The Best Way to Start BBQ Coals




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Whenever I have trouble starting coals for my BBQ I grab a hair dryer, point it at my grill and pull the trigger. One minute later I have red hot coals and I never have to use any lighter fluid to get them started.

I have a couple of other tips for starting coals as well that I will add in here since I don't think they warrant their own instructables.

There's plenty more info in the steps, but the take home message is shown in the video below.

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Step 1: Use a Chimney

Using a chimney to start your coals going will really help get your fire going faster and with fewer problems.

Weber charges way too much for their chimney so I decided to make my own for free using some found hardware cloth and some metal wire I had lying around.

To make the chimney, I cut up a piece of hardware cloth and rolled it into a cylinder. I then used some metal wire to sew it shut. I only had to loop through every 5 holes or so in the hardware cloth.

The hardware cloth works pretty well as a chimney for two reasons. 1) It is full of holes so it allows air to flow freely through it, and 2) it doesn't require you to pick up the whole chimney of hot coals and flip them over onto your grill risking a possible burn or fire from a wayward hot coal. Instead, when it's time to dump the coals, you simply pick up the wire tube and the coals fall down onto the grill below.

Step 2: Build and Ignite the Tower

I fill my chimney with just coals and paper. I have found that I can actually build a better fire just using the chimney and the hair dryer, then I do with lighter fluid. However, if you prefer, you can use lighter fluid to help get things burning.

First, I crumple up some newspaper paper and shove it down to the bottom of my chimney. I try not to use magazines or glossy paper as they don't burn completely.

Then, I pour in a whole bunch of coals on top of that. I have started using the real wood charcoal chunks, rather than the "Kingsford" style briquets. I think they burn hotter and taste a bit better. Mmm. Eat coal.

Once the tower is built, I light the paper from the bottom and watch as the heat and fire ignites the coals above the crumpled paper.

Step 3: Grab a Hair Dryer, Aim, and Blow

Now, most of the time at this point the fire from the newspaper starts to die down before all of the coals have started burning. That's where the hairdryer comes in.

Find a hair dryer and take it out to your BBQ. Make note of what direction the wind is blowing and head upwind of the BBQ. Point the dryer at the coals and turn it on. Watch out for all the sparks that will start to shoot out of your hot coals.

Within just a few seconds the coals that are lit at the bottom will start to come alive and light all of the rest of the coals in the chimney.

This method has worked for me every time and you should be able to revive just about any struggling BBQ fire with this method (assuming something is still burning). I learned how to do this from a man named Mario who owns a sheep farm in Italy. Thanks Mario!

Step 4: But What If I Don't Have a Hair Dryer?

A hair dryer only recently became available in my house, so up until about three months ago I was using another method to get troubled coals burning brightly.

The fire is fueled by oxygen, so if it's having trouble burning, you probably want to try and get it as much air as possible. Blowing on the fire is fine, but you'll find that you will be out of breath pretty quickly and you won't have helped revive your fire too much. You can get a much more powerful jet of air by directing it through your fingers.

Take your pointer fingers and your thumbs and squeeze them all together so that you create a small diamond shaped gap in between your fingers. Take a deep breath at this point. Then, take your fingers in this position and raise them to your mouth making a tight seal around your lips. Finally, blow all of the air out of your lungs forcing it through that little hole.

You'll notice that when you could only blow for a few seconds before, you will now be able to blow air on the fire for much longer and with greater control and force. The coals should flare red and respond quickly to your oxygen infusion. Keep blowing until the coals are revived remembering to take breaks so that you don't pass out. (This works best if you can get a friend to help blow on the fire as well).

Step 5: Dump the Coals, Start Grilling, and Feast

Once the coals are red hot, just lift up the chimney and let the coals spill out of the bottom. This method seems much safer then flipping the entire chimney over, which always feels a little dangerous to me.

Once the grill is ready to go all you need to do is throw on your food, cook it, and enjoy.

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    87 Discussions


    3 years ago

    You should check out the Bison Airlighter. It combines a torch flame and blower that first lights your coal and stokes it to cooking temperature in no time. Love the hairdryer idea, but the Bison option is cordless.


    12 years ago on Step 3

    Just so you know, the purple glow is infrared light that your camera can pick up but your eyes can't. (Try pointing a TV remote at your camera and pressing buttons -- you'll see the same purple-ish light there as well.)

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago on Step 3

    Actually that's a good way to check if your remote's batteries are working.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    As a volunteer fireman and EMT, I have to say that the hair dryer is a dangerous way to do it. But, as a semi-responsible charcoal BBQ loving guy, I have to admit that I'm going to try it.
    Good job with the photos!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Forget hair dryers, use a leaf blower! Much quicker (and smokier)!

    Thats what we used to do anyways...


    8 years ago on Step 4

    When it's hot outside, some people would ues a hand held paper fan to cool off. I have used one to give the fire some oxygen.


    9 years ago on Step 5

    Now I like the air mattress pump idea VERY much! Battery operated, many people are in the open outdoors and have no electric so that is really cool. Another Idea is to use one of those air storage tanks fitted with a air blower nozzle for a more controlled blast of air. The food is like grrrr now you made me want to cookout today, lol. Thanks for the instructable was just what I was looking for.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    A couple of thoughts about the store-bought chimney: (1) the solid sides and holes at the bottom allow convection to be created, which typically accelerates the ignition of the charcoal, and (2) the size, shape, and handle of the chimney allows you to start coals off-line to be added to an existing fire - this is the method I use when I slow-cook barbecue and have to add coals every hour or so (I start them in the chimney on some rocks and dump the hot coals into the fire). Otherwise, your ideas are great. I'll be digging out an old hair dryer soon!

    4 replies

    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    You are right about the store bought chimney - the probably do increase convection and they certainly are useful for starting coals on the side for those slow-cook bbq operations. Thanks for the feedback! I think that you will be pleasantly surprised when you see how well the hair dryer works.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I know this comment is old, but you could turn your tower into a chimney with the addition of aluminum foil to the sides.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Looks like a great way to get the grill going at home! BTW, I own a store-bought chimney. $10 from Canadian Tire. I mainly bbq at the beach, where there is no power to run a blower - and for this, the convection of the chimney does the job of creating a draft to start the coals. It also contains the sparks to going upwards and not starting fires :P Takes about 15min to get them all going, though, so the hairdryer method definitely wins on speed! Maybe I can make up a hand-cranked blower to get them going faster at the beach, that would look super-sweet.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    These were my thoughts exactly. A "chimney" without the airflow coming from the bottom isn't a "chimney".

    The Ideanator

    10 years ago on Introduction

    for getting fires going, i prefer an 8" circulation fan, those things get the coals white hot in seconds, they are like 10 or 15 bucks at walmart

    1 reply