The chimney sweep business is a low-cost way to start your own business and lucrative too.
This may be the best start-on-a-shoestring business that MOTHER has ever featured! What other self-employment venture do you know of that you can get into for only $1,300 . . . yet which — right from the start! — can net you $700 or more a week?
How would you like to own your own business, set your own hours, wear a top hat to work, become something of a mystical figure in your community, perform a necessary and much-needed service . . . and clear $700 or more a week? Well, the chimney sweep business allows chimney sweeps all over the country to do just that, and the ones that MOTHER has talked to love every minute of it.
MOTHER staffers J. Weiland and Travis Brock, for example, recently watched Steve Curtis clean chimneys in Connecticut for four hours . . . and pocket a whopping $140 for his morning’s work (Steve is averaging a gross of $1,000 a week and he’s booked ahead for a month and a half). Another sweep in Mississippi had already chalked up 1977 earnings of $14,000 ($3,000 during the first 21 days of that month alone) when Travis talked to him late in October. Yet a third sweep in Michigan, who told Brock he “just works at it part time”, is taking home an easy $300 to $400 a week.
In fact, the worst possible case that Travis was able to track down was a guy who lived in a remote section of Montana (there are only 11,000 people in his whole county) who charged less than recommended rates for his services, only cleaned about 12 to 16 chimneys a month on a very, very part-time basis . . . and who still was netting (for less than one full day’s work) a respectable $100 a week. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to fail in this business!
Chimney Sweeps, of Course, Sweep Chimneys
Just what the heck do chimney sweeps do to earn that kind of money? They clean chimneys. Six to eight a day in the case of full-time sweeps . . . while part-timers generally average two or three an evening plus a few more on the weekends. When you figure that most of the sweeps charge $40 for cleaning the first chimney on a job and $30 more for each additional one, it’s easy to see how those dollars can add up. (During the four hours that Weiland and Brock followed Steve Curtis around, for instance, Steve cleaned one chimney on one house and three on another . . . for a total billing — $40 plus $40 plus $30 plus $30 — of $140.)
But Why a Chimney Sweep Business?
And why would anyone fork over forty or more bucks to have some character in a black suit and top hat clean his or her chimney? That question can be answered with one word: SAFETY.
When solid fuels such as coal and wood are burned in a furnace, stove, or fireplace they — as we all know — give off welcome amounts of heat. However — as many of us do not know — those same two solid fuels also give off unwelcome amounts of two by-products: soot and creosote. And, unless a chimney is cleaned regularly, that highly flammable soot and creosote will accumulate in the flue. Where it hangs — like some fiendish fire bomb — just waiting for a chance spark to ignite it.
If the homeowner is lucky, the resulting roaring blaze will merely burn the chimney clean while filling the house with the fire’s loud and extremely unnerving howls. If he’s not so lucky, the unwanted fire will cremate the flue’s lining and dangerously weaken the chimney. And if he’s downright unfortunate, the flames will take out the whole chimney . . . and the rest of the house along with it.
All in all there were over 40,000 chimney fires in the United States last year and, according to the National Fire Protection Association, those fires caused more than $23 million worth of damage. That’s a loss of $23 million which could have been prevented if every owner of a coal- or wood-burning fireplace, furnace, or stove had only understood the importance of keeping the unit’s chimney clean.
The Chimney Sweeping Plot Thickens
There was, of course, a time — back when nearly everyone on this continent heated his or her home with either a wood- or a coal-burner — that virtually everyone in North America was well aware of the havoc a chimney fire could wreak. Or, to put it another way, great grandpa and great grandma most certainly knew the value of keeping their chimneys clean . . . if they hadn’t suffered one or more unexpected blazes themselves, they’d probably seen several neighbors and/or relatives burned out of house and home on a frigid winter’s night.
But then history took a strange double-twist. First — beginning right after World War II — the United States and Canada made almost a complete switch in the way the two nations heated their homes. Within just 25 to 30 years, nearly the entire population of this continent dropped “dirty, trouble some” coal and wood . . . in favor of “clean, convenient” natural gas, oil, and electricity. And second — just when the major portion of North America’s old coal- and wood-burning expertise had been forgotten — the “energy crisis” of the 70’s suddenly forced a whole new generation, by the millions, to burn wood and coal once again.
Thanks to this quirk in our recent history, we now are surrounded by what must already be tens of millions of people who are at least supplementally heating their homes with solid fuel for the first time. And they are destined to be joined by further tens of millions of first-time coal and wood users in the years ahead. And a heck of a percentage of all those folks [a] have absolutely no inkling of the time bombs that already are building up — and will continue to build up — in their chimneys and [b] have no immediate past generation with the proper firsthand experience to warn them about the ravages of flue fires.
Chimney Problems Open up one Heck of a Business Opportunity
We can draw at least three conclusions from this short history lesson:
 Since it now seems obvious that the “convenient” ways of heating a house — with natural gas, oil, and electricity — are going to continue getting more and more expensive as time goes on . . . it seems just as obvious that more and more families in the United States will continue making the switch back to heating with coal and wood in the years to come.
 Which means — whether they know it yet or not, and more and more people are discovering the fact every day — that an increasingly large percentage of this continent’s population is destined to live with a steadily increasing risk of fires in their flues.
 Which just as surely means that anyone who can nip this growing danger in the bud is suddenly going to become very, very popular and is going to be very well rewarded starting now and continuing throughout the years ahead.
Chimney Sweeps Sweep Up Cash
And who is the most logical candidate to cash in on this burgeoning new demand? Who is the “anyone” most likely to become well rewarded for nipping the danger of flue fires in the bud? Why, a brand-new version of that fine old almost-mythical character of European folklore . . . the chimney sweep. That’s who!
And that’s also exactly how today’s new breed of sweep is bursting upon the scene . . . as a black suited, top hatted, dancing-on-the-roof reincarnation of the character Dick Van Dyke played in the movie, Mary Poppins. Or, to put it another way, as a modern-day version of the traditional 19th century European chimney sweep.
Laugh at this showmanship if you like, but the sweeps who’ve tried it recently here in the U.S. and Canada have found that the legendary “top hat and tails” outfit of their trade has rocketed them to success overnight. As one of the new and very dedicated young men in the trade says:
“By recreating the image of a 19th century sweep, we accomplish several important things.  We grab people’s attention, thereby making it easier for us to tell them about the dangers of chimney fires.  We grab the media’s attention, and the newspaper stories and TV features which result both help us spread the word about the hazard of flue fires and, just incidentally, makes our business grow by leaps and bounds.  Our image puts a little fun back into life. Stop and think. Who would you rather have clean your chimney: a 20th century serviceman wearing white coveralls and a baseball cap . . . or a 19th century tradesman dressed up in top hat and tails? Hell, I’ve even had grown men go out of their way to shake my hand and pretty girls give me a kiss — just like something out of Mary Poppins — when they see my outfit. And  this simple little bit of imagery all adds up to a more lucrative operation for us. We attract people’s attention, they feel good having us do a job for them, and-instead of begrudging us a reasonable fee for our services-they usually seem downright happy to pay for our work.”
Good Chimney Sweeps Deliver the Goods
That same young man — and every other “new breed” chimney sweep worthy of the name — is also quick to point out that his “top hat and tails” image is just that. An image. Frosting on the cake. Gilding on the lily. A lot of fun as far as it goes . . . but nothing in any way that should be considered a substitute for doing an important and worthwhile job in a craftsman-like and highly professional manner.
Which is not the same as saying that all chimney sweeps — or even any two! — see eye to eye on just how that task should be accomplished. The job itself (breaking loose and scrubbing out every particle of soot and creosote that can possibly be removed from a flue), they agree on. Ask any three sweeps the best way to accomplish this specific objective, however, and you’re sure to get at least four adamant opinions on square brushes versus round, hard brushes versus soft, long brushes versus short, weighted brushes versus unweighted, sweeping from the bottom of a chimney to the top versus the other way around, and the same kind of pros and cons about at least 5,000 other finer points of the chimney sweep’s art.
All good chimney sweeps, then, do a good job of sweeping chimneys . . . and they do it without letting any of the crud get out into their clients’ houses. No two chimney sweeps, though, seem to accomplish that objective in exactly the same way.
The More Traditional Chimney Cleaning Approach
Perhaps the most “old-timey” method of cleaning flues that MOTHER ran across while researching this article is the one used by Richard Riggs and Mickey McMasters . . . who live and sweep chimneys right here in the mountain town of Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Dick and Mickey work with a minimum of tools and most of their equipment is homemade. And when they clean a typical fireplace (actually, there’s no such thing as a “typical” fireplace . . . each is unique), they begin by closing it off with a sheet of paper taped completely over the woodburner’s main opening. “You’ve got to make absolutely certain that the tape-and-paper job is airtight,” caution the boys, “so that not even a trickle of soot can leak out into the house.”
Once Riggs and McMasters are satisfied that they’ve completely closed off the fireplace, they climb up on the roof with a rope and a homemade weighted brush. The heavy brush is then inserted into the chimney, lowered all the way to the bottom, and pulled back up to the chimney’s top. Using this “up and down” action, Dick and Mickey continue scrubbing the inside of the flue until every possible particle of soot, ash, creosote, and other assorted gunk has been knocked loose . . . from the mouth of the stack clear down to the fireplace itself.
The two Hendersonville sweeps then leave the roof, come back into the house, and finish the job from the bottom. First — as soon as they’re sure the dust has settled — they remove the tape-and-paper covering from the fireplace’s opening. Then they clean out the smoke chamber and smoke shelf and shovel all the soot, ashes, and other debris into bags . . . collect their $40 and leave. The whole operation generally takes about one to one and a half hours.
The Height of Chimney Cleaning Technology
A far more advanced method of sweeping chimneys- perhaps the most advanced in the world is the one developed by Tom Risch and Dan Ogden of Westport, Connecticut. Tom and Dan call it the “August West System” and — for $1,385 — will sell you a complete package of the tools you’ll need to make it work. (And, yes, Risch and Ogden’s package does include a top hat.)
One of the key elements of the August West System is a highly specialized high-volume vacuum cleaner called a “soot sweeper”. Don’t underestimate this piece of equipment. It is not merely a heavy-duty shop vac (which moves, maybe, 90 cubic feet of air a minute). This compact monster moves 700 cubic feet of air per minute . . . which is about eight or ten times the capacity of your average house vacuum sweeper. But that’s the kind of air-moving muscle you need if you really want to keep a cascade of soot out of your clients’ homes and out of your lungs. Nothing less will do.
A second key part of the August West Chimney Sweeping System is a set of specially developed fiberglass cleaning rods. These rods snap together with “quick disconnects” similar to the connectors on air-powered tools. And they’re constructed of a mixture of fibers and resins and held to a diameter which makes them just flexible enough to bend around smoke shelves . . . but still rigid enough to poke a brush all the way up a chimney. The construction of the rods, furthermore, has been shrewdly calculated to make them tough and highly resistant to fractures. In the unlikely event of a break, however, the formulation of the rods’ resin/fiber mixture and cure was designed to make the snap-together extensions splinter apart (like a green tree limb) rather than snap off clean (leaving a brush stuck in a flue somewhere). In short — just as with the August West soot sweeper — there’s far more to the AW cleaning rods than meets the eye.
And there’s far more to the August West profit picture than meets the eye too, thanks to the special gear just described. Because those rods and that soot sweeper make it possible, in most cases, for one man or woman (instead of two) to clean a flue or chimney entirely from the bottom (without ever getting up on the roof) . . . and do the whole job in a fast half hour (instead of the hour or hour and a half required by more traditional methods).
Steve Curtis — the personable young fellow whom Weiland and Brock watched pocket $140 for four hours work one day last fall — uses the August West System . . . which allows him to clean a “typical” fireplace somewhat differently than the Hendersonville sweeps (see above) go about the same job.
First Steve spreads a painter’s drop cloth in front of the hearth, positions the end of his soot sweeper’s inlet hose in the back of the fireplace, and turns the “dust sucker” on. He then reaches up into the fireplace’s throat and removes the damper.
Next Curtis chooses the proper-sized brush, snaps it onto a Flexi-rod, and pushes the brush up into the flue. More rods are snapped onto the first one and fed up into the chimney until, finally, the brush pops out the top of the stack. Steve then scrubs the flue from the top down . . . while he remains conveniently and safely indoors at the base of the chimney.
With every stroke of the brush, of course, a cascade of ashes and soot plummets into the fireplace. No problem. As fast as the black dust billows up . . . the soot sweeper sucks it away. Believe it or not, the system works so well that we couldn’t even get a sequence of photographs showing how well this method of controlling an otherwise messy situation operates! There just wasn’t anything to show!
Once the flue has been thoroughly cleaned, Curtis uses a smaller brush to spiff up the smoke chamber and smoke shelf. All the fine, airborne dust — as you’ve probably guessed — continues to disappear into the soot sweeper . . . while Steve shovels everything else into paper shopping bags. (“Don’t use plastic garbage bags,” Curtis says. “Because of their static electricity charges, soot sticks to the outside of the plastic sacks . . . and then falls off on your client’s rug when you move them.”)
If it sounds as if the August West System has chimney cleaning down to a science . . . well, it does. Using the AW streamlined method of swabbing out a flue, Steve Curtis can set up, clean a chimney, pack up, and be on his way to another job . . . all in 30 minutes or less. Which ain’t a bad way to earn forty bucks.
The Other Side of the Chimney Sweeping Business
If the pay can be good, it should also be pointed out that sweeping chimneys — even with the August West System — ain’t exactly a desk job. Cleaning flues — no matter how you slice it — still calls for a certain amount of physical activity . . . and Steve Curtis honestly earns every nickel that he’s paid.
Nor is this an occupation that you can work at carelessly. A sweep in Washington State, for instance, recently broke his shoulder when a new extension ladder malfunctioned and dumped him on the ground. Then too, slovenly flue cleaners soon learn that customers can get very irate about soot tracked across rugs . . . and that the negligent breathing of the same soot can be exceedingly hazardous to the lungs.
In general, though, these risks of the trade are no risk at all to the careful and prudent chimney sweep. Just as the highly publicized “trade disease” of sweeps in the 1800’s — skin cancer — presents no out-of-the-ordinary danger to anyone in the business who’ll make regular use of soap and water.
(In the “old” days, sweeps used to climb right down into chimneys to clean them. Naturally, this coated them from head to toe with creosote and soot. The problem was then further compounded by the fact that most people bathed only infrequently in Europe in those days . . . and chimney sweeps sometimes didn’t bathe at all! End result: a high incidence of skin cancer — especially cancer of the scrotum — among chimney sweeps. Which is unfortunate, since we now know that the disease could have been prevented by higher standards of personal hygiene.)
To Sum up the Chimney Cleaning Business …
Sweeping chimneys may not exactly be a “lazy man’s way to riches” . . . but the pay is exceptional, the demand is steadily growing for this particular service once again, and new equipment now makes the job far easier and safer than ever before. Perhaps best of all, this most definitely is one of those “dream” businesses that so many of us are always looking for: a business with flexible hours and very low overhead that requires less initial investment (figure, at most, $2,000 to get started with August West) than you can earn back in just two full weeks of work.
This may — all things considered — be the best start-on-a-shoestring enterprise that MOTHER has ever featured . . . and we’re gonna be mighty surprised if a hundred or more readers of this magazine don’t eventually wind up as $1,000-a-week chimney sweeps. Be sure to let us know if you’re one of the hundred! –
Additional Chimney Cleaning Information
August West Systems, Box 663M, Westport, Connecticut 06880. The good folks at this company have probably done more to advance the art of sweeping chimneys during the past year or so than everyone else in the field put together since the business was first invented. For $1,385, AW will sell you a package of all the specialized tools, operating instructions, advertising and promotion ideas, etc., you’ll need to start making important money immediately as a flue cleaner. AW will also sell individual pieces of its equipment (some of which is patented) separately. A good way to get acquainted with the firm is by ordering out its information package to start with. Mail off a dollar for the packet and tell Dan and Tom that MOTHER sent you.
Black Magic Chimney Sweeps, Box 977M, Stowe, Vermont 05672. We haven’t seen any of the manuals or equipment sold by this firm, but we’ve talked to some of the BM people on the phone and found them courteous, helpful, and knowledgeable. Just like the principals at August West, the Black Magic folks actually clean chimneys themselves, know their business, figure that a top operator should make $1,000 or more a week, and seem anxious to promote the whole trade as much as they promote themselves. BM sells equipment and franchises, and offers a training course. Send $1.00 for the company’s information packet.
The Chimney Sweep Guild, c/o Kristia Associates, Box 1175, Portland, Maine 04104. This brand-new trade organization was just founded by Kristia Associates, which is better known as an importer of Scandinavian stoves. The guild offers brushes and other supplies for sale and sells The Homeowner’s Resource Book on the Art of Sweeping Chimneys for $2.00.
Furnace Cleaners Don’t Hack It . . .
Beware — if you’re thinking of becoming a chimney sweep of equipment dealers who try to tell you that high-performance “chimney vacuums” or “furnace sweepers” have made cleaning a flue with a brush obsolete. And, it you’re a homeowner looking for someone to clean a chimney, don’t let any serviceman try to tell you that he can do the job with a vacuum alone.
The vacuum cleaner hasn’t yet been made — even those noisy behemoths that are so big they have to have their own gasoline engines and ride around on custom trailers — that can completely substitute for the handwork a real chimney sweep puts into a job. Which means you’re just wasting your money when you pay a serviceman to clean a chimney with nothing but a vacuum.
A case in point: MOTHER researcher Dennis Burkholder moved into a different house during the fall of 1976 and immediately set about installing a wood-burning stove to keep his family warm. And, since Dennis knew about the hazards of flue fires, he called in a local service company which “cleaned” his new home’s chimney with one of those monster trailer-mounted “furnace sweepers”.
Now this vacuum made a lot of noise and sucked a lot of soot out of the chimney and looked impressive as hell. And the servicemen who ran it — in their white coveralls and baseball caps — also looked impressive as hell. And the bill they presented to Dennis — for $50 — also made an impression on his bank balance. But for all the real good the whole impressive job did the Burkholder family, they might as well have spent the $50 on bubble gum. Because only days after the sweeper sucked the loose soot out of their chimney, all the caked-in creosote and ashes and other gunk still left in the flue caught fire and blazed away with a howling intensity that was at least one quantum level more impressive yet than the servicemen and sweeper that had just “cleaned” the chimney.
Moral: There flat-out isn’t any substitute for scrubbing the inside of a flue until all its caked-on grime is broken loose and then sweeping or vacuuming up the mess. Which means that there’s going to be a need for qualified, competent, guaranteed, genuine chimney sweeps for a long time to come.