How to light a charcoal grill: 5 easy-to-follow experts steps

A lit charcoal grill with smoke rising through the iron grills.
(Image credit: Pete Wise)

Lighting a charcoal barbecue is notoriously difficult, especially for casual users who are just getting used to their new charcoal grill. 

Unlike the best gas grills, most charcoal grills require you to start a fire burning yourself, using a suitable charcoal fuel. It might take you a few attempts – but keep faith, you’ll get your charcoal burning in the end.

The reward for getting a charcoal grill vs gas grill lit is superior smoky flavor, and the elemental pleasure of cooking over fire. Once you've mastered how to light a charcoal grill, you'll never look back. 

As a product tester for Top Ten Reviews (and as a guy with a healthy appetite), I often cook on a charcoal grill. In this guide, I’ll tell you how I get the charcoal lit—with or without the use of paraffin fire lighters.  

BBQ influencer Hilary Anderson
Hilary Anderson

Hilary Anderson is the barbecue genius behind the BBQlads social media empire, and acts as brand ambassador on behalf of world-renowned grill manufacturer, Char-Broil. He frequently provides advice to his followers on how to get the best out of their grill—from ignition to cooking. 

Helping us along the way, grill expert and Char-Broil BBQ ambassador, Hilary Anderson, will be on hand to offer some expert advice. 

“Learning how fire works and how to use it to properly cook with your grill is an exhilarating experience,” says Hilary.

“It takes time, mistakes and patience to master, but charcoal is a great way to gain experience and learn the nuances of fire cooking. Have fun with it!”

The grill shown in the demo photos is my beloved Char-Broil C-Line Charcoal Grill 665. Your grill may differ, so it’s important to read your own model’s instruction manual to check for any specific directions on how to light it. 

Charcoal grills can be dangerous. It’s a good idea to wear gloves while lighting one, and you should never handle coals or heat-conducting parts of the grill after lighting. If you need to move coals around, use tongs or another suitable tool.

The items you need to start your charcoal grill

You'll need a few basic items to start a cookfire in your charcoal grill. These include: 

Quick steps to light a charcoal grill

  1. Position your grill in a sheltered place 
  2. Ensure charcoal is dry
  3. Build coals, balls of newspaper and kindling into a pile
  4. Light the pile and move coals to encourage spread of heat
  5. Add scented woodchips (optional)

Step by step guide: How to light a charcoal grill

1. Find a good spot for your grill

(Image: © Pete Wise)

When you’re cooking on a charcoal grill, the location of the grill will affect how easy it is to light the coals (and how long they produce heat at a good temperature for cooking). 

“Your grill will operate best when it is on a solid, level surface such as concrete, tiles or decking,” says Hilary.

“Aim to use the grill in a space out of wind or breeze as these conditions can cool the grill, impact the rate at which the fuel burns, or blow dust and ash around,” he adds. 

Of course, safety should factor into your grill placement, too. Avoid covered areas and places nearby to items which may catch fire.

2. Prepare coals and materials

(Image: © Pete Wise)

You’ll need the right fuel and ignition sources, in order to light a charcoal grill effectively.

Start with the charcoal. It should be freshly opened, or an open bag that’s been re-sealed and stored in a dry place.

“The most common mistake when lighting a charcoal grill is to use moist or wet fuel that just won’t light or creates a whole world of smoke, so always use fuel that has been kept dry,” says Hilary. 

The type of charcoal used will also affect the ease of lighting (and cooking performance too). Lump charcoal burns hot and fast; charcoal briquettes are cheap but slow to light; while coconut shell charcoal produces low levels of smoke and tends to be a sustainable choice. 

You’ll also need some additional items to help get the charcoal burning. Many people simply use torn sheets of newspaper, crumpled into loose balls. You might choose to use an additional heat source such as paraffin or fire lighters, too—although this comes at a cost to the flavor of your food, and perhaps even to your health. 

Remember that the charcoal grate and firebox on your gas grill should be adequately clean and empty, before you light a new fire. 

3. Pile up some coals

(Image: © Pete Wise)

Build a small mound of fresh coals on your grill’s charcoal grate, with some loosely crumpled balls of old newspaper among the coals at the base of the pile. If the charcoal grate has an open structure, then you can also place some balls of newspaper underneath it, in the grill’s firebox. 

I also place shredded paper on top of the pile of coals, to help transfer fire and heat. Other grill users tend to use dry twigs or small pieces of kindling in the same way.

If you’ve made the controversial choice to use fire lighters, then you’ll need to embed these within the pile of coals. 

4. Light the paper

(Image: © Pete Wise)

Using a match or a lighter, set fire to the balls of paper at the lowest point you can. Allow the paper to burn with the lid of the grill open. 

Watch the progress of the fire. It can take a long time, but hopefully you’ll see some of the coals start to turn white. Fanning the coals with an item such as a stiff piece of card should help the fire to spread. 

When some of the coals have whitened, move unlit coals so that they come into contact with the white parts of the lit coals. You must use a tool, such as metal tongs, to do this safely. At this stage, you can add more coals to build a bigger fire, if necessary.

When most of the coals are white and/or glowing, your charcoal grill is ready to cook! 

5. Add aromatic wood chips (optional)

(Image: © Pete Wise)

Charcoal is often credited with adding flavor to food, but its smoke-flavoring effect is minimal compared to various types of wood that are used specifically for smoking. 

“Using a range of wood chips or chunks such as apple, oak, mesquite or olive will impart varying flavors that can be matched with different foods to really add that extra BBQ smoky flavor to your food,” Hilary advises. 

So, consider adding some purpose-bought wood chips to your lit coals, for added taste and aroma. I added hickory wood to the grill shown in the photos. 

With your charcoal lit, you can set up your grill to cook as you see fit. 

A Wagyu beef burger on a plate

This was my reward for successfully lighting my charcoal grill: a hickory-smoked Wagyu burger.  (Image credit: Pete Wise)

FAQs

Are there other steps I can take to make lighting charcoal easier?

There are a few alternative methods to get charcoal lit before cooking on your charcoal grill. 

If you’re struggling to light your coals, then it could be worthwhile to invest in a chimney starter, which is basically a metal drum with a handle. You pile your coals up inside it, then set the charcoal alight from underneath. The design of the chimney is such that it retains heat while allowing some airflow, creating ideal conditions for all of the coals to catch light. 

Another useful tip to help a charcoal grill light is to spray sheets of newspaper (or kitchen paper) with cooking oil, before crumpling them up and adding them to the piled charcoal. The oil encourages the paper to burn for longer, which may help the coals to light. 

Is my choice of charcoal grill model the reason why it’s hard to light charcoal?

Some models of charcoal grill are harder to light than others, so your chosen grill is one factor to look at if you are struggling to get charcoal alight. 

“A kettle style BBQ is always a clear winner if you are looking for a versatile, easy to use and clean system,” says Hilary. 

“Look for a style that has an ash basket, temperature gauge, ways to arrange the charcoal for direct and indirect cooking—and most importantly a quality lid to close whilst cooking,” he advises. 

In some cases, it’s not the grill that’s the problem—it’s how you use it. Make sure your grill has the lid open (and the chimney and damper open, if it has these features), and ensure all components are dry before use.

Are other types of grill easier to light?

In a word, yes. Charcoal grills have lots of upsides, especially in terms of flavor, but they are more difficult to light than most other types of grill. 

Gas grills are much easier to light than charcoal grills. Many grills of this type have an ignition button, so you can start up their burners without even striking a match. 

If you’re seeking a best-of-both-worlds option that offers both convenience and charcoal flavor, Hilary recommends buying a dual-fuel model that uses both gas and charcoal, such as the Char-Broil Gas2Coal

“You load your BBQ charcoal, use the gas to light the fuel and boost heat if needed, and voila—you have yourself a proper smoky BBQ cook up,” he says.  

Pete Wise
Freelance Writer

Pete has reviewed hundreds of gardening products for titles including TopTenReviews, Ideal Home and the London Evening Standard, as well as writing articles on diverse topics for other publications such as The Guardian and BBC Good Food. Pete loves spending time in his yard – although, having just read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, he is regarding his plants with a newfound suspicion.