How to light a charcoal grill – 4 simple methods to get ready for cooking

Discover how to set up a charcoal BBQ ready to deliver unbeatable food flavor

person holding the lid over a lit charcoal grill
(Image credit: Liliboas/Getty Images)

Cooking over charcoal is the only way to grill, according to its huge number of fans. Intrinsic to the process is knowing how to light a charcoal grill, which is something that needs a little more knowhow and action than lighting a gas version.

Once you’re familiar with the steps, however, you can be sure of getting ready to grill efficiently and without wasting time so you can feed friends and family food with the unique smoky flavor charcoal creates.

There are alternative ways to light a charcoal grill and we’ve put together a guide to them here to allow you to prepare your grill the way that suits you.

lit charcoal grill with lid off

(Image credit: Weber)

4 methods for lighting a charcoal grill

There’s a choice of methods to get a charcoal grill ready for meat, fish and vegetables. They’re all fairly straightforward ways of lighting a grill, but it is always important to bear safety in mind with each to keep the grill chef and diners safe when they are near the outdoor grill station. Keep in mind important safety tips when grilling in a small garden too as it's likely that other people will be in closer proximity to your BBQ than they would in a larger backyard. 

Charcoal grills are generally safe, but be mindful that you should keep the vents open when lighting a charcoal grill. ‘The vents on a charcoal barbecue are there to help with air flow, so keeping them open when lighting will allow oxygen to the coals and the barbecue will light faster,’ says Dan Cooper, head grill master at Weber. ‘You can also try using a chimney starter, which for me is one of the best accessories for charcoal barbecues.’

We’ve got the details on using a chimney starter and alternative lighting methods below.

Headshot of Dan Cooper from Weber
Dan Cooper

Dan Cooper is the Head Grill Master at Weber and his role involves over-seeing all food related activities. He does everything from developing recipes for the website to training Grill Academy chefs on new courses, as well as working with hotel and restaurant partners. He has a passion for great tasting, uncomplicated barbecue food, and enjoys sharing tips, techniques and inspiration to ensure everyone's barbecues are legendary. 

1. Lighting a charcoal grill with a chimney starter

A chimney (also known as a charcoal starter) is an easy way to light the grill. Designs like the Weber Rapidfire chimney starter from Amazon hold the charcoal briquettes together above the flames so they ignite easily. These are the steps to follow.

  1. Remove the cooking grate.
  2. Fill the chimney starter with briquettes. 
  3. Light three lighter cubes on the charcoal grate. Place the filled chimney on top. 
  4. Wait for around 15 minutes for flames to flicker at the top of the chimney and the coals to turn gray and ashy.
  5. Carefully pour the charcoal into the charcoal grate. Spread it out using a long-handled tool.
  6. Put the cooking grate in place ready to barbecue.

‘One thing to be aware of is transporting the heavy, hot charcoal from the starter to the grill,’ says Andrew Lovell product manager of Landmann. ‘It can be awkward and result in accidental burns, so be super careful and take your time.’

using a chimney starter to light a charcoal grill

(Image credit: Weber)

2. Lighting a charcoal grill with an electric starter

An electric starter can make lighting a charcoal grill easier although the coals will ignite more slowly than they do with a flame. For an electric fire starter with a heating element this is the typical procedure, although you should always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If yours is a wand-style device, check the guidelines for use.

  1. Plug in the electric starter. 
  2. Put a close layer of charcoal at the center of the grill.
  3. Put the heating element in the center of the pile.
  4. Add another layer of charcoal on top.
  5. Remove the starter when the charcoal is well lit.

3. Lighting a charcoal grill with newspaper

The newspapers you’ve finished reading can prove very useful for lighting a charcoal grill. Here’s how.

  1. Roll up newspaper and insert it below charcoal that is closely packed together. Make sure to do this in several different places.
  2. Light the newspaper using a grill lighter or long matches, like these ones from Amazon.
  3. Add newspaper to the fire as needed to ensure the charcoal is well lit.
  4. When the flames die down and the charcoal is turning white carefully level it out using a long-handled tool and put the cooking grate in place.

4. Lighting a charcoal grill using lighter fluid

Using lighter fluid is an alternative grillers who don’t have a chimney starter like to use. This is how.

  1. Arrange the charcoal in a pyramid.
  2. Apply lighter fluid to the top and sides of the pyramid following the manufacturer’s instructions. Light using a long-handled match or grill lighter.
  3. Wait for the coals to become ash-covered then spread them out. This will take about 15 minutes.

Be sure to take appropriate precautions when using lighter fluid. ‘Lighter fluid can be the component that lets you BBQ quick; it’s also helpful if you aren’t familiar with chimney starters or worry about getting newspaper and kindling positioned just right,’ explains Andrew Lovell. ‘But it must be taken seriously if you want to keep both of your eyebrows.

‘It’s really important to not go overboard with lighter fluid as it could result in an uncontrollable fire as well as leave your food with an unpleasant petroleum, chemical-like taste. 

‘For best results, let the fluid soak into the charcoal for around 30 seconds before lighting. This will avoid the fluid burning straight off the coals and achieve a promising light.

‘Biofuels are a clever natural lighter fluid made from sugarcane or corn that can be used as an alternative to traditional lighter fluid and will reduce that chemical taste in food.’

food cooking on a charcoal grill

(Image credit: Jan Otto/Getty images)

How to light a charcoal grill when using lump charcoal

Lump charcoal is preferred by many grill aficionados as it tends to light faster and burn hotter. You can light it using a chimney starter (see above), but if you don’t have one of those, follow these steps.

  1. Arrange the charcoal in a pyramid shape leaving enough space for air flow.
  2. Arrange two or three fire starters (such as these fire starter pods from Amazon) between pieces of charcoal and light using a long-handled match or grill lighter. 
  3. Wait around 10 to 15 minutes for the coals to ash over before spreading them out and starting to cook.


Do you leave the lid open when lighting a charcoal grill?

You should leave the grill open when you’re lighting charcoal. This is because fire requires oxygen to burn, and without it your charcoal grill won't light. For the same reason, the grill’s vents should be open. With oxygen reaching the lit coals they will burn better. When the charcoal is fully lit, you can close the lid.

When it comes to cooking, it’s best to keep the lid closed if you’re grilling foods such as steak or ribs so they’re thoroughly cooked through.

Leaving the lid open is also important when lighting a gas grill

How do you light a charcoal grill without lighter fluid?

There are some great alternatives if you want to light a charcoal grill without lighter fluid.

‘Wood wool is one of our favorite natural material methods to get your charcoal going,’ says Andrew Lovell, product manager of Landmann. ‘As it says on the tin, they are made up of wood slivers from logs and compact into handy kindling bundles. 

‘By hiding four wood wool pieces within your charcoal you can easily ignite the wool for a quick, fuss-free way to add heat to your charcoal without any unpleasant chemicals. Its slow burning properties makes it great to get difficult fires going, similar to your traditional lighting methods they’ll take between 25 to 30 minutes to reach white hot cooking-ready charcoal. 

‘Bearing this in mind they might not be the method for those looking for a quick and efficient weeknight BBQ solution.’

Consider fire starter cubes as another option. ‘Fire starter cubes are a great reliable and portable method to fire up a charcoal or wood-fueled BBQ on the go,’ says Andrew.

‘Made up of paraffin wax they are able to light even when wet – so are perfect for hiking or camping trips The only downside to this lighting method is that some people with sensitive taste buds can notice a slight waxy aroma to the food.’ These Weber lighter cubes from Amazon are an example of this type of lighting method. 

If you have none of the above items to light your charcoal grill, there's one more insider tip to try. ‘If all else fails and you have hungry guests, try using this nifty trick with usual items we all have at home,’ says Andrew Lovell from Landmann.

‘Kitchen paper towels and cooking oil, items commonly found in your kitchen, can be lifesavers to get your grill going. All it takes is scrunching a couple sheets of kitchen paper towel into a ball and soaking in cooking oil. Place the oil-covered paper within a charcoal pile and light from a safe distance.‘

Sarah Warwick
Contributing Editor

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor. Previously executive editor of Ideal Home, she’s specialized in interiors, property and gardens for over 20 years, and covers interior design, house design, gardens, and cleaning and organizing a home for H&G. She’s written for websites, including Houzz, Channel 4’s flagship website, 4Homes, and Future’s T3; national newspapers, including The Guardian; and magazines including Future’s Country Homes & Interiors, Homebuilding & Renovating, Period Living, and Style at Home, as well as House Beautiful, Good Homes, Grand Designs, Homes & Antiques, LandLove and The English Home among others. It’s no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house renovator.