the body and the handle. Its purpose is to protect your hands from blazing hot coals in the chimney. I’d still recommend wearing grilling gloves though.
How does a charcoal chimney work? It utilizes the stack or chimney effect, hence the name. When you light your fire at the bottom chamber, you create a pocket of hot air. The air outside of that pocket has lower temperature, therefore it is denser and heavier. As a result, the colder air pushes the lighter and hotter air up (a.k.a updraft).
Now, the chimney body acts as a shielding wall so the heat has nowhere else to go but up and through the charcoal. The resulting outcome is intense heat aimed directly at the bottom charcoal for a roaring start. As the heat travels up the chimney, it meets with the cold air from the holes along the body, which in turn helps push it up further, supply new oxygen, and light the remaining coals.
Another thing to mention is that the chimney piles your charcoal up vertically. This allows the heat to spread across all the charcoal pieces quicker. Therefore, the thinner and taller a chimney is, the faster it will get your charcoal lit.
There are many chimney starters on the market but the best one is the Weber Rapidfire. It is made of sturdy metal, has two handles that help you load hot coals with ease, and spacious enough to hold plenty of charcoal. The Rapidfire also has a compact version that is suitable for camping or lighting only a small amount of charcoal.
Other popular chimney starters are the BBQ Dragon and CampMaid. The BBQ Dragon has a built-in pipe so that you can attach a fan to it. The purpose is to blow cold air into the lower chamber, which boosts the coals’ ignition even faster. The CampMaid is collapsible, meaning you can fold the chimney flat and store away. A great choice to go with any portable charcoal grill.
The Japanese have an interesting way to light their charcoal. They put charcoal into a pot with a handle and holes in the bottom. They then place the pot over a gas burner for about 25 minutes until the coals are ready. After that, they move the hot coals into their barbecue (called konro, hibachi, or shichirin) and get the grilling started. Pretty much the same concept as our Weber chimney starter but a different way of doing it.
What Is The Purpose Of A Charcoal Chimney?
Besides using the chimney starter to light charcoal, it also has other uses that might surprise you. Let’s talk about its main purpose first.
Chimney starter is the safest, most economical, and easiest way to light your charcoal. One benefit of doing so is that it allows the charcoal, specifically briquettes, to burn through any additives or fillers (white smoke) before cooking. If you put your food on too early, the unburned chemicals might impart an acrid taste to your meal. This is also true if you add unlit coals to an existing fire.
The solution is to light the new coals in a chimney and wait until their white smoke subsides. Then you can add these newly-lit coals to your grill without altering its internal temperature and getting the off taste.
The only downside of using the chimney to light charcoal is that it will take a while to get the coals fully engulfed. I do have some tips to get it going faster later in this article but grilling with charcoal requires time. My suggestion is to crack open a cold one and enjoy it while the coals are getting ready.
Now, you are by yourself and only have a couple of small items to grill. You don’t want to start your kamado or Weber because it might take some time. Yet you’re hungry and really crave that charcoal flavor. Don’t worry, you can use your charcoal chimney to cook on using the Afterburner Method.
All you need is a spare cooking grate and a ½ chimney of charcoal. Light them coals up and get grilling. Simple as that. This Afterburner method is mainly used to sear or reverse sear steak but you can cook other things as well, from Chinese stir-frying with a wok to grilling vegetables to boiling water. The sky’s the limit here.
There are some mods you can do with your chimney to make this cooking experience even better. Check out this video below by Cooking With Ry.
Last but not least, you can also use the charcoal chimney as a measuring cup. It only applies to charcoal briquettes since they are uniform. A Weber Rapidfire can hold approximately 80 briquettes. These 80 briquettes will produce the same heat output or British Thermal Units (BTUs) every time you light them, assuming you’re using the same brand.
Lump charcoal, on the other hand, varies in size and shape, from one piece to another. Therefore, a full chimney of lump will generate different BTUs from cook to cook.
Depending on what you’re cooking, you can start with a full chimney of briquettes for direct high heat searing or indirect two zones grilling. If you’re after medium heat for burgers and brats, fill it ½ to ¾ .
For low n slow methods, such as the Minion, you can fill ¾ or full chimney of unlit briquettes and pour them into your Weber. Fill the charcoal up to ¼ of the chimney again and light them. After they are heated up, dump them on top of the unlit briquettes, adjust your vents, and get things going.
Knowing how to control your temperature is the key to great barbecue. The charcoal chimney provides a foolproof way to achieve that, but only with briquettes. The next section will briefly touch on the differences between them and lump.
There are two types of charcoal, lump and briquettes. Here are some of their distinctions.
Lump is wood, sometimes animal bones, that has been burned or carbonized in an oxygen-poor environment for days. What you have left is pure carbon that looks like the wood it once was.
Briquettes, however, are engineered by-product of lump. Small pieces of lump (less than an inch) will be ground into fines, then mixed with other additives to form these flammable charcoal briquettes.
Lump is always considered more natural than briquettes. Being a porous material, lump ignites altogether at once so it burns hot and fast. Whereas briquettes burn slowly from the outside in, making it more suitable for low n slow smoking.
You can use either lump or briquettes or both in your chimney starter.
If you choose to mix the two together, I’d recommend putting the briquettes at the bottom and lump on top. Two reasons for that. Firstly, lump burns quicker than briquettes so by the time the top briquettes ash over, you have no bottom lump left. Secondly, small pieces of lump might fall through the grate, especially the Weber conical one. Likewise, if you choose only lump, stack the small pieces on top of the bigger ones.
What Equipment Do You Need?
You have your chimney. You gather your charcoal. Your grill is ready to rock n roll. But you probably need a few more things before the party begins.
- Fire source – a few sheets of newspaper. Some great alternatives are used charcoal bag, firestarter (I use Kamado Joe. Weber lighter paraffin cubes are fine too), or potato chips.
- Lighter – Your trusty Zippo. Matches. I like long reach lighter since your hand won’t be too close to the fire.
- Safety – Closed-toe shoes. A small piece of hot lump might escape through the bottom grate and that’s not going to be fun. A pair of safety glasses and BBQ gloves. I use a durable suede one. A fire extinguisher just in case.
Now that we have everything we need. Let’s light some charcoal.
Chimney Starter Tutorial – The Most Popular Newspaper Method
How Do You Light A Charcoal Chimney?
Step 1 – Roll your sheets of newspaper into a circular shape. You can crumple them into a ball as well. After you have either of those, stuff them into the bottom chamber. Remember to leave the center hole open for faster ignition. Also don’t squish the newspapers too tight, leave them loose so air can flow through.
Tip: Guys from grilling forums suggest drizzling a bit of cooking oil onto the newspapers. That will help them burn longer.
Step 2 – Place your chimney starter on a stable and heat-proof surface, with a bit of elevation for better airflow. I’d recommend the charcoal grate of your grill. If you choose this location, remember to clean out the ash and open the bottom vent as well.
Step 3 – Fill the upper chamber with the charcoal of your choice. You can load it to whatever amount you want. It depends on what’s for dinner that day. Don’t overfill the chimney though, just right below the rim.
Tip: If you use only briquettes, put some small pieces of lump (if available) in the middle of the briquettes pile. That will speed up the burning process.
Step 4 – Use your lighter and ignite one corner of the newspapers. Do so on other spots around the lower chamber. And just let it rip! Smoke will be coming out of the chimney. This is normal. It will die down after a while.
Tip: If you’re using a Weber, put your lid on the Tuck-away holder. If you don’t have that feature, you can still put it in your charcoal grate. The lid acts as a guard for the chimney on windy days.
Step 5 – Go and prepare the meat. If you have kids around, keep an eye on the chimney though. After 15 – 20 minutes, check the chimney. If you see an orange-ish red glow at the bottom and the top coals have a bit of white ash, it’s fine to dump the coals into your grill, so long as there is no more white smoke.
Tip: You don’t have to wait until the charcoal ash over completely. By then, the bottom coals will all combust and be very small. However, if you want everything to be lit, proceed to shake the chimney so the top unlit coals land on the bottom lit ones. The shake is done by the same motion as a chef flips his food in a wok.
Step 6 – Put on your grilling gloves. Remove and hang the lid on the side. Grab the handle of your chimney (use the helper handle if you have to) and pour the hot charcoal into your grill. There will be flying sparks so I’d recommend wearing your safety glasses.
Step 7 – Put back your cooking grid. Close the lid. Adjust your vents and let the grill preheat. Don’t forget to place your hot chimney somewhere heat-proof, safe, and away from careless humans and pets.
Voila! You just light your first chimney starter. The newspaper method is the most popular and old-school way of doing it. It’s easy, doesn’t require expensive gear, and utilizes what’s available around the house.
However, it does take some time for the coals to properly ignite altogether. A good ballpark is around 20 – 25 minutes. Moreover, the ashy embers or confetti from burning newspaper can be a potential fire danger. Not to mention the fact that some people might have a problem with color inks from newspaper burning. That’s why more folks are opting for cleaner-burning fire sources such as paraffin wax or good old potato chips.
That said, I’ll show you a trick to light your chimney faster using the same newspaper method below. I’ll also demonstrate how to light only small amounts of charcoal as well as used ones. But before that,…
IMPORTANT! Safe Locations To Start Chimney And After Using It
Chimney starter can get very, VERY hot when you light it. It can potentially hurt somebody or start a fire if you’re not careful. And it all starts with where you light and store your chimney afterward. I think it deserves a section of its own. You’re playing with fire here!
Where should you light your chimney? I recommended the charcoal grate in the previous section. It is by far the safest location to light your chimney starter. Hands down! Some other locations you can use are on top of an upside-down pail or a couple of firebricks.
These are OK in the event of your main grill being occupied. A more ideal location is on the charcoal grate of a second grill. You don’t have to buy a brand new one. In fact, you can get a used portable grill off Craigslist for a few bucks.
Now, one place you shouldn’t light your chimney on is concrete. Chris Allingham of The Virtual Weber Bullet reported on one of his readers’ concrete driveway exploded during a charcoal chimney session. Concrete spalling is no joke!
Where should you put your chimney after using it? I recommend the bottom rack of your Weber. It’s under the grill so you can keep an eye on it. Another place is inside your metal ash can. Metal can take the heat. It’s also out of the way so nobody will accidentally bump into it.
Also make sure to check the chimney after dumping the coals. A few pieces of smoldering charcoal might still be clinging on the bottom grate. Shake them out and let the chimney cool down to the touch.
One Trick To Light Faster
I actually learned this trick from The Barbecue Lab. In Step 3 of my tutorial, I mention leaving the center hole open for faster ignition. With this trick, we’re going to place a paper towel tube (what’s left after you use the paper) on top of that center hole. Then you proceed with lighting the chimney normally.
What the paper towel tube does is to create a straight funnel for the fire to move up quicker from the bottom to the top of the chimney. This increases the airflow inside the chimney, which is hard to achieve before since the charcoal stack tightly together. As a result, the tube accelerates the burning and cuts down the waiting time.
Check out the whole process via the video below
Lighting Small Amounts Of Charcoal
For Afterburner Method or low n slow, like the Snake, you only need to ignite a small amount of charcoal. There are several ways of doing that.
Obviously, you can light the chimney with just smaller numbers of charcoal. Or you can buy a smaller size chimney. The Weber Compact Rapidfire for example. But if you only have the larger standard one, here are a few ideas to try.
Flip the chimney upside-down. Now, the lower chamber is up top while the top chamber is down low. The conical grate is reversed as well. It creates a dip, instead of a rise, in the center. That is a perfect spot for placing your firestarter, paraffin cubes and the likes.
Then, simply put the amount of charcoal you want into the lower chamber. Light your firestarter, either from the top or the bottom with a long reach lighter. And you’re ready to go.
This upside-down method isn’t suitable for newspaper because there is a large gap between the grate and the ground. It’s still possible to pull it off but it can be frustrating nonetheless. If you still want to use newspaper, flip the chimney back and get a small bottomless can. Place the can in the center and put your charcoal in it. Proceed with lighting the newspaper normally.
Lighting Used Charcoal
Sometimes you have a few pieces of charcoal left after a long cook. Now, this is only true if you use lump instead of briquettes. Once you burn off the starch binders in briquettes, they will fall apart. Lump can be reused however.
First thing to do is to get rid of the leftover ash. Place some fresh charcoal, either briquettes or big pieces of lump, underneath the used ones. Then light your chimney.
Other Ways Of Lighting A Charcoal Chimney
Newspaper method is the most well-known way of using a charcoal chimney. However, it isn’t the only one. There are other methods you can use. These will require you to have some extra grilling gears.
The electric starter has two parts – a handle and a heating prong. Once you plug it in, the prong starts to get hot and ignites your charcoal as a result.
So pile up your lump or briquettes in the chimney. Then sandwich the prong within the layers of charcoal. Plug in and keep an eye on it. Usually after 7 minutes, you have to unplug the electric starter. The reason is because it can get overheated and there is no thermostat to tell you that.
Leave the unplugged electric starter in the chimney until you see the middle and top coals are lit. Remove it and shake the chimney to reposition the coals. By then, you can either wait until everything is fully engulfed or pour the coals out immediately and start the cook. Don’t forget to put the starter somewhere safe to cool down.
- Easy to use
- Needs electric socket in order to use
- Costs some money
- You can’t walk away like with the chimney
The Looftlighter is a heat gun on steroids. It blows extremely hot air directly at your charcoal. According to Richard Looft, the man behind this cool little gadget, the Looftlighter can ignite charcoal in just 1 minute. You heard that right!
Similar to the electric starter, you need an outlet in order to use this tool. Another drawback is that you can only light one area of your charcoal pile at a time. Therefore, the Looftlighter is more suitable when you’re trying to ignite small amounts of charcoal in your chimney.
It also costs quite a bit of money.
- Light charcoal really fast
- Great for small pile of coals
- Expensive tool
- Can only light one area at a time
- Needs outlet to use
Portable Butane Burner/Side Burner/Turkey Fryer
Lastly, you can also use either a portable gas burner, a gas grill’s side burner, or a turkey fryer to light a chimney. These devices provide a faster, more steady, and even burn than newspaper. Newspaper sometimes don’t burn well if you scrunch them up too tightly or if you overfill them.
First downside is that it costs money to use. Secondly, the ash can fall down and clog or even damage the burner itself. Finally, the burner can warp or destroy your chimney grate if you crank the heat up and leave the chimney there for too long. Some inferior chimney grate can fall apart, resulting in a dangerous fire.
So watch out for your chimney grate if you end up using one of these burners. Let the bottom coals catch on fire, do the shake, and move your chimney to your grill’s charcoal grate right away.
Tip: I hammer screws into the flaps that extrude out where the bottom grate is. That is to hold it in place in case of warping.
- Fast, steady, and even lighting
- Costs money
- Falling ash can damage burner
- Hot burner can destroy bottom grate, potentially resulting in fire hazard
How Do You Light A Charcoal Grill Without A Chimney?
Using a chimney certainly isn’t the only way to light your charcoal grill. You can use the electric starter and the Looflighter mentioned above. Shoot! You can even pour the infamous lighter fluid on the charcoal and start the grill. OK, I kid!
Seriously though, if you want to know more about other ways to light a charcoal grill, I have an article on that topic.
There you have it. Everything you need to know on how to use a charcoal chimney starter correctly. The newspaper is still the most common method of lighting one. My preferred way is to use a firestarter. It’s less messy and, in my opinion, faster than newspaper.
There are probably other ways to ignite a chimney starter. Which one do you use? And how do you like it? Please comment below and share your thoughts and ideas. Also don’t forget to forward this article to the grillers in your life. They might need it.
Have a good one!