You are hereMagazines 1980-1989 / Chimney Sweeps

Chimney Sweeps


As fall turns to winter, Harry Richart's phone rings off the hook. Richard Nixon, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bette Midler, among others, begin calling for help. "The cold season is the heating season," says Richart. "That's the best time for me."

Harry Richart is a chimney sweep.  For twenty-two years he has cleaned chimneys, restored old fireplaces, and instructed others on the safety techniques involved in burning solid fuel.

Although the extent of Richart's work is unusual (he owns his own chimneycleaning company), his devotion to the profession of chimney sweeping is not. The 600-member National Chimney Sweep Guild estimates that there are several thousand sweeps, both full-time and part-time, in the United States-including mailmen, ironworkers, firemen, plumbers, and housewives. A Philadelphia sailor cleans chimneys on his Navy base, while a Tulsa, Oklahoma, college student left marketing to work in fireplace flues.

"The energy crisis got people interested in heating with wood and coal," says Richart. "And that built up a need for sweeps. "


The Winter Flue

When wood burns, it leaves deposits of creosote, an inflammable substance caused by the condensation of volatile gases. If it is not removed, creosote can block the chimney flue and constitute a fire hazard. "I had a case where an eight-inch round chimney was plugged up six feet solid with creosote," Richart recalls. "It's a miracle it didn't burn the house down."

In colonial America, creosote was frequently removed by setting the chimney itself on fire, an approach that often destroyed the house in the process. Another method involved tying a rope around a white goose's leg and lowering the bird down a stack. Its flapping wings would dislodge the creosote, and the blacker the bird became, the cleaner the chimney.

When these methods proved particularly ineffective, the idea of using chimney sweeps was imported from England. English sweeps began working in the late sixteenth century, when dirty chimney flues resulted in a record number of fires. The early sweeps climbed and cleaned most two-by-three-foot stacks. However, the proliferation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of zigzagged, narrower chimneys built to heat taller buildings more effectively forced sweeps to employ very young "climbing boys" as workers. The high number of smoke- or fire-related deaths among these children led to the outlawing of their use in the mid-nineteenth century.

To replace the boys, sweeps developed more complicated tools. William Hall's patented 1820 sweeping machine, made of hollow rods and cane bent to the shape of the narrowly angled London flues, employed a brush and malleable whalebone spikes. The sweep stood in the fireplace and extended the long rod up the chimney. In the 1850s, an American added a wheel to the brush, which was hand-turned and later motorized.

Sweeps Get The Squeeze


In Europe, sweeps considered themselves professionals, establishing apprentice systems and guilds to regulate the business. In America, however, the trade was first considered highly disreputable.

Typical sweeps, described by historian Ceorge Phillips in The American Chimney Sweeps, were "garbed in the tawdry. sartorial splendor of ill-fitting, frayed frock coats, baggy, often patched striped trousers, and battered silk hats perched rakishly on their woolly polls .... "

The introduction of gas heating in the twentieth century seemed to mark the end of the trade in America, at least, as more and more sweeps went unemployed.

But renewed interest in solid fuel revived the industry; many younger men joined the ranks of those veterans, such as Harry Richart, who had continued operations even during the lean oil-andgas days. Most of the newcomers have been trained on the job by veteran sweeps or else have gained their knowledge from such chimney-sweeping schools as August West in Connecticut or Black Magic in Vermont.

Climbing The Ladder

Apprentice sweeps learn how to employ wire or soft brushes, a metal scraper, and a hammer and chisel to remove creosote, and they are often instructed in the use of motorized cleaning equipment, such as a high-volume, compact vacuum cleaner that removes 700 cubic feet of air per minute.

Often the sweeps learn their trade from their fathers, since sweeping is traditionally a family affair. Richart's two sons have been sweeps since they were old enough to climb a roof and are now fully qualified workers. For forty years, another sweep in Newark, New Jersey, has owned the business that he inherited from his father, who had owned it for fifteen. There are a number of husband and wife teams. Mary Ann and Gary Beaufait of South Carolina are both sweeps, and their son is in training.

"There's no such thing as a sweep who puts on a hat and starts sweeping chimneys," says Richart. "You can't do it without experience. Every day I go out on the road, I find problems I never came across before."


Soot, Alors

Richart's TriState Chimney Sweeping Company operates four trucks, manned by a sweep and a "helper," which cover New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Like most successful sweeps, his people average seven or eight cleanings per truck a day at about $45 per cleaning. TriState conducts a free chimney inspection with each cleaning, checking for cracks and loose bricks, and also offers renovation and restoration services at extra cost.

This last service is not typical of sweeps, but it is one of the elements that allow Richart to keep operating year round. "Sweeping is a seasonal business," he explains. "Most new sweeps start in the winter and say, 'My God, look at the money I'm making.' But they forget about those five months they're doing nothing and can't pay the bills."

Established sweeps usually maintain lists of regular customers, send out notices reminding them that a chimney checkup is needed, make an appointment, and come by to inspect the chimney.

"If it's very dirty when we clean it," says Richart, "we make a note to come back in a month and a half and see what it looks like then. "


A Safety Checklist

The amount of use a fireplace or furnace receives determines the frequency of the visits, although according to chimney sweep Mark Swann, president of Top Hat Sweeps, home owners should request more frequent inspections in the following situations:

One-story chimneys. These don't draw as well as higher chimneys and can dangerously malfunction.

Airtight buildings. The chimneys may not draw properly.

Chimneys on the outside walls of houses. These may not become warm enough to draw correctly,

Wood stoves. The pipe connecting the stove to the chimney may need to be cleaned every two weeks, a task that a sweep can teach a home owner.

Old chimneys. Although they smoke' less and give off more heat than modern chimneys, their general lack of ceramic flue liners makes them more dangerous. They should be swept often.

A chimney should be cleaned at least, once a year, and if the home owner is using an airtight stove, twice-yearly cleanings would be in order. Use older, hard wood; green (young) wood produces a great deal of smoke and creosote.

"The key to chimney safety is education," notes Richart, who, as a member of the board of directors of the five-yearold National Chimney Sweep Guild, hopes to increase the professionalism of sweeps and the safety of home owners.

The guild set up a chimney-sweep certification test, which resulted in the certification of 242 swpeps. It is currently working with the Fire Trade Center and the Office of Consumer Affairs in Washington, D. C., to improve federal laws regulating the use of wood-burning stoves.

"People try to cut corners," says Richart, a certified fire inspector. "Instead of cutting the draft in a stove down to a quarter of an inch, as the operating manual instructs, they say, 'Mine burns better when it's open all the way.' But they don't realize that now they're feeding more oxygen into that stove chimney and it's going to have a creosote buildup." If the instructions are unclear, or if you're using an old fireplace, the guild suggests that you indeed call a sweep.

The guild is also planning to conduct a series of fire-safety seminars around the country. In addition, it hopes to set up the sort of training system that exists in Europe, where a sweep works as an apprentice, then asweep, then a master chimney sweep. "A chimney sweep over there is well respected," Richart notes.


Miles To Go Before We Sweep

Possibly because it detracts from that professionalism, the sweep's traditional Dickensian costume-black top hat and tails-is mostly eschewed by older sweeps unless it is specifically requested.

"Sweeps have come a long way," remarks Richart. "But we still have a long way to go and a lot to do. Our main concern is safety. We educate and we clean. And that's important because so many houses are going to the ground on account of poor installation and dirty chimneys. " •