10 Steps to Making Your Own Charcoal and Smoking Chunks

When you make your own charcoal and smoking chunks, you get to play with fire and achieve that campfire smell when you grill.

By Oscar H. Will III | Photos By Andreas Kermann

Many of us deal with downed tree limbs by cutting them into firewood to heat our place or feed our firepit, where we might occasionally cook burgers or hot dogs. But it seems when our minds turn to grilling and smoking, we head to the nearest big-box store to buy bags of pressed-charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, smoking wood chunks or chips, and the requisite lighter fluid.

All this prepackaged stuff can make cooking on the grill super convenient, but why not kick it up several notches by taking a little extra time to create your own custom charcoal and smoking chunks? The whole process is easier than you imagine, and you can bring out the best in your barbecues by choosing wood species that complement the meal. Read on to find out how.

  1. You’ll need to first season the wood for at least three months and up to a year or two in advance, depending on wood type. Harvest suitable branches or logs (maple, hickory, oak, Osage orange, apple, pear and cherry all work nicely), and cut/split them into 3- to 4-inch cubed chunks. Season by storing them dry in clean, breathable burlap or empty feed sacks.
  2. Gather up supplies—you’ll need an “airtight” grill (common kettle-style works well), a charcoal chimney, some newspaper and tongs that will stand up to working with hot coals.
  3. Open the bottom vents on the kettle grill fully. Be sure they are not clogged with old ashes.
  4. Load the charcoal chimney with chunks of seasoned wood. Wad up two pieces of newspaper and stuff into the chimney’s base, then set it on the grill rack and light the paper. Add more paper until the bottom wood chunks are well lit.
  5. Allow chimney to burn until all chunks are well blackened, but not ash covered. Then, remove chimney from the grill rack, lift off the rack, and dump the blackened wood chunks onto the grill’s charcoal grate. Spread the chunks around, set the cooking rack back in place, and position the lid on the grill.
  6. Open the vents in the lid fully to keep the burn going for a few minutes. If you wish to cook with smoke, proceed to step 7. If you wish to create a less flavorful charcoal bed, skip ahead to step 8. To create charcoal for later use, go to step 10.
  7. Since the chunks weren’t completely converted to charcoal when they were dumped onto the charcoal grate, you can cook over them as they convert by partially closing the upper air vents until smoke pours out of them. Place your food on the grill and monitor as normal; feel free to adjust the vents to control temperature. Don’t worry if you run out of smoke before the food is cooked. That just means you will finish on a bed of charcoal. You can also add small wood chunks to the growing charcoal bed if you want things smokier.
  8. For less-smoky grilling, reduce the top vent openings until smoke pours out of them, and wait until the smoke stops (but ensure the chunks are still burning). At this point, you can cook on the grill as you would with purchased charcoal.
  9. As soon as you are finished cooking, close up all the top and bottom grill vents. When the remaining charcoal chunks are cold, harvest them to add to your next barbecuing event; light them in the charcoal chimney as you would any other kind of charcoal.
  10. For making lump charcoal to use later without cooking on them this first go-round, reduce the top vent opening until smoke pours out, wait until the smoke stops, and let the chunks cook for about 5 minutes more at low air flow (top vents about half open, bottom fully open). Then close up all vents, allow the grill to cool completely, and place the charcoal chunks in a suitable container where they will not get wet. To use the charcoal, just load the charcoal chimney and light with newspaper.

You might think that going from wood chunk to smoke cooking in one session would take forever. It does not. Using a charcoal chimney can have well-seasoned chunks ready to use for cooking within about 15 minutes, compared to about 10 minutes when you light charcoal briquettes in the chimney. The upside is that you get to play with fire and smell that campfire aroma in the process.

When you anticipate needing to replenish your fuel supply as you cook that turkey, you can light additional batches of chunks and add them to the grill, if you don’t mind the smoke. Otherwise you will need another “airtight” grill-like container to cut down the air and burn off the smoke from the chimney while you prepare more chunks—or you can simply make charcoal ahead of time.