Charcoal Starter




A "chimney" type charcoal starter, so that junk mail, found sticks etc. can take the place of lighter fluid in your barbecuing tradition. Made of two cans and a coat hanger...couldn't be much cheaper.

By the way: be very careful about fire and sharp metal. If you don't think you can handle both fire and sharp metal without hurting yourself, do not attempt to follow these instructions.

Step 1: Gather Tools & Materials

Build Materials:
  • Coffee can (or other large, tin-plated steel can)
  • Coat hanger (no fuzz, plastic etc., just bare wire)
  • Small can (from olives, individual servings of pasta sauce, etc.)
  • An abundance of caution. This will be used up quickly, due to all the sharp edges and dangerous tools involved. If you lack caution, be sure to have a few units of blood and a field suture kit, instead.

Build Tools:
  • Can opener (both cut-around-the-lid and punch-a-triangular-hole)
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Tin snips, or similar (I used the black ones shown)
  • Hammer
  • Nail Um...or similar.

Use Tools & Materials:
  • Pot holder or oven mitt
  • Charcoal, or other solid fuel
  • Paper, cardboard, small wood, or other tinder/kindling
  • Matches, or a live coal stolen from the neighbors

Step 2: Use That Church Key

You will be making a grate to support the coals as they are lit. Fire needs air, so, to ventilate the coals, we're going to use a punch-type can opener to poke holes all around the edge of the can bottom.

Three legs make for a stable platform (if you've studied geometry or dairy farming, you know this already), so to start with, we'll punch the holes for the legs. Try to make them evenly spaced around the circumference, as shown in the first picture.

Next, punch three more holes, evenly spaced between the three you've already made. Then, go back and punch six more, again evenly spaced between the six you've already made. Set the can opener aside when you have twelve evenly-spaced holes.

Okay, now for some danger. Take a nail or nail-analogue, and punch holes about halfway between the inner points of the twelve holes you already have (second picture). Punch one in the center, as well. Now, go back around the outside and widen each "nail" hole with the pliers, until one jaw of the pliers can fit most of the way into the hole, as shown in the third picture. Work both jaws of the pliers into the center hole, making it a little bigger than the others.

Lastly, punch six more holes, using the same method, in a ring around the central hole. The finished grate is shown, from the inside, in the final picture.

Step 3: Sharp-looking Legs.

Air couldn't get to those nice holes you just made if you set the can straight on the bottom of the grill. Plus, there'd be no room for the paper.

To fix that problem, we'll make legs from the small can, and attach them by bending tabs. This step exposes you to many sharp edges: be very, very careful.

Open the other side of the small can using the can opener, so that what remains is a tube. Remove and recycle or discard the circles you've cut from each end.

Using tin snips, cut the can from top to bottom, as shown. Cut twice again, in the same direction, to form three, roughly equal-sized rectangles of steel, as shown in the second photo.

Using the pliers, straighten the rolled-over edges slightly. You can finish straightening them later.

Fold each rectangle in half, so that the rolled-over edges meet. The photo shows the beginning of this fold, with only the sharp edges creased. Once they've been folded over, use the pliers (or a vise, or your hammer and an anvil) to flatten them the rest of the way.

Next, place the crease of one of the feet into the point of one of the holes along the outer edge of the coffee can, as shown in the third photo. Did you forget which holes were for the feet? Pick one...but remember this time, since they might be different sizes. Mark the length of that edge of the hole onto the top of the leg, using the nail, a grease pencil, or a marker.

Cut about 1/2 inch along this mark, as shown in the fourth photo. This cut creates the tab that will attach the leg. Using pliers, fold along the line of that cut, all the way to the bottom of the leg. Repeat on the other side. From the top, the leg should now resemble the letter W.

Now cut about 1/2 inch down the apex of the W, to match the fifth photo. This makes two squarish tabs, which can be folded down once the leg is installed. Using the pliers, bend over the triangular section of metal between the outside cut and the folded-over edge of the leg. The same photo shows this process.

Once the triangular pieces have been bent over, take the two outside tabs, with the folded over edge, and bend them toward you at a right angle, as shown in the sixth photograph: these two tabs will form a platform that supports the can.

The seventh photo gvies you a better view of this platform. It also shows a step that I didn't figure out until the legs were already installed: a tab near the foot, to hold the coan hanger. I cut a narrow strip of metal out of the apex of the W, less than1/2 inch, only enough to roll around the wire. In retrospect, the design migh be more durable if I had just cut a notch out at right angles a little ways down, forming a hook to catch the wire. You may want to read the next step, see how I did it, and make your own design. It might even be worthwhile to punch nail holes, and feed the coat hanger wire through all three legs.

The eighth photo shows two of these small tabs, already cut.

Once you've made arrangements for the coat hanger, install the first leg, as shown in the sixth photo. Insert the two center tabs into the hole they were cut to fit in. The ninth photo shows the tabs from inside the can; bend these down so that they lie flat against the can bottom.

Now make two more legs, and install them, as well.

Step 4: Get a Handle on It.

Now that the legs are installed, you may notice they're a little wobbly; they won't bend outward, but nothing stops them from bending in toward the center. Also, you'd need pliers to dump the hot coals out of it.

The coat hanger will solve both of these problems. Using pliers, unbend the coat hanger, and cut off the hook above the twists, so that it looks symmetrical.

Using your hands, bend the straight section from the bottom of the hanger into a wide loop, as shown in the first photo.

This loop will be too wide. Squeeze it down until it fits inside the three legs, but still springs firmly against the insides; this spring force is what will keep them from tilting inward. Keeping the hanger symmetrical, bend the ends of the loop downward so that, when it is forced inside the legs, the two corners in the loop will be about an inch apart, as shown in the fifth picture.

As shown in the second picture, figure out how far the ring will need to stand away from the base of the can. The wire should sit at the base of the tabs you cut, or inside whatever other contrivance you've figured out. With luck, you'll be able to use the bends that are already in the hanger. Otherwise, straighten them out, and put the bend in the right place. Since we have three legs, it's fine if they're all different lengths, but you may want to put the handle on the side with the most convenient lengths of legs.

The third photo shows the wire with this second set of bends in it. Test-fit this in the legs, and figure out where the long, straight lenghts of wire meet the rim of the can. Bend the wires up and over at this point, as shown in the fourth figure; this third set of bends will keep the handle from pulling against the feet.

Leaving some wire to hook around the rim of the can, make a fourth set of bends, very near the third set. This bend should be between 170 and 180 degrees. Test fit again, and adjust as necessary.

Use the can opener one last time, to punch a hole in the side of the can, near the top, where the handle will attach. See the sixth photo. Using pliers, bend this triangle of steel all the way around the rim of the can, and back through the hole, to match the seventh photo.

Shape the remainder of the hanger as shown in the same photo, with an angle forming the top of the handle, and a z-bend to catch the rim of the can.

Install the handle, as shown in the eighth photo. Bend the twisted ends of the wire around to hold them in place.

Using the pliers, roll the narrow tabs form the feet around the wire loop, as shown in the ninth photo.

If it stays together, it's done!

Step 5: Kick the Tires and Light the Fires.

Make sure you have a pot holder handy, unless you just want to roast marshmallows over the tin can.

Put paper between the legs, some charcoal in the top, and light it up! Do be careful about the fire, though.

When the coals look red in some places, with a little ash showing, you can use the hot pad to dump them out, and you're ready to grill.



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    10 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    i like the ORIGINAL ones better--they dont make them anymore--because people stopped buying and started mking thier OWN !! original ones are EASIEST and CHEAPEST and SAFEFESTdo what you did-but cut whole bottom off-set in grill-fill with charcoal-light-when ready pull can straight out of grill-spread coals if desired-keep making stuff-GOOD WORK.

    its a lion

    11 years ago on Introduction

    how about using the coat hanger itself for the legs. you could make an arrowhead shape (sorry for lack of better wording) and squeeze it together to put through the holes. that way you dont have to deal with sharp metal, and there is no way it is going to slip unless you load 15 pounds of charcoal in it and it bends... the only thing i can think of is it falling over, but your loop covers that for them too, it may just have to be a little bigger. or maybe bending the extra bits that are inside of it back through one of the nail holes and bending it over to secure it would work. perhaps i will try that and post my results. now... who around me drinks coffee... wow... i reread that, and i definitely do not have a knack for describing things.

    6 replies
    polyparadigmits a lion

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Please do try it, and if you'd like to collaborate, I can put commentary to your photos. Cans of this size will also be available at restaurants that use canned food.

    its a lionpolyparadigm

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    well it looks like it may not work. i did manage to find a coffee can in a cabinet, but my parents kind of stopped the process short. "what are you doing with those coat hangers?" crap... since i have $0 it looks like if i do manage to make it, it will be sometime in the future after i make some money and get some new tires.

    polyparadigmits a lion

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Ah, yes, do pay attention to your parents, especially when they say "don't accidentally burn down our house with plans you got from the internets." I agree with calikoala that you'll have to design the coat hanger section carefully if it's to work; relying wire to resist bending when it's hot is likely to fail, but you may work out some scheme where all the parts that bear weight are under compression, or where all the parts that need to resist bending stay cool enought because they're at the very bottom. Good luck with the tires, and the positive-net-worth project as well.

    its a lionpolyparadigm

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    haha thanks. the 20th was my birthday, so i got some money to pay for the tires, and a little bit of spending money, so that is taken care of. and i didnt know that the coat hanger would soften as it got hot, so that probably wouldnt work. and yeah burning down the house would not be fun... and i like the "positive-net-worth project" i may have to use that some time.

    calikoalaits a lion

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    using a coat hanger without anything else to take the weight won't work. When the charcoal begins to get hot, it will cause the hanger to soften and the whole unit to fall over which could be a hazard. I am surprised you could use the hanger as the handle without some kind of heat shielding between the can and the handle.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Well, you notice I recommend using a hot pad to pour out the coals. The bottom portion does heat up, but not as much as you might think, since air is constantly being sucked past it. But your warning to oogitsmelol is well taken: experimental fire apparatus in general is likely kind of dangerous. I tried to emphasise this, but it can't be repeated often enough.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    very nice. i made mine out of a piece of galvanized stovepipe, cutting up ~2" dividing the bottom into 8th and folding up every other piece to support the charcoal, and then cutting around and rolling a handle out of the upper portion, but this method leaves many fewer pointy bits and is better for a less skilled metal worker. also less of a need to precook it to remove the nasty galvanizing, although probably still a good idea.

    1 reply

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! By the way, coffee cans aren't galvanized, they're tin plated. Not only is tin much less toxic than zinc, it also has a much lower vapor pressure, meaning it won't evaporate onto your food as much. I tried to warn people against plastic coated cans...I would hope that would go without saying, but one never knows.