Grilling 101: How to Use a Charcoal Chimney

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Is your charcoal not burning evenly? Does your charcoal take forever to heat up? Do not reach for the lighter fluid! Instead, use our favorite tool for starting your grill right.

The most effective way to get evenly burning charcoal in less time is with a charcoal chimney. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll show you how to use a chimney for charcoal so you can fire up your grill in no time! 

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Did you grow up squirting lighter fluid all over your charcoal for it to erupt like Krakatoa with the toss of a match? We did, too. And we’re here to stop that cycle. Not only is that dangerous, but lighter fluid leaves a chemical taste on your food. No bueno. It’s time to light your coals like a pro, and this is how.

Our favorite tool for lighting charcoal without any chemicals is a charcoal chimney.  A charcoal chimney is the ultimate tool for lighting briquettes or lump charcoal faster, hotter, and more efficiently, but using it properly comes down to filling it correctly, allowing airflow, and safely dumping lit coals where needed. It’s our go-to method for lighting the grills for all of our grilling or smoking recipes.

A man is starting his grill with a full charcoal chimney.

What Is a Charcoal Chimney?

Charcoal chimneys are simple devices with a hollow metal cylinder and a small wire grate at the bottom for holding charcoal. They also contain air vents at the bottom to control airflow. You can grab them in most hardware stores in the grilling department.

The purpose of using a charcoal chimney is to get your charcoal nice and evenly hot before adding it to your grill. This process involves pouring charcoal into the metal tube, lighting a fire starter below it and letting it get nice and hot, before dumping it into your grill. 

The number one mistake we see with people trying to grill is not letting the coals get to an even heat before throwing on their food. The heat from the grill becomes uneven, causing food to take longer to cook. Using a charcoal chimney is particularly beneficial for barbecuing when you want to use charcoal but don’t want to wait forever to get a nice smoky flavor.

When you’re prepping for barbecuing on the grill, it’s essential to have your coals ready before you begin the grilling or smoking process. That’s where the charcoal chimney comes in. With the charcoal chimney, you can easily ignite your charcoal so that it will be thoroughly hot and ready for whatever you’re cooking. 

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This guide covers how to properly fill, safely light and dump charcoal from a chimney starter for fast, efficient lighting that gets grilling coals ready for optimal heat faster without lighter fluid.

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Step 1: Gather Necessary Materials

  • First, you’ll need a charcoal chimney to place on top of your charcoal grill grates. Look for chimneys with heat-resistant handles for easy dumping once the coals get hot.

  • Next, you’ll need to determine the type of charcoal you’ll need for your charcoal starter.

  • Charcoal briquettes are like small black square pillows made from compressed wood shavings turned into carbon. When picking briquets, go for the all-natural ones without any extra stuff added.

  • Lump charcoal is made of larger pieces of wood that have been turned into carbon. You can find it made from different kinds of wood like oak or hickory, and the packaging will tell you.

  • Both types of charcoal work well for barbecue, with briquets burning a bit longer but at a lower temperature and lump charcoal burning hotter but making less ash. We like Cowboy Brand All-Natural Charcoal for both kinds.

Step 2: Fill the Charcoal Chimney

  • Consider your cooking method and the amount of food you plan to grill. For direct heat, like hot and fast cooking for steaks or burgers, use a generous amount of charcoal piled into the center of the grill. Fill your charcoal chimney with coals. If you’re opting for indirect heat for slow cooking, like smoking a brisket, moderate amount will suffice. You can fill the chimney 2/3 full. Consider adding one or two smoking wood chunks to the top for added smoke flavor.
  • How to pour the charcoal into the chimney. Place the the chimney on the grilling grates so that it’s steady. Gently pour the unlit charcoal into the chimney. Fill the chimney 2/3 or completely to the top to make sure you’ve got the right amount for grilling.

Step 3: Add Fire Starters or Newspaper

  • When it comes to igniting your charcoal chimney, you’ve got some options for a charcoal chimney starter. You can go for convenient lighter cubes that light up easily or take the classic route with crumpled sheets of newspaper. Pick what suits your style, however we recommend choosing a chemical free firestarter for the best flavor. We love these Cowboy Woven Wood Firestarters for our charcoal chimney.

  • Once you’ve chosen your fire starter, place it snugly at the bottom of the chimney starter. Make sure it’s well-positioned to catch those initial sparks and kickstart the charcoal fire.

Step 4: Ignite the Fire Starters

  • The best way to light charcoal safely is with a long match or long lighter. Avoid the use of lighter fluid (it contains volatile chemicals that can affect the flavor of the food you’re cooking, giving your food a chemical taste). It’s extremely important to make sure your fire starters are fully lit before proceeding, as you want the charcoal to burn nice and evenly.As the fire starter ignites, it will catch the coals at the bottom of the charcoal chimney. Because of the air vents, and the cylinder shape the coals will quickly start to smoke and then ignite.

Step 5: Wait for the Charcoal to Heat Up

  • So, you’ve lit up the charcoal, and now the waiting game begins. Give it some time, around 10-15 minutes, for those coals to heat up and reach the perfect temperature. They should go from black coals with bright orange colored flames when first lit to gray and almost ashed over when they’re hot enough.

  • While you’re waiting for the charcoal to heat up, consider prepping your grill or marinating that meat. But never leave a charcoal chimney unattended.

Step 6: Pour the charcoal onto the grill

  • When dealing with hot charcoal, it’s crucial to have your hands protected. Invest in some heat-resistant gloves.

  • Next, it’s time to pour the hot coals onto the grill. Grab your heat-resistant gloves, then gently and evenly spread those fiery coals across the bottom of the grill for direct heat, or into a pile to one side to create a two-zone fire.

Consider how you are grilling to determine how you arrange your coals in the grill. Whether using direct vs indirect heat for a two-zone fire, the vortex method, or an even hot bed of coals, you will need to arrange your coals accordingly for the best results.
More Great Grilling Info: 
Charcoal in a chimney ready to be poured.

Direct vs. Indirect Heat

How you want to grill, and the type of heat you need will decide how you arrange the coals for direct vs. indirect heat in the bottom of the grill once they are lit.

Direct heat is where your coals are directly under the grill grate. This heat method works perfectly for cooking at high temperatures and quick cooks like grilled flank steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs.

The other zone is indirect heat. Indirect heat is where you push the coals to the side of the grill, creating a hot side and cool side of the grill, known as two-zone grilling. This heat method is for when you want to turn your charcoal grill into a smoker or for when you are grilling fattier cuts that may need to move away from the heat source. This method is better suited for foods like smoked brisket and smoked pork butt, which cooks at lower temperatures for a longer period of time. 

Our favorite Charcoal Grilled Recipes

Glowing embers of lump charcoal in a chimney starter.

Tips for Using a Charcoal Chimney

Use High-Quality Charcoal

  • Using high-quality charcoal can play a vital role in the flavor and burn time. Our favorite charcoal to use is Cowboy Charcoal because it’s made with real hardwood and has no chemical fillers or binders. If you plan on using a different type of charcoal, we recommend looking for ones with no chemical fillers or binders so that you aren’t left with the odd taste of chemicals on your food.


  • Oxygen is fuel for a fire. It’s the small holes in your charcoal chimney that allow for the air to get in and circulate around the coals as they light. To speed things up, you could use a Looft Air Lighter, which blows superheated air into the coals for faster lighting.

Weather Conditions

  • Weather can greatly affect how your charcoal burns in the chimney. For example, if it’s super windy, the flames may get a little out of control or not even ignite, so always be aware of the weather to prevent a dangerous fire.
  • Rain is another factor that can affect your charcoal. We do not recommend moving your grill and chimney underneath a covering, but instead waiting it out and battling the weather. If it’s a light rain, it’s likely the coals will still ignite.
Charcoal being poured into a pit barrel cooker.

When to buy a new charcoal chimney?

The shine on the BBQ chimney won’t last past the first burn, and they become discolored quickly. That’s normal, and there’s no need to rush out and buy a new one. We restock ours at the start of every grilling season for safety reasons.

However, don’t forget to clean your grill and grates between cooking to keep food from sticking.

More Helpful How-Tos

Using a charcoal chimney is a great way to get your charcoal nice and hot before adding it to your grill, speeding up the process and ensuring your charcoal burns evenly.

As long as you follow these tips, you can use your charcoal chimney with confidence, helping you become the grill master you’ve always wanted to be. If you’ve been wanting to purchase a charcoal chimney or you have one but it’s not getting enough use, put these tips to the test and let us know how it goes!


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