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How to Start a Charcoal Grill: Fail-Proof Guide

Last Updated on November 21, 2022

Mastering the art of starting a charcoal grill does require some know-how, a little                          time, and patience before your friends crown you “King of the Coals.”

We fully understand the stress and frustrations caused when lighting your charcoal grill. However, now you can forget all that, we have the solution to your problem.

Introducing the fail-proof guide on how to start a charcoal grill.

By following these simple guidelines, you will know all there is to know on how to light charcoal for your grill effectively.

# Preparing a charcoal grill for lighting
# Types of charcoal – How to choose
# How much charcoal should you use?
# How do you arrange the charcoal?
# How to light a charcoal grill
# Barbecue safety precautions
# FAQ for starting a charcoal BBQ
# How do you know when charcoal is ready?
# How to get a charcoal grill hotter
# How to put out a charcoal grill
# How to clean your charcoal grill
# Charcoal Storage and FAQ

Essential tools needed to light your charcoal grill

Fireproof Gloves

Charcoal grills can get very hot. Use  good quality fireproof gloves when starting and handling lit charcoal. Ensure you wear good quality fireproof gloves when starting and handling lit charcoal  to avoid burning yourself.

Grill Lighters

You will need some way of lighting the charcoal, like a barbeque lighter, an electric lighter or a long-stemmed match.

Charcoal Chimney

A charcoal chimney is a metal tube with a grate to hold charcoal or briquettes. If you don’t want to use lighter fluid, a chimney is a safe and effective alternative to lighting charcoal.

Long-handled Tongs or Charcoal Rakes

Once you’ve lit your charcoal, you need to arrange the pieces for even heat distribution. Long-handled tongs or charcoal rakes allow you to safely arrange lit charcoal on the grate.

Grill Brush

A grill brush will help you keep your grate clean. Choose a brush with food-grade stainless steel bristles that can easily strip your grate of burnt grease or food debris.

Preparing a charcoal grill for lighting

If you’ve used the grill before and not cleaned it, remove any debris, ash, or grime left behind with a good quality grill brush. Clean grates help prevent food from sticking.

Types of charcoal

  • Lumpwood Charcoal: comes from burning wood without the presence of oxygen. Many grill enthusiasts consider it a purer form of charcoal and therefore prefer it over briquettes.
  • Charcoal Briquettes: are made of scrap wood sawdust and chemicals. They take more effort to light and burn much cooler and slower than lumpwood.
  • Hardwood Briquettes: Unlike charcoal briquettes, which use softwood sawdust, hardwood charcoal uses only hardwoods like maple or oak. These briquettes light quicker and burn hotter than softwood-based charcoal.
  • Binchotan: is Japanese hardwood charcoal made from Japanese Holm oak. The process used to make the briquettes can take up to two weeks.
  • Coconut shell charcoal: is made using a distillation process that causes this type of charcoal to be stronger and last longer in your grill than standard charcoal.

Choosing your charcoal

Lumpwood vs. Briquettes

Charcoal is primarily available in lumpwood and briquette form.

Most seasoned grillers prefer lumpwood over briquettes because it’s easier to light, burns hotter, and leaves less ash residue.

Lumpwood charcoal is also more responsive to oxygen levels, making the temperature easier to control.

However, charcoal briquettes come in uniform sizes. This makes the briquettes easier to lay out in your grill for a more even temperature.

The low heat and slow-burning ability of the briquettes also prove beneficial for longer cook times.

Generally, a grill master will choose lumpwood charcoal for searing steaks or fish, and charcoal briquettes for pork or brisket.

Advantages of using premium briquettes

Wood charcoal of high quality will burn cleanly with less smoke and less ashy residue.

The best charcoal briquettes, even those of lumpwood, will have more uniform shapes so you can spread them easier on the bottom of your grill.

Weber charcoal, for instance, burns longer, cleaner, and more evenly than other brands.

Can I use wood chips on my barbecue?

You can mix wood chips with your barbecue charcoal to infuse your food with various wood smoke flavors.

How much charcoal should I use?

The amount of charcoal you use depends on the following factors:

  • Grill size: For smaller, portable grills, you won’t need so much charcoal. About 30 briquettes will do. Larger grills will require about 50 to 75 charcoal pieces.
  • Weather conditions: Charcoal will light and burn easier on warm, calm days. On colder or rainier days, you will need more charcoal to maintain the temperature you require.
  • Food type: For foods that require a lower heat, like bratwursts and hamburgers, all you need is a single layer of charcoal. Foods that require a higher temperature will need two or three layers of charcoal briquettes.

Maintaining temperature

Once you’ve reached your optimal temperature, you’ll need to add more briquettes to maintain it.

For most cooking times, add about five briquettes every half hour. For hotter temperatures, add more briquettes more frequently.

How do I arrange the charcoal?

How you arrange the charcoal in your grill will depend on the size and shape of the grill and whether you want direct or indirect heat.

Here are the recommended charcoal arrangements:

  • Round grills: Arrange your briquettes around the grate’s outer edge, leaving the center space unoccupied.
  • Rectangular and barrel-shaped grills: Place the coals on one side of the grill, leaving the other half unoccupied.

Direct heat

To cook with direct heat, place your food directly over the hot charcoal.

Direct heat is suitable for fast-cooking foods, such as steaks, kebabs, chops, vegetables, and hamburgers.

For this grilling method, arrange the coals evenly across your charcoal grate.

This arrangement will give you an even distribution of heat. After lighting the coals, preheat for 20-30 minutes with the lid closed.

Indirect heat

To cook with indirect heat, place your briquettes either around the edge of the grill or on one half. Then place your food on the grate above the unlit areas of the grill.

For slow-cooking foods, you want to go for indirect heating. Slow-cooking foods include briskets, large steaks, and whole birds.

The indirect heat method entails setting different indirect cooking zones, such as half, or the middle portion of the grill.

Use your long-handled tongs to move the coals from one area of the grill to another.

The area you choose to leave unlit becomes the indirect cooking zone, where you can regulate the temperatures as you wish.

Note, the warming rack can also act as your indirect cooking zone.

4 Ways to light a charcoal grill

You can use any natural fire starter to light your charcoal, including wood chips, sap, or wool. You can also use newspaper, tissues, cardboard, or an electric firestarter.

1 How to start a charcoal grill with a chimney

A chimney is a special piece of equipment that makes charcoal lighting fast and easy. Follow these steps when using a charcoal chimney:

Step 1
Place the charcoal into the chimney. Add enough so that it is nearly full, but don’t allow it to overflow.

Step 2
Next you’ll want to add fire starters to help ignite your charcoal. Pieces of newspaper, scrap paper, wood chips, or dryer lint work well for this.

Step 3
Use a long-nosed lighter or match to light the fire starters through the holes in the bottom of the chimney.

It will take about ten minutes for all the charcoal to catch fire. This will be apparent when you can see flames coming through the top layer of charcoal.

Step 4
When all of the charcoal turns white, you may begin spreading it evenly.
It can take up to five additional minutes for your charcoal to get to this stage.

After you’ve spread the pieces you may add the grate.

Step 5
Once lit, empty the charcoal onto the grill.

Step 6
You can now begin cooking.

2  How to light charcoal with lighter fluid

Though lighter fluid is an effective way to ignite flames to warm your charcoal, it creates potential hazards.

Lighter fluid fumes can permeate your food as you cook it, leaving it with a distinct chemical taste and odor.

These factors render lighter fluid unsuitable for use. But if you opt to go the lighter fluid way, take these steps:

Step 1
Arrange your briquettes to form a pyramid shape.

Step 2.
Check the lighter fluid’s directions for the correct amount. Pour the lighter fluid slowly and evenly over each side of the pyramid to cover all the coals.

Step 3
Allow the coals approximately 30 seconds to absorb the lighter fluid.

Step 4
Light the charcoal at different points along the bottom of the pyramid using a match or grill lighter.

Step 5
Give the charcoal time to catch fire. When the briquettes turn white, spread them uniformly with a charcoal rake or long-handled tongs before adding the grate.

Step 6
Start grilling.

3 Using newspaper to start a charcoal grill

Newspaper pieces are perfect for starting charcoal grills because they light easily and burn hot. The steps to follow are:

Step 1
Arrange the charcoal in a pyramid shape or mound.

Step 2
Tear newspaper into strips and roll it loosely. Insert these rolls into the spaces between the charcoal in various locations.

Step 3
Light the newspaper with a lighter or a match. Add more paper if necessary.

Step 4
Spread the charcoal after it turns white, and commence grilling.

4 Starting your barbecue with an electric lighter

Step 1
Arrange the charcoal to form a pyramid shape.

Step 2
Plug your electric lighter in or use a rechargeable one and place its nose directly in the middle of your briquettes.

Step 3
Allow the electric firestarter to heat the charcoal until you see sparks.

With the lighter a few inches away from the pyramid, keep doing this from different locations until it lights up.

Step 4
Remove the electric lighter, and once the coal turns white, you can put the grate on and start barbecuing.

Barbecue safety precautions

Like anything that uses hot coals as a heat source, you need to know how to start a charcoal grill safely.

Using safety precautions when you barbecue can help protect yourself and everyone around you if something goes wrong.

First off, make sure you set up your grill on level ground in an open space. Your grill should be at least 10 feet away from your house, trees, fences, or laundry line.

If you suddenly have an uncontrolled flame on your hands, you don’t want it catching an overhead branch and becoming a real problem.

No matter where you set up, be sure to keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water handy, just in case.

Next, remember to have all the necessary safety tools, such as fireproof gloves and long-handled tongs.

Use a long-nosed barbecue lighter or long-stemmed match to light your coals so you are as far away from the flame as possible.

Also, consider investing in a charcoal chimney if you don’t have one. It’s a safer option than lighter fluid and will help keep your flames and coals under control. You could also use an electric firestarter.


Avoid using charcoal that lights instantly, as the activating chemicals used to ignite the charcoal can transfer to your food via smoke and flames.

When cooking on your grill, it’s important to ensure that pets, children, and debris are at least 10 feet or more away from your grill.

Standing too close can result in injury due to unexpected sparks.

Wait until your coal is ready before you can start cooking. For direct heating, wait until you see your charcoal glowing white with hot red canter’s. For indirect cooking, wait until the charcoal is ashy white.

FAQ: How to start a charcoal grill

#Should grill vents be left open or closed when starting cooking?

Grill vents should be left open when you are lighting and arranging your charcoal. This will allow oxygen into the grill and help your coals reach the optimal temperature.

When the coals are ready for you to start cooking, you may partially close the vents if you want to lower the temperature.

Opening the vents will bring in more oxygen, which will raise the temperature if needed.

#Why won’t my charcoal briquettes burn?

If you’re having trouble lighting your briquettes, the problem may be that they aren’t stacked tightly enough.

If there’s too much air in between each piece, only the ones closest to your starter will catch fire.

The problem could also be that there isn’t enough oxygen reaching the briquettes.

This could happen if they’re packed too tightly as you try to light them, or if your grill vents are shut.

You can remedy this by shifting the briquettes slightly apart or by opening the vents.

Lastly, your briquettes might not burn if they’ve gone bad. “Bad” charcoal contains too much moisture to properly light.

Charcoal can go bad if it’s kept in a damp, muggy environment. Dry, cool charcoal storage will prevent this.

#How long does it take to heat up a charcoal grill?

20 to 30 minutes is sufficient time for your charcoal grill to heat up and produce optimal results.

#How do you know when charcoal is ready for grilling?

When the exterior of your charcoal briquettes turn white but the interiors are glowing orange or red, they are ready for you to begin grilling.

#How long will a charcoal grill stay hot?

A charcoal grill will take some time to cool down. If you close the lid and the vents, it can take around four hours.

However, sometimes the heat and the amount of charcoal are enough to keep a smolder going for a full 48 hours even with no oxygen.

#How do I keep charcoal hot?

You can keep your charcoal up to temperature by adding a few more briquettes every half hour.

You can also open the air vents to allow oxygen into the grill, which will help the coals to keep burning.

#What temperature does charcoal burn at?

Charcoal can burn as low as 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually, charcoal will burn around 500-700 degrees Fahrenheit when used for cooking food.

#How do I control the temperature of lit charcoal?

You can control the charcoal temperature by adjusting the air vents or by moving the lit coals. Opening the vents will increase the temperature while closing them will decrease the temperature.

Similarly, by moving the coals away from each other, you can lower the temperature.

By adding more charcoal to the already lit coals, you can increase the temperature or maintain it.

#How to put out a charcoal grill

To put out a charcoal grill, close all the vents and the lid. This will cut off the oxygen supply and suffocate the smoldering action.

This can take as long as 48 hours. Of course, it depends on how much charcoal you used and how hot your grill was.

When the coals are extinguished, open all the vents and remove the lid to help the grill cool down faster.

#How to clean and store a charcoal grill

After you’ve put out your grill, you can use your grill brush to remove any excess food or debris from your grate.

Don’t scrub stuck-on food in case you chip the enamel coating on the grate.

Next, remove your ash trap to dump out the ash residue and leftover charcoal. You can save the larger pieces of charcoal to reuse the next time you grill.

Simply retrieve them after they’ve cooled, then store them with the rest of your charcoal.

As for the ash, depending on the charcoal itself, you can dispose of it in two ways.

If it’s lumpwood charcoal, you can take advantage of its natural composition and compost the remains in a compost bin or flower bed.

If it’s charcoal briquettes, you can dispose of the remains in a garbage bin.

To maintain your grill’s performance, clean the grate with an oven cleaner to remove all excess food particles or grease.

You can also wash all surfaces with soap and water. Maintenance of this kind should take place at least once a year.

If you use your grill often, increase your maintenance to once a month.

Once your grill is clean, you may replace the lid and the barbecue cover.

Most barbecues are fine to leave outside with their protective cover, but you can also store them in a dry, cool place like a shed or garage.

Charcoal storage and FAQ

#Does charcoal go bad?

Charcoal will no longer perform as it should if it absorbs too much moisture.

Storing your charcoal in a damp place, or somewhere where it often becomes wet can cause your charcoal to “go bad.”

When storing charcoal, it’s important to keep it in a sealed container or bag that won’t allow humidity or moisture to enter.

#How long does charcoal last?

Charcoal has the potential to last decades if you keep it in a cool, dry place. With a proper charcoal bin that keeps out moisture.

#How do you store bags of charcoal?

You can store bags of charcoal indefinitely by using airtight plastic charcoal buckets, or a large, well-sealed charcoal storage bin. An airtight seal will keep out humidity and moisture, preventing your charcoal from going bad.

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We hope this information on how to start a charcoal grill has been helpful and will make lighting  charcoal a little less stressfull. if you have any questions, comments or concerns please contact us we are always here for you.