Charcoal Chimneys 101

New to using a charcoal chimney? Here are the basics.

By Oscar H. Will III | Photos By ©istockphoto.com / kjohansen

A charcoal chimney is an efficient charcoal lighting tool that consists of a metal cylinder with a grate located on the inside about one-fourth the total length from the bottom. Typical chimneys are 7 to 8 inches in diameter and 12 inches or so tall, have heat shields and insulated handles for safety and convenience, and are perforated for ventilation toward the bottom (sometimes for the entire length). Commercially available models are often made of lightweight sheet metal and cost around $15. Custom-made or homemade models can be created with heavier material such as thin-wall steel pipe or tubing. If you can weld and have material handy, why not build your own?

The charcoal chimney’s purpose is to ignite batches of charcoal or wood chunks using nothing more than some crumpled up newspaper or other readily available dry fuel. When lighting pressed charcoal briquettes (placed on the internal grate of the chimney), lighting one or two sheets of newspaper beneath the grate might be all that it takes to get the charcoal burning. When using wood chunks, it might take about twice that amount of paper, or more. The charcoal chimney takes advantage of a well-ventilated, hot fire located below its grate with flames and heated gasses then passing through the grate and into the wood chunks or charcoal.

The net result of a fire set at the bottom of the chimney is that the fire itself creates a powerful draft, which in turn draws air into the combustion chamber, which then makes the burn ever hotter. Once the bottom layer of charcoal ignites, it rapidly spreads up through the chunks higher up in the chimney and in relatively short order you have nice hot coals ready for grilling. And you won’t have any of that lighter-fluid flavor imparted to your food! If you are short on newspaper, you can substitute brown (kraft) packing paper or paper grocery sacks to get the fire going. Some folks even use a small pile of twigs and tinder, although paper is much easier.

Once the briquette coals or wood chunks are burning nicely, you can dump them onto your grill’s charcoal grate–be sure to use heat-resistant gloves, even with commercial chimneys equipped with an insulated handle. And by all means, take care not to dump that chimney full of coals on your bare legs or feet!