There must be 1,000 or more ways to light a charcoal chimney starter, but today we’re concerned with the fastest practical way. Sure, we could stick a block of thermite in a charcoal chimney, and it would light fast, but it kind of defeats the purpose, right?

Note: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This 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 to charcoal cooking, let’s start at the beginning. A charcoal chimney is traditionally used to light charcoal briquettes before adding them to a charcoal grill or smoker. 

A 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 ignite the rest of the chimney. Or the newspaper was too tightly packed and won’t burn, or a hundred other things that could go wrong. This leads to a waste of time, and when grilling, time is of the essence.

newspaper in charcoal chimney

If you’re going to use crumpled up newspaper, be sure to add a little bit of cooking oil to the paper to allow it to burn quite a bit longer. Just a bit of oil will help immensely if you’re going to revert to the old ways.

How does a charcoal chimney starter work?

A charcoal chimney starter works by allowing air to surround unlit charcoal while fire is applied to the bottom of the starter. Large amounts of airflow allow the fire to burn hotter and ignite faster than if they were in contact with the ground or bottom of the grill.

Here’s the science behind why a chimney works. A charcoal chimney is effective because there is an abundance 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 air on every side. This provides the perfect environment to light briquettes or lump charcoal.

The downside to using a 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 flame we’ve lit underneath. This lack of exposure to the fire limits the chimney starters ability to light the entire supply of coal. 

A 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 briquettes we want to light.

The Fastest Way to Light A Charcoal Chimney Starter

how to light a charcoal chimney

The solution is rather simple, and if you use paper towel in your house, you have the tools you need to give this a go. A paper towel 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 flame to extend from the bottom of the coals to the top and expedite the lighting process. 

paper towel roll in chimney

Fill the chimney with charcoal all around the tube, so that when the fire is lit, the fire will climb through the tube and essentially light all the charcoal 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.

chimney filled with charcoal

We recommend taking a couple of tumbleweeds or parafin fire starter cubes and putting them underneath the tube after all the 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.

Weber lighter cubes

Once the paper towel tube has burned away and disintegrated, the lump charcoal (we love the flavor of the Rockwood lump charcoal) or Kingsford charcoal briquettes will stay where they were when the paper towel tube was there, creating a funnel for the heat. This allows the heat to go straight up through the center, as if the tube was still there, and light more of the charcoal.

charcoal chimney burning

Our favorite charcoal chimney is the Weber rapidfire chimney starter. They’re inexpensive and maximize the amount of air that is able to get to 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 so that the coals are ready for the grill or smoker, but this method has been the most thorough and timely in lighting a charcoal chimney starter. 

pouring hot coals in offset smoker

Conclusion

There are all kinds of ways to light a charcoal chimney, but this quick hack will allow you to get it started faster using things you already have laying around the house. 

If you’re into gadgets to light your charcoal, that’s okay too. We love the BBQ Dragon fan and Chimney of Insanity as well. There’s no wrong way to light your charcoal, just varying degrees of quickness.

Whether you’re lighting your Weber smokey mountain, smokey joe, kamado grill or campfire, your charcoal is lit faster when fire has more access to the coal.

For more bbq 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.