Hints for Starting Charcoal Fires

by Kathy and Bruce Jacobs

Starting Charcoal

We need to be able to start charcoal without using lighter fluid or other liquid fuels. This can be due to safety, Environmental regulations or for other reasons. Normal charcoal briquettes will not light with just a match. Normal briquettes are less expensive that instant Light briquettes.

How Charcoal is Started with A Fire Starter

We want to start our charcoal within a reasonable period of time. The best way to do this is to use a metal tube called a chimney. The idea is to get a fire started in the bottom of the chimney and have the heat of the started charcoal help start the rest of the charcoal. We help this by placing the charcoal in a metal tube and putting the fire starter in the bottom of the tube. You can buy a chimney or you can make one yourself.

Commercial chimneys can be purchased in season at many stores and can be found year round in stores that specialize in grilling. Prices vary from over $20 to less than $3 when on sale at the close of a season. They will usually be larger than a homemade chimney and will have a handle on one side so the coals can be poured out when the charcoal has been started. There is a platform inside the commercial chimney two to three inches from the bottom that keeps the charcoal from falling directly on top of the fire starter. The fire starter is placed in the bottom of chimney and the charcoal is poured into the top. The fire starter is then lighted. After a while the charcoal will be lit.

Some chimneys can be placed on top of a lit propane burner. This is the fastest way to start charcoal. Be careful you may damage the stove or the chimney. Watch it carefully and only use commercial chimneys which are designed to allow for the extra heat. I always set a timer and take it off the burner in less than 5 minutes to avoid the possibility of over heating. When removing the chimney do not pass it over the top of your propane bottle.

The instructions which come with these chimneys frequently suggest using newspaper as the fire starter. We have a couple of problems with using newspaper as the fire starter. The system does not work well if the newspaper is wet or damp. Also, after the charcoal is lit, and the chimney is lifted in order to pour the charcoal out, the remaining newspaper can be blown away by any wind. This can be a fire hazard.

Homemade chimneys are made from #10 cans. (The large coffee can size) After the lid of the can is removed, make several openings near the bottom on the SIDES of the can with a church key. (Normally a church key is used to make holes on the bottom or top of a can, not the sides.) Then remove the bottom of the can with a normal can opener. You should have an empty metal tube with some triangular holes along one edge.

To use a homemade chimney, place it where you are going to want your charcoal to be used. This will usually be inside your grill or in a fire pit. Place a fire starter inside the bottom of the chimney to one side of the chimney. Make sure you will be able to light the fire starter through one of the holes without moving the chimney. Now pour charcoal into the top of the chimney. Then light the fire starter.

When first lit, the fire starter will produce a small amount of white smoke which will mostly come out of the top of the charcoal. After a couple of minutes this smoke will increase. Most of this smoke is caused by briquettes that are not completely started. As more of the charcoal is lit and reaches higher temperatures, the smoke will taper off and stop. This does not mean that the fire has gone out. The fire is just starting to burn efficiently. If you wave you hand over the top of the charcoal you will be able feel the heat coming off. When flames can be seen coming out of the top of the charcoal, or when the charcoal on the top is gray in more than one place, the chimney can be removed/dumped. All of the charcoal will be mostly gray with the exception of the coals which were on the very top.

To cool your chimney after you remove the coals from it, dunk it in your water bucket. (You do have a water bucket next to the fire, don't you?) This will cool the chimney quickly and make it safe to set directly on the ground.

Making Fire Starters

So, how do we make a fire starter? What we want is something that is easy to light with a match, is not bulky, burns with a steady flame for at least 5 minutes and does not use harmful chemicals. Most fire starters I have seen have been made using some sort of paraffin wax and a natural fiber.

Wax can be obtained by melting old candles, from the grocery store where the supplies for making jelly are found. It can also be purchased in craft stores where the candle making supplies are found.

In some circumstances melted wax can be dangerous. If you intend to melt wax using a stove or some sort of fire you must always use some sort of double boiler arrangement. In other words, heat a container of water that has a container of wax sitting inside it. If wax is heated directly in a container without the water barrier between the water and the heat source, the wax can unexpectedly burst into flame. This can happen even if there is still some solid wax in the container. If you do not have a double boiler, you can put some water in a pan to heat and place a tin can inside the pan and then place the wax in the can. As the water in the pan boils it will heat up the wax in the can and the wax will melt. A hot liquid wax fire is quite spectacular and should be avoided.

There are other ways of melting wax. Another way is to place the wax in a heat resistant container and place the container in your car while the car is parked in the sun. During the summer on a sunny day the wax will get hot enough to melt the wax. You should be able to pour the wax at about 1:00 pm. You will want to make sure there is no way that the wax can get out of the container onto your car seats. A third way of melting wax is to use a solar box or panel cooker. Avoid the high temperature concentrator type of oven that could start on fire while melting the wax.

Wax by itself does not burn very well. It needs a surface to burn on. There are several ways to make this surface.

  • Take a paper egg carton and fill each cup with some sort of natural fiber. Good things to try are course sawdust, hamster bedding (wood chips), dryer lint left over from doing cotton towels, or a Kleenex packed into each hole. Put the egg carton on a surface that you are not worried about getting wax on. Slowly pour melted max into each of the cups. When ready to use, tear off one egg for each fire.
  • If you use fine sawdust you will need to be extra careful to make sure that you get enough wax into the cup. Finely powdered sawdust does not absorb wax as well as chipped wood does.
  • Tear up old cotton towels into strips about 1 1/2 inches wide and about 12 inches long. Roll up the strips as if they were sleeping bags and tie each of them with a cotton string. Dunk them in melted candle wax. You can also use strips of cardboard instead of cloth. These fire starters are called trench candles.
  • You can take six birthday cake candles or wax crayons with the paper still on them and lay them together (like you would stack logs). Then roll them up in a single layer of wax paper. Make sure that the wax paper is about two inches wider than the stack of candles. Twist the ends of the wax paper to make the final fire starter look like taffy. These fire starters are called candle kisses.
  • Get some of the tiny paper cups that fast food restaurants have for putting ketchup in. Fill them with sawdust, Kleenex or cotton lint. Pour melted wax into the cups.

You can also buy some fire starters commercially made. They are not generally better that the one you can make yourself. They can be more resistant to melting in hot climate. Some of the ones you can buy do not work very well after they are a few years old. Some of them can be easily blown out by wind when they are first lit. Some of them need to be allowed to burn for a few seconds before they really get going. For this type it is best to start the fire starter in the bottom of an empty chimney and then add the charcoal after the fire starter is ready.