A little over a month ago I had ZERO experience and ZERO friends with smoking experience.... well when it comes to meats anyways lol
I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn the basics quickly and easily ---> Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons
I recently completed the 5 lessons and I am confident I am on the right path to BBQ greatness :)
now for your questions:
I only use lump charcoal, no briquettes... and apparently they burn completely different (times AND temps)
1)With lump I would load about two chimneys full of unlit charcoal into the firebox (on the grate ofcourse)
Id light one chimney full and when its fully engaged (no longer burning and glowing orange when looking through the holes in the chimney). This is usually accomplished in 10 minutes. Afterwards pour it into the firebox and add one split of wood or 3 fist size chunks to the top. Leave the firebox lid open until the charcoal stops billowing thick white smoke. Using this method you should have NO issues getting to temp.
I wonder if your thermometer is accurate... One full lit chimney should be enough to get it to temp... The unlit charcoal is to keep it going for the long haul. Do you have the typical weber chimney? maybe you have a smaller chimney?
2) I rock a WSM and I don't have to add anything for about 4-5 hours (or worry about the water pan either for that matter), which is why I decided to get a bullet vs a cheap offset in my price range :) You will need to learn your smoker to know when to restock to be honest...
3) I use the following guidelines to help me determine what to do:
low temp and low burned up charcoal
: add a fresh batch of lit charcoal
low temp and low red hot charcoal
: add a fresh batch of unlit charcoal
low temp and partially burning charcoal:
the fire is choking, check the vents for ash or stray charcoal
high temp and low red hot charcoal
: if you are using a water pan it might be low and your intake might need to be closed (is it really windy or are you catching a draft?)
high temp and red hot charcoal
: the water pan is low, the vents need to be closed (i had issues when I moved my smoker and a wind kept stoking my fire) or there's too much charcoal on the pile.
Temp control is all about fire control and fire control is about air and fuel. Its no different than an engine :)