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How To Use A Chimney Starter

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Weber chacoal chimneyA chimney starter is a metal cylinder with a charcoal grate mounted inside. Unlit charcoal is placed into the top of the cylinder and newspaper is placed into the bottom, under the grate. When the newspaper is lit, it burns and lights the charcoal above. The "chimney effect" causes the charcoal to light from the bottom all the way up to the top.

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In my opinion, the best chimney on the market is the Weber Chimney Starter. It holds more charcoal than most—approximately 100 briquettes or 5 lb 5 oz worth of Kingsford Charcoal Briquets. It's well-built, rust-resistant, and has two sturdy handles for safe handling of hot charcoal.

The remainder of this article explains how to use a Weber Chimney Starter. The process is the same regardless of how much charcoal you're lighting or whether you're using briquettes or lump charcoal. on any of the pictures to view a larger image.


Chimney Starter Safety Tips

Exploded concrete patio
Photo 1
Close-up of exploded concrete patio
Photo 2
Fire-safe bricks with chimney starter
Photo 3
  • Wear heat-resistant gloves whenever handling a hot chimney starter.
  • Remember that a chimney will remain hot for a while even after the charcoal has been poured out.
  • Never place a chimney starter on or near flammable materials like a wooden deck or dry grass.
  • Always have a fire extinguisher standing by when barbecuing.
Important: Never light a chimney starter directly on a concrete surface. Heat from the chimney may cause the concrete to explode, damaging the concrete surface and possibly causing physical injury.

Photos 1-2 from Greg Caesar of Houston, TX, show the damage caused by a chimney starter on his concrete driveway.

Safe locations to light a chimney include:

  • On the WSM charcoal grate
  • On the grate of another grill
  • On fire-safe bricks placed on your deck or patio (Photo 3)

Lighting A Chimney Starter Using Newspaper

Newspaper donut
Photo 4
Two newspaper donuts inside chimney starter
Photo 5
Close-up of lighting a chimney starter
Photo 6
Close-up of lit charcoal in chimney starter
Photo 7

Using a double-wide sheet of newspaper, roll loosely on the diagonal from one corner to the other. Bring the ends together to form a donut that fits inside the chimney starter (Photo 4).

Repeat with a second sheet of newspaper.

Stick the two newspaper donuts in the bottom of the chimney (Photo 5). Note that this leaves a hole in the center for air to flow up through the newspaper for faster lighting.

Turn the chimney right-side up, place it on a fire-safe surface, and fill it with the amount of charcoal you want to light.

If using leftover charcoal, make sure to remove as much of the spent ashes as possible, then fill the chimney half-full with fresh charcoal and add the leftover charcoal on top. This increases airflow in the chimney starter since used charcoal tends to pack too closely together.

Light the newspaper in several locations. You'll begin to see smoke coming out the top of the chimney starter (Photo 6).

After the newspaper has burned completely, wait 1-2 minutes, then hold your hand over the should feel the heat of the coals starting to light.

It will take 10-20 minutes for the coals to light, depending on wind conditions, how much charcoal is in the chimney, and the type of charcoal being used.

The charcoal is ready when you see orange color deep inside the chimney starter, flames licking at the charcoal at the top of the chimney, and gray ash just starting to form on some of the charcoal at the top (Photo 7).

If you wait for all of the charcoal at the top of the chimney to be fully ashed-over, much of the charcoal in the bottom of the chimney will be spent, so go ahead and dump the charcoal into your cooker when it looks like Photo 7.

Lighting Small Amounts Of Charcoal

Upside down chimney starter
Photo 8
Close-up of upside down chimney starter
Photo 9
20 banked briquettes in a chimney starter
Photo 10
20 briquettes in a bottomless coffee can inside a chimney starter
Photo 11

Sometimes you need to light just a few briquettes. Here are three ways to light small amounts of charcoal more effectively:

  • Turn the chimney starter upside down and place the charcoal in the bottom—which is now the top (Photos 8-9). Thanks to Scott Holy for sharing this tip with TVWB.
  • Bank all the briquettes against one side of the chimney (Photo 10).
  • Put the briquettes inside a small bottomless coffee can (Photo 11).

Use any of these methods and light as usual from below.

Applying Vegetable Oil To Newspaper

Here's a neat trick that makes newspaper burn longer in a chimney starter.

After putting the newspaper inside the chimney, give it a light spray of non-stick cooking spray. This makes the newspaper last longer because it won't burn until all of the oil burns away first.

Alternatives To Newspaper

Weber Lighter Cubes
Photo 12
Cutaway chimney showing paraffin cubes burning
Photo 13
Gel starters
Photo 14
Sawdust starters
Photo 15
Diamond Strike-A-Fire
Photo 16
Sterno Wick
Photo 17

One complaint about using newspaper in a chimney starter is that the leftover ashes can blow around in windy conditions. If this bothers you, there are several alternatives to consider.

Paraffin cubes (Photo 12) like Weber Lighter Cubes burn at 1300°F for 10-12 minutes. Light 2 cubes under the chimney (Photo 13) and you're good to go.

Alcohol-based liquid gel starters (Photo 14) are squirted onto the charcoal and lit. Gel starters should not be confused with charcoal lighter fluids, as they contain no foul-smelling petroleum products. Brands include Sterno Multi-Purpose Fire Starter.

Sawdust starters (Photo 15) are made of recycled sawdust and paraffin wax. Cut or break into chunks, place several pieces under the chimney and light. Popular brands include Rutland SafeLite Fire Starter Squares, Duraflame Quickstart and Duraflame Firestart. The Diamond Strike-A-Fire (Photo 16) is a thin sawdust/paraffin strip with a match head coating on one end. Strike the head against the lighting strip on the box and place under the chimney.

Wick chafing fuel (Photo 17) such as Sterno Wick is designed to heat food in a chafing dish, but some folks use them to light a chimney. Light the wick and place under the chimney for 10 minutes. These disposable units burn 2-6 hours and can be purchased wherever catering supplies are sold.

A few sheets of paper towel sprayed with non-stick cooking spray will get your charcoal started, and since it burns more completely than newspaper, it makes less of a mess.

Some folks light chimneys over the side burner on a gas grill or over a propane turkey fryer. Be careful when using a side burner...if you leave the chimney on too long your side burner may experience a meltdown!

Finally, there's always a weed burner. You can see one in action here.

Photos of exploding concrete driveway: 2007 by Greg Caesar
Photo of cutaway chimney: 2005 by Weber-Stephen Products LLC
Photo of Sterno Wick: 2002 by Candle Corporation of America

Updated: 10/07/2015

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