How to Use a Charcoal Chimney [BBQ Coal Lighting & Cooking Guide]


If you’re looking for the best way to light a charcoal grill then you’ve come to the right place. Here’s how to use a charcoal chimney.

how to use a charcoal chimney

Charcoal is the purest form of BBQ fuel that you can use, and I wouldn’t recommend using anything else. However it’s notoriously difficult to light.

It can be tempting to use things like briquettes or lighter fluid, but I strongly recommend against this. Briquettes are dirty and cheap, while lighter fluid can leave the food you cook tasting like chemicals.

Instead, get yourself a charcoal chimney (also called a chimney starter) for the easiest and most efficient way to light your coals. It’s the best alternative to lighter fluid by far.

Charcoal chimneys allow easy lighting of coals by huddling them together in a small tower-like structure, allowing you to light them at the bottom. The structure and careful placement of the vents along its sides allow for the coals to light much faster than they would if they were spread out at the bottom of your grill chamber (source).

After they’re lit, you then simply transfer them to your grill for you to cook over. Simple, right?

It might be easy to think that you only need a chimney for a large charcoal grill, but the truth is that if your grill uses coals at all – large or small – then a chimney starter is a must.

lit charcoal chimney placed on grill grates

Fortunately, they’re really inexpensive (here’s a reasonably priced starter on Amazon) and will last you for years.

Chimney starters are basically just metal cylinders, with air holes and grates specifically placed along it to ensure efficient airflow to help you get your fire going.

The chimney allows your coals to burn faster and hotter because they’re packed into a tight space. The air vents are perfectly placed to allow air to flow from the bottom right up to the top, while simultaneously protecting it from wind or overexposure.

Here’s how to use a chimney starter.

Firstly, as well as a chimney starter you’ll need a couple of quick things.

Lighter cubes – You’ll need something to sit under your chimney starter to help light it. Some people actually just use newspaper here, but personally I prefer lighter cubes as they’re more reliable. They’re fairly cheap too, so I find the added cost well worth it.

BBQ gloves – The problem with a lot of chimney starters is that safety hasn’t always been the primary concern for a lot of manufacturers, which means that the handles on chimneys don’t always tend to be well insulated or protected with a leather or plastic grip. As you can imagine, metal of a chimney starter can become scolding hot very quickly so to help protect yourself against burning you will need a good pair of BBQ gloves.

charcoal chimney emptying coals into smoker chamber

How to use a chimney starter

Open the lid for your grill, and place your chimney starter on your charcoal grill’s grates. This will help protect any of your surfaces from being damaged by the scolding heat from the rims of your starter as it warms up.

Place lighter cubes or crunched up newspaper at the foot of the chimney, underneath the grate in your chimney.

Place your charcoal in the cylinder above the grate. Fill the chimney to the top.

Through the holes at the bottom of the chimney, light the newspaper or lighter cubes with a match or lighter.

Allow the newspaper to light the charcoal all the way to the top, and let the coals begin to char.

Wait about 10-20 minutes, and once about half the coals have started to turn white you can transfer the coals to your grill.

chimney starter filled with burning charcoal

If you are using indirect grilling, then be sure to place the coals to one side of the foot of your charcoal chamber. If you’re new to the cooking technique then learn how to use indirect grilling here.

Place your charcoal grate back in place on your grill, above the lit coals.

After you have moved the coals to your grill, keep a close eye on them to make sure that the embers continue to burn. Close your grill lid and open both sets of dampers wide to allow full airflow through your grill. You should have both an intake and an exhaust damper. The intake vent is located in the lower part of your chamber, and the exhaust vent is located in the lid.

Allow the grill to heat up. We want to achieve an internal temperature of about 500-550°F (260-290°C). Typically this takes about 10-20 minutes, but I recommend using a grill thermometer to monitor the surface temperature of your grill.

Once the temperature reaches 500°F, you can start to adjust your dampers to help you reach your ideal grilling temperature. If you are unsure how to do this then check out my guide on how to use dampers to achieve perfect grilling or smoking temperatures.

And that’s it! The beauty of tools like charcoal chimneys is that they’re designed to help make grilling really easy, and they do exactly that.

When should I dump my charcoal chimney?

The charcoal is ready to be put into your charcoal grill when the coals have turned bright white with gray ash. You should also see an orange color coming from the base end of the chimney. Once they are ready, you can dump them into the charcoal grill using a pair of long tongs or a shovel. This usually takes 10-15 minutes.

If your chimney starter begins to smoke heavily and emit large amounts of heat then it is time to put out the fire by dousing it with water or sand before disposing of any remaining ashes in a metal container away from children and pets.

About the Author

Ben Isham-Smith

A BBQ obsessive, Ben is behind 250+ of The Online Grill’s recipes, as well as countless barbecue guides to help barbecue newbies get to grips with the world’s best form of cooking.

Still hungry? Check out more BBQ posts