There must be 1,000 or more ways to light a chimney starter, but today we’re concerned with the fastest and most practical way. Sure, we could stick a block of thermite in a charcoal chimney, and it would light quickly, but it kind of defeats the purpose, right?
As you follow this guide, you’ll learn how to easily light your chimney starter quickly, every single time.
Note: Some of the links in this article may be Amazon affiliate links. Buying through a link doesn’t cost you any more than normal. Read our disclaimer for more info.
How do you start a chimney starter?
If you’re new at charcoal cooking and don’t know how to use a charcoal chimney, let’s start at the beginning. A charcoal chimney is traditionally used to light charcoal briquettes before adding them into a charcoal grill or smoker.
A simple and time-honored tradition of lighting the coals in the charcoal chimney is wadding up sheets of newspaper into a ball, and then placing them under the bottom of the chimney.
You can light a charcoal chimney with newspaper. However, the challenge with lighting the chimney charcoal starter this way is that there sometimes might not be enough newspaper to effectively light the chimney, or the newspaper doesn’t light well enough to start the rest of the chimney. Or the newspaper was too tightly packed and won’t burn. Or the vents in your grill don’t provide enough airflow into the lit newspaper. Depending on the situation, a hundred other things that could go wrong. This leads to a waste of time, and when grilling, time is of the essence.
If you’re going to use crumpled up newspaper, be sure that you include a little bit of cooking oil to the paper to let it burn quite a bit longer. Just a bit of oil will help immensely if you will revert to the old ways.
If you’re tired of your chimney taking so long to light, it’s time to upgrade your method by using a simple household item we all have laying around. More details on this in a second.
How does a charcoal chimney starter work?
A chimney starter works by allowing air through vents that surround unlit charcoal while fire is applied at the bottom of the starter. Large amounts of airflow allow the fire to get burning hotter and ignite faster than if they were close to, or in contact with, the ground or bottom of the grill, letting you wait less than you otherwise might have.
Here’s the science behind how a chimney works. A metal charcoal chimney is effective because there is a lot of air surrounding the charcoal, which supplies limitless oxygen to the coals during the startup phase. Fire cannot exist without oxygen, and when briquettes are loaded into a chimney they’re suspended above the ground with oxygen on every side. This provides the perfect environment to light briquettes or lump charcoal.
The downside of using a metal charcoal chimney is that in the middle of the chimney, there’s a huge portion of the coals that don’t have access to the direct fire we’ve lit underneath. This lack of exposure to the fire limits the chimney starters ability to light the entire supply of coal.
A metal chimney would be more effective if we could allow the fire to reach all the way through the chimney uninhibited by a stack of coal between the fire and charcoal briquettes we want to light.
Whether you’re grilling sausage links, burgers or just lighting your offset smoker, you’ll want your chimney fully lit to give you the best heating ability that coal has to offer.
So, are you ready to learn the easiest way to light a chimney starter?
The Fastest Way to Light A Charcoal Chimney Starter
The solution is rather simple and easy, and if you use paper towels in your house, you have the tools you need to give this a go. The tube (you know, the brown paper tube that’s left over when you finish a roll of paper towel…) inserted in the center of the chimney will allow the fire to extend from the bottom of the coals to the top and expedite the lighting process.
Dump the pieces of charcoal all around the tube, so that when the fire is lit, the flames will climb through the tube and essentially light all the charcoal briquettes at about the same time. Instead of simply trying to light the entire chimney from the bottom, you’ll be lighting it from the bottom and the center, which will really speed things up.
We recommend taking a couple of tumbleweeds or paraffin fire starter cubes and putting them close underneath the tube after the pile of charcoal has been added around the tube. A lighter cube will take the place of lighter fluid and help the initial fire get started quicker and more effectively. We like Tumbleweed firestarters or Wax lighter cubes under our Weber chimney to do the job for us.
Once the tube has burned away and disintegrated, the lump charcoal (we love the flavor of the Rockwood lump charcoal) or Kingsford charcoal briquettes, depending on what you prefer, will stay where they were when the paper towel tube was there, creating a funnel for the heat. This lets the heat go straight up through the center, as if the tube was still there, and enflame more of the charcoal.
Our favorite charcoal chimney type is the Weber rapidfire chimney starter. We prefer it because it’s inexpensive and will maximize the amount of oxygen that is able to impact the charcoal. There’s even a smaller version for those who don’t need a full chimney for each cook.
We’ve tried many different ways to light a charcoal chimney to the ideal temperature so that the coals are ready for the charcoal grill or smoker, but this safe technique has been the most thorough and timely in lighting a chimney starter.
With our method, you’ll be ready to do some outdoor cooking for your family in no time.
On the surface, lighting a charcoal chimney seems simple and easy enough. However, we know that’s not always the case, and that it can be a struggle to consistently light the chimney and get it to your desired temperature. We’ve seen our fair share of things go wrong, no matter how hard we tried to burn our charcoal to the perfect temperature.
There are all kinds of ways to light a charcoal chimney, but this safe and quick hack will help you get it started faster and easier, all while using tools you already have laying around the house.
If you’re into gadgets to light your charcoal, that’s okay too. There’s not just one rights or perfect way to light your charcoal. There are all kinds of electric charcoal starters on the market that are a great match for any grill. There’s no wrong way to light your charcoal, just varying degrees of quickness.
Whether you’re cooking with a Pit Barrel Cooker, Weber Smokey Mountain, Smokey Joe, Kamado grill or campfire, your charcoal is lit faster when the flame has easier access to the coal and heat. You won’t have to wait near as long to get started cooking on your grill.
Make sure you’re ready for your next cooking session. Dump or remove the leftover gray ash from your chimney, or else the excess ash can create buildup that makes it even harder to light the charcoal. As long as you dump or remove all that gray ash, you can use this exact same technique next time and get great end products.
For more BBQ cooking tips and techniques and BBQ gear reviews, check us out online at TheBarbecueLab.com. We exist to help you win your weekend and bring people together around the grill with the best gear and tasty recipes.
John WongDecember 11, 2021 1:45 pm
To start charcoal briquettes quickly in a chimney, another way is to set the chimney on top of a propane burner and turn up a huge amount of flame. That’s the method I use and I’ll have to combine it with the method here of using a cardboard tube to allow the flame to more easily rise up the chimney.
Frank FrankieDecember 11, 2022 3:25 pm
Isn’t the point of a chimney starter to NOT light all of the charcoal at the same time? Then when you dump the charcoal into the grill, preferably into charcoal baskets, you have fully heated coals on top and barely heated coals on the bottom, lengthening the time of a consistent heat source. You are defeating the purpose of the chimney starter by sticking a paper towel tube in the middle ….