How to Build & Use a DIY Chimney Starter

grill with coals lit in chimney starter
  • 1-2 hours
  • Beginner
  • 0-50
What You'll Need
1 Tin can
Can opener
Pair of tongs
Charcoal briquettes
Matches or lighter
Power drill with drill bits
What You'll Need
1 Tin can
Can opener
Pair of tongs
Charcoal briquettes
Matches or lighter
Power drill with drill bits

There's no need to spend money buying a chimney starter when you can learn how to DIY your own. There are many different ways to make a chimney starter that will make your grilling experience even better.

What Is a Chimney Starter?

What is the purpose of a chimney starter?

A charcoal chimney is a great tool for starting up a charcoal grill with ease. It's a handy device that you can DIY yourself with a few tools and some basic DIY tricks.

A chimney coal starter or a charcoal chimney is a metallic, cylindrical device used for lighting lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. The lighted charcoal can then be used for cooking purposes.

A grill chimney starter can light up to six pounds of charcoal at a time, depending on the size of the starter.

Since a charcoal chimney also has a handle, it can easily be carried around for travel. It’s a convenient item to have on any camping trip.

Camp cooking is often done on a charcoal grill. With a chimney starter on hand, you can simplify the tedious process of getting the charcoal ready for the grill.

The best part of using charcoal chimneys is that you can make them at home, and there is no need to use any lighter fluid. So, you save time and money with no aftertaste of lighter fluid.

Grill chimney starters are simple, hollow metal cylinders that have holes at both ends. A small wire grate is inside, and there are handles that make it easier to pour the charcoal out of the chimney and transport the entire device.

Basically, you put your charcoal inside (on top of the grate) and then light it. The coals will heat up, and once they're ready, you can remove the grate and lift the cylinder.

The coals will be ready to cook your food, as they will already be nice and hot when they hit the grill.

Sounds good, right? Even better, it doesn't really take a whole lot of DIY skill to build your own charcoal starter chimney.

grill starter with burning coals inside

How to Build Chimney Starter DIY

There are many materials you can use to build your own DIY chimney starter. Once you learn the basic function and technique of building and using a chimney starter, you will be able to DIY your own pretty much any time.

Cylindrical Starter

You don't need a lot of fancy materials to make your own DIY chimney starter. If you can get your hands on some basic DIY tools and some common household stuff, you've got everything you need for this project.

Step 1: Prep the Can

Any tin can will work for this project, but the wider and larger the can, the better. A standard soup can will work to create a very small grill chimney starter but remember that you are going to fill this can with charcoal, so you will need one that's larger in size.

Used coffee cans work surprisingly well for DIY chimney starters, but any large can will work.

Remove the label from the can. Get rid of all paper, as you don't want it to catch on fire.

empty tin can

Step 2: Make the Cylinder

Using a can opener, cut away the bottom of the empty coffee can to create a cylinder. It should now be open at both ends.

Don't throw away this lid. You're going to want that later.

Step 3: Make the Grate

Use the drill to make holes in the can bottom you cut away earlier using a 5/8-inch and 1/4-inch drill bit. Hammer around the holes to wear down the sharp edges.

Step 4: Drill the Holes

Drill holes in a circle near the bottom of the can using a power drill. You need three holes, spaced evenly apart, about three inches up from the bottom of the can...or either end of the can.

Step 5: Add Brackets

Attach L-brackets to each hole with small bolts.

Step 6: Add the Grate

Place the grate (the bottom with the holes drilled in it) on the L-brackets. You want this to fit snugly and securely.

Step 7: Make the Handle

wood dowel pole

Cut a wooden dowel to roughly the same length as the height of the can. Drill holes through the dowel near each end.

Use a drill bit to widen the holes enough that a four-inch bolt can be placed in each hole. Drill corresponding holes in the can.

Secure the bolts with nuts on the inside of the can, but use only as much of the bolt as needed to connect the nut and leave the length sticking out of the outside of the can.

Secure the handle with nuts on the other ends of the bolts. Tighten all the nuts.

Since wood does not get hot even when it's on the grill, this is a safe handle to use with a grill that also isn't difficult to DIY.

Step 8: Use Your Chimney Starter

The best way to test your new DIY charcoal starter chimney is to learn how to use a chimney starter. Add the charcoal, light the starter, and see how it works.

Foil Starter

If you're away from home or a bit limited on materials and tools, you can always make a DIY foil starter using aluminum.

Step 1: Stack the Foil

Layer two sheets of aluminum measuring about three feet long on top of each other. Add two more sheets of the same size crosswise to form a plus-like shape.

Step 2: Form the Cylinder

Place a small plate in the center of the foil and then bring the sides up all the way around to form a tall cylinder. Bring all the edges together to fully close the cylinder.

Step 3: Secure the Chimney Starter

Remove the plate from the bottom of the cylinder. Wrap twine around the cylinder so it will maintain its shape.

Step 4: Add Ventilation

Use a screwdriver to poke some holes around the cylinder, all around the sides near the bottom.

Step 5: Light the Starter

Add charcoal and light it. As the charcoal burns and heats, use tongs to open the foil.

The foil can be removed or left on the grill for grilling purposes.

grill with coal fire starter on it

How to Light a Chimney Starter

Now, you need to know how to start a chimney fire. A charcoal chimney is started by placing lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes into the cylinder and then lighting up the whole stack by placing fire at the bottom.

But at times, for various reasons, the charcoal may refuse to burn. If this is your first attempt at starting a charcoal chimney, or if you have a problem getting yours started, try the following methods.

A number of companies manufacture chimney starters and sell them at a premium, but DIYers don't need that. All you need is a good quality chimney starter and dry charcoal lumps or briquettes.

Use Paper

Though it's becoming rarer these days, paper still works great, and you've probably got some in your home already.

Step 1: Fill

Fill the cylindrical part of the chimney with the charcoal of your choice, and leave the portion below the grate clear.

Step 2: Add Paper

Crunch up and ball up pieces of paper, around three standard-size sheets, and place them under the grate.

Step 3: Light

Light the newspapers below the grate. Once the paper starts burning, the charcoal above it will become warm and catch fire, traveling upwards and heating up the entire stack of charcoal.

Use Cotton Balls

Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly work very well to get chimney starters going.

Step 1: Collect Supplies

You need a small paper cup, five cotton balls, and petroleum jelly.

Step 2: Prepare the Cotton Balls

Cover the cotton balls in petroleum jelly and put them into the paper cup. Add a little jelly on top of the cotton balls after placing them in the cup.

Step 3: Place and Light

Now whenever the charcoal chimney needs to be fired up, you just need to place the paper cup underneath the grate and light it with a match or a lighter. It will take only a moment for the charcoal to catch fire.

Use Vegetable Oil

Regular vegetable oil can be a great way to get a chimney starter going.

Step 1: Add paper

Loosely roll up three or four pieces of paper and place them under the grate.

Step 2: Coat with Vegetable Oil

Use a spray bottle filled with vegetable oil to dampen the paper.

The Stacking Method

Stack your chimney starter to create a heat tunnel that will get the coals nice and hot. This is a classic method to use when you’d trying to learn how to build a charcoal chimney.

Step 1: Create a Charcoal Foundation

Place three to four briquettes on the grill. Place the cylinder on top of the briquettes.

Step 2: Add Paper

Make tight balls of about three sheets of paper. Place them inside and at the bottom of the cylinder.

Put about 25 briquettes on top of the paper balls.

Step 3: Light

Light the paper. Leave the briquettes in the chimney until they start to ash over.

In case the pieces of charcoal do not get lit the first time, repeat the process with fresh paper and the same pieces of charcoal.

Tips for Handling a Chimney Starter

Chimney starters are easy to use, and they're very straightforward and simple. You may get very comfortable using a starter.

However, it's important to remember to always practice safety when you're working with a chimney starter or working with a grill or hot surface in any way. Follow all safety precautions, and don't let your guard down even as you become more and more comfortable with your chimney starter.

It's important to remember to always wear heat-resistant gloves before handling a hot chimney starter.

Keep in mind that a charcoal chimney will remain hot for a while after the charcoal has been poured out.

Avoid placing or starting your chimney on surfaces made of dry grass, wood, or near cooking gas cylinders. You don't want your chimney starter near anything flammable.

Ideal places for placing chimney starters are on metal frame stands, open spaces, or on fire-safe bricks.

How to Build a Charcoal Chimney and Use It

Once you've made and used a charcoal chimney a couple of times, you will have a good idea of how the chimney works and how to use it to prepare your grill. This is not a difficult DIY, and when you're done, you will have a very practical item that you will use again and again.

Using a chimney starter is an amazing way to get the grill ready, and it helps you avoid that lighter fluid taste, so it's definitely worth the time to do this DIY and start using a chimney starter every time you grill.

Grill Chimney Starter FAQ

gloved hand pouring lit coals into grill

What’s the purpose of a chimney starter?

The chimney starter makes it easier to light and heat charcoal. You don't need to use lighter fluid to get the coals started and burning, which is a huge benefit.

What are chimney starters made of?

Chimney starters are often made with metal, but they can be made from any fireproof materials that will not burn, crack, or catch fire even in high degrees of heat.

How long does a chimney starter last?

When full of burning coals, the chimney starter will reach around 500 to 550 degrees F within 15 minutes, but it takes 20 to 30 for the coals to get hot enough to use for cooking.

Depending on how well they are made, chimney starters can be used many, many times to heat up coals. This is true for most chimney starters, but some, such as those made with temporary materials like juice cartons and foil, are only used once.

What do you put under a chimney starter?

The area beneath the grate of the chimney starter is often stuffed with paper in order to get the chimney starter to light and heat up.

Further Reading

4 Barbeque Grill Problems to Avoid

Barbeque Grills and Fire Safety

Great Grilling Recipes

How to Build a Grill Gazebo

How to Install a Built In Barbecue Grill

How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Hot