How To Use A Charcoal Chimney Starter To Light Your Grill

Last Updated on August 10, 2023

Ready to ditch the nasty chemicals you’ll find in lighter fluid and learn to light your grill the right way? Here’s how to use a charcoal chimney.

A charcoal chimney sitting on grill grates and full of coals that are mostly lit.
Just about ready to go!

So you’ve got your burger patties prepped and the chicken breast has been marinating nicely. You’re all set to start grilling. But before you can start cooking you’ve got to light your charcoal.

When I was a kid, my dad taught me that lighter fluid was the easiest way to light charcoal. He would form a nice pile of charcoal in the grill, squirt the coals with a generous dose of lighter fluid, and light a match.

Did it work? Sure it did. But lighter fluid smells nasty, can give your food an unpleasant taste, and can be dangerous if you aren’t careful.

In this short guide I’m going to teach you a faster, cheaper, safer, and overall better way to light charcoal. Truthfully, there are several methods you can use and they’re all better than lighter fluid. But my favorite is called a charcoal chimney starter.

Related: 4 Best Charcoal Chimneys – Which Should You Buy?

How To Use A Charcoal Chimney – A Step By Step Guide

Ready to learn how to use a charcoal chimney? Let’s go!

  • Step 1: Place the charcoal chimney on a sturdy surface that can withstand the heat, such as grill grates or a stone patio. Do NOT place it on a wood deck or dry grass that could catch fire.
  • Step 2: Pour in the amount of charcoal you’ll need. This can take some practice, but after a few tries you’ll know how much you need for a short cook to smoke cream cheese or a longer cook to smoke pork butt.
  • Step 3: Place some kind of combustible material under the charcoal chimney. You can old newspaper, cardboard, paper towels, etc. I like to use lighter cubes because they’re non-toxic and odorless, plus they’ll light even if they get wet.
  • Step 4: Use a long match to light your fire starter and let it do it’s thing. In about 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the weather and how much charcoal you’re using) you’ll see the charcoal at the very top of the chimney starting to turn grey and ash over. This is how you know they’re ready to go.
  • Step 5: Wearing a heatproof glove for safety, carefully pour the hot coals into the grill or smoker. Use a long pair of tongs to rearrange the coals as needed.

Once you’ve poured the coals out the chimney starter will cool off quickly, but it will still be dangerously hot for a few minutes. Put it somewhere safe and out of the way of any kids or pets who might burn themselves.

Needless to say you’ll want to keep your grill or smoker a safe distance from your house and any other structures that could be set aflame by wandering embers. It’s also a good idea to wear close toed shoes when pouring the coals. I haven’t burned myself yet but I did have a close call once while wearing flip flops.

What Is A Chimney Starter?

A charcoal chimney starter is a cylindrical metal device that’s used to quickly and efficiently ignite charcoal without the need for lighter fluid.

Inside the cylinder is a metal grate that divides it into 2 sections. The charcoal goes in the top section where it sits atop the grate. To light the charcoal you place kindling (paper, lighter cubes, or some other combustible material) in the bottom section underneath the grate.

When the kindling is lit it will burn and ignite the coals closest to the bottom. Air holes in the cylinder allow oxygen to flow in and feed the fire. In about 10 to 15 minutes the fire will work its way through the stacked coals.

Once the coals at the top ignite and start to ash over, you can empty the chimney into your grill and start cooking.

Demonstrating how to use  charcoal chimney with a diagram showing a cross section of the chimney so you can see inside.
Image courtesy of Weber with my notes added.

Why We Recommend Chimney Starters

I’ve tried just about every method there is for lighting charcoal and to me the chimney starter is simply the best. Here’s why:

Cost – A good chimney starter is inexpensive and will probably last you the rest of your life. Plus, you’ll never have to buy lighter fluid again.

Simplicity – Just pour some charcoal into the chimney and light some kindling beneath it. In about 15 minutes you’re ready to start cooking. Easy peasy.

Safety – There’s no lighter fluid needed so no unhealthy chemicals to worry about.

Portability – Charcoal chimneys are small and easy to travel with. Plus they don’t require electricity so they’re perfect for camping or tailgating. Heck, you can even use a chimney as a mini grill all its own. Just check out the video below where Meathead Goldwyn demonstrates how to sear a steak right on a grill grate sitting directly on the chimney starter. He calls it the “afterburner method” because it looks like you’re cooking on a jet engine…

Frequently Asked Questions

So now that you’ve learned how to use a charcoal chimney to light your grill, let’s go over some commonly asked questions

How long do you leave charcoal in a charcoal chimney?

Once you light the kindling below it, let the charcoal get ready in the chimney for about 10 to 15 minutes. It may smoke heavily at first. You’ll know the charcoal is ready to use when the coals on top start to burn and ash over.

How much charcoal should I use?

The more charcoal you use the hotter the fire will be. Exactly how much you need will depend on what you’re cooking, the size of your grill, and even the weather temperature outside. It takes some practice but after a few cooks you’ll learn how much charcoal you need by instinct.

Do you light lump charcoal in a chimney?

Both lump charcoal and briquettes can be lit in a chimney starter. Lump charcoal varies more in size than briquettes which are more uniform in size and shape. For this reason lump charcoal might take either more or less time to be ready. Check out more in our article about lump charcoal vs briquettes.

How do you light a charcoal chimney on a gas stove?

If you have a camp stove or a gas grill with a side burner, just fill the chimney with charcoal and place it on the burner and turn it on high for about 2 to 3 minutes or until the charcoal starts smoking. Then you can turn the burner off and the charcoal should be ready in about 10 more minutes.