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How To Use A Chimney Starter

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Two flaming Weber chimney starters

A chimney starter offers an easy way to light charcoal for barbecuing. It consists of an open-ended metal cylinder with a charcoal grate mounted inside, toward the bottom. The desired amount of charcoal is placed into the top of the cylinder and a small fire is started under the grate at the bottom of the cylinder. The “chimney effect” causes the charcoal to light from the bottom all the way up to the top.

Weber 7429 Rapidfire Chimney StarterWhen the coals are hot, pour them into the smoker, either with or without more unlit charcoal depending on the firing method you’re using for your cook, and then start cooking.

In my opinion, the best chimney on the market is the Weber 7429 Rapidfire 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.

Another option is the Weber 7447 Compact Rapidfire Chimney Starter, a smaller model that’s perfect for lighting charcoal for smaller smokers like the 14.5″ WSM or Smokey Joe Mini WSM.

Weber 7429 Rapidfire Chimney Starter (left) and Weber 7447 Compact Rapidfire Chimney Starter (right)

Weber 7429 Rapidfire Chimney Starter (left) and Weber 7447 Compact Rapidfire Chimney Starter (right)

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.

Chimney Starter Safety Tips

  • Wear heat-resistant gloves and closed-toe shoes whenever handling a hot chimney starter. Pieces of hot charcoal can fall out of the bottom of the chimney onto the patio where you can step on them, or on top of your bare or flip-flopped foot. TVWB reader Phil W says he got a third-degree burn after stepping barefoot on a hot coal that fell out of a 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.

These photos from Greg Caesar of Houston, TX, show the damage caused by using a chimney starter on his concrete driveway.

Exploded concrete patio Close-up of exploded concrete patio

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.
Fire-safe bricks with chimney starter

Fire-safe bricks with chimney starter

Lighting A Chimney Starter Using Weber Lighter Cubes

A clean and easy way to light a chimney starter is with Weber Lighter Cubes. These paraffin wax cubes burn at 1300°F for 10-12 minutes.

Start by filling the chimney with the amount of charcoal you want to light and set it aside. Place one or two lighter cubes on the charcoal grate and light using a butane lighter, then place the chimney over the burning cubes.

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.

Close-up of lit charcoal in chimney starter

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. 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 as shown in the photo above.

Lighting A Chimney Starter Using Newspaper

Back in the “good old days” before the Internet, smartphones, and online news, most American households got their news from a daily newspaper and had lots of newsprint laying around the house or going into the recycling. Using old newspaper was the original way to light a chimney starter. The only problem with newspaper is that it’s messy…light ash blows out of the chimney around your patio after the paper burns. That’s why many people switched to using paraffin wax cubes or other lighting methods. But if you’re feeling “old school”, here’s how to light a chimney starter using newspaper.

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. Repeat with a second sheet of newspaper.

Newspaper donut

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

Two newspaper donuts inside chimney starter

Turn the chimney right-side up and place it on the charcoal grate. Fill the chimney with the amount of charcoal you want to light. Lift the edge of the chimney and light the newspaper in several locations using a butane lighter. You’ll begin to see smoke coming out the top of the chimney starter.

Charcoal beginning to light

After the newspaper has burned completely, wait 1-2 minutes, then hold your hand over the chimney…you 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.

Close-up of lit charcoal in chimney starter

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. 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 as shown in the photo above.

Spraying Newspaper With Vegetable Oil

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.

Lighting Small Amounts Of Charcoal

Sometimes you need to light just a few briquettes, e.g. for the Minion Method. Here are three ways to light small amounts of charcoal more effectively. Just light from below, as usual.

  • Turn the chimney starter upside down and place the charcoal in the bottom—which is now the top. This is my favorite method for lighting small amounts of charcoal and it works particularly well with Weber Lighter Cubes. Thanks to Scott Holy for sharing this tip with TVWB.Upside down chimney starter Close-up of upside down chimney starter
  • Bank all the briquettes against one side of the chimney.20 banked briquettes in a chimney starter
  • Put the briquettes inside a small bottomless coffee can to hold them in the center of the chimney.20 briquettes in a bottomless coffee can inside a chimney starter

Using Leftover Charcoal In A Chimney Starter

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.

More Lighting Alternatives

Here are several alternatives for lighting your chimney starter if lighter cubes or newspaper aren’t your thing.

Gel starters

Alcohol-based liquid gel starters 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

Sawdust starters 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.

Diamond Strike-A-Fire

The Diamond Strike-A-Fire 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.

Sterno Wick

Wick chafing fuel 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. You can also use pieces of cardboard egg cartons and paper charcoal bags.

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!

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

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