If you own a charcoal grill or smoker, the charcoal chimney is by far one the best investments you can make. They're cheap, last a lifetime, and make lighting charcoal much easier - you also don't have to deal with volatile chemicals like lighter fluid.
In order to use a charcoal chimney, you need:
For people who are visual learners, here's a quick video I recorded on how to light a charcoal chimney. I also included a quick explanation for the various nuances that are further outlined in this article.
The first thing to do is determine how much charcoal you need. As you might assume, the more lit charcoal you use, the hotter your grill will be.
The following quantities are taken from my article on controlling charcoal grill temperature; Note - the estimates are based on using Kingsford charcoal briquettes and a 22" Weber Kettle.
All grills and smokers are different and these estimates are based on a specific type of fuel and grill. Over time as you start to calibrate your grill, you'll be able to determine the amount of charcoal to use to reach these temperatures. If anything, you can think of the chimney as a measuring cup.
Keep in mind, briquettes are uniform which results in a consistent burn rate. Lump charcoal comes in many different shapes and sizes and can burn much hotter than briquettes.
Smoking meat typically implies lower temperatures. Above, I note 1/4 of a chimney is roughly 250 - 350F. However, to get lower, you need a smaller number of lit coals arranged in a specific way - like with the minion method or charcoal snake.
Not many people think to do this but you can flip the charcoal chimney upside down and light the charcoal that way. You can place the firelighter in the basket and then put the the charcoal on top.
I typically use the charcoal snake in my Weber kettle and usually use around 10-12 briquettes.
As you might expect, it's much easier to start with a few lit coals and to come up in temperature than it is to start with too many lit coals and to come down in temperature.
When I was first starting out, I made this mistake and had to restart my charcoal snake 3-4 times.
Something that's worth considering too is lighting more coals than you need and to use them as you need them. I have a really old pair of tongs that I use to grab lit briquettes from the chimney and place them on the coals as I start to build my fire arrangement.
For some reason people seem to think that once you use your charcoal they're no longer usable. However, that couldn't be further from the truth.
Even in the video above, I'm using reused lump charcoal and for the next cook, I used whatever was left over too.
The fire triangle tells us that in order for a fire to be present you need oxygen, fuel, and heat. Meaning, when we remove any of these elements, fire can't be present.
Once you're done grilling, you can close your intake damper thus removing the oxygen.
An exhaust damper (vent, chimney, flue, etc) is more important than you think - it pulls oxygen through the system as hot air exfiltrates and cold air infiltrates (called a draft). Meaning, if you entirely close the exhaust damper, you'll smother the fire with CO, CO2, and other combustion by-products.
All this means is that Oxygen from the intake cannot reach the coals unless these combustion gases are displaced.
Firelighters are products specifically engineered to start a charcoal fire. While firelighters make starting a charcoal fire incredibly easy, they are not necessary to start a charcoal chimney.
The main firelighter products that exist are paraffin wax cubes, tumbleweeds, and compressed material squares. I have absolutely no preference when it comes to which is best. In my opinion, the best firelighter is the one that's the cheapest. All of these products are engineered to ignite charcoal, their only difference is price.
Of these options, Weber Wax Cubes are typically the cheapest option at around $5-6 for a 24-pack. Royal Oak tumbleweeds are usually around $6-7 for a 16-pack. I've seen a number of brands that sell compressed materials; A popular brand that makes these is Kamado Joe - these cost around $10 for a 24-pack.
I will usually grab a box of Tumbleweeds as the Weber cubes are usually sold out at the Home Depot I frequent.
As mentioned above, they simply make the process foolproof. However, you can use whatever means necessary to ignite the charcoal.
For example, most things I smoke I wrap in butcher/peach paper. This paper absorbs a lot of meat drippings/fat and is a perfect material to get a charcoal chimney started.
Usually I'll save these in grocery bags and keep them outside. Keep in mind, you should only keep used butcher paper if you intend to use it in the coming week or so. This material will spoil/mold fairly quickly when stored in this manner.
Something I like to save are my empty bags of charcoal. In my video above, I actually grabbed an old bag of Weber briquettes and cut off a piece with my box cutter.
I then roll this material and turn it into a small ring/circle and place it under the chimney. After which you can simply light the material.
Keep in mind, anything can and will work - old newspaper, magazines, junk mail, etc.
A charcoal chimney starter works based on the stack effect or "chimney" effect. This concept is found in buildings where hot air exits at the top and cold air infiltrates at the bottom.
The stack effect is essentially air movement that occurs as a result of thermal difference. Warm/hot air is less buoyant than cold air which causes the firelighter to pull through the chimney. As the hot air exfiltrates the chimney, this creates net negative pressure (creates a vacuum) causing cold air to infiltrate at the bottom and side vents.
In the video above I am quite literally using lump charcoal.
In order to create a fire, you need oxygen, a fuel source, and heat. Charcoal briquettes and lump charcoal are your fuel source, oxygen is around you at all times, and heat is supplied by your firelighter.
As with anything that involves handling fire - it's best to practice safety.
To start, I'd recommend investing in a pair of heat-resistant gloves. In the video I'm using a pair of welding gloves. To be frank, I'm not too big on gimmicky marketing in barbecue. I'd much rather buy a pair of leather welding gloves than a set of "barbecue mitts." In almost all cases, the barbecue mitts also cost more, I wonder why that is?
While most folks remember to protect their hands - they also fail to protect their feet. I mean I get it - sandles are made for the summer when people are grilling and smoking meat. However, close-toed shoes prevent you from stepping on a hot coal and from one falling on top of your feet.
Keep in mind, a charcoal chimney will remain hot for a while after you pour the charcoal out. Leave it off to the side to cool down and do not touch the exterior of the chimney with your hands.
Avoid placing the charcoal chimney on or near flammable surfaces. Most people who start their chimney do so from on-top of the grill grates. Meaning, don't light the chimney on a wooden deck or on top of dry grass. I know people have even invested in 4-5, fire-safe bricks to place the chimney on top of.
Note: I mention in my video that I've started the chimney from the ground without an issue. To clarify, the only times I do so is on my gravel driveway. Even when I set down the chimney in the video - it's 32 F outside and the surface is entirely gravel.
I always have a fire extinguisher in my barn as a safety precaution. While it may seem overkill - it's always better to be safe than sorry.