Become a Chimney Sweeper

What you need to know about this low-investment business from an expert chimney sweeper.

| January/February 1984

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    Working as a chimney sweeper is often dangerous. Understand the risks and take precautions to protect your health.
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    Despite the hazards and hard work, successful chimney sweepers find the business rewarding.
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    If you are thinking about becoming a chimney sweeper, consider your ability to invest in quality equipment.
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    Several female chimney sweepers have become leaders in the industry.

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I'm sure most of you have seen the advertisements (in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and elsewhere) extolling the many benefits of becoming a chimney sweeper. Well, all of the claims—the high income, the plentiful vacation time, the freedom to be your own boss and to set your own hours while you perform a useful service—can be true. It really is possible to write your own ticket to success and happiness as a sweep. As the editor and publisher of sweepdom's only independent trade journal, SNEWS, The Chimney Sweep News, I can personally attest to the rewarding careers of many "soot scrubbers".

But I also know that sweeping, like any business, has its pitfalls, too. The ads, for example, don't mention the parts about the job being terribly dirty and demanding . . . about freezing your tail off in the dead of winter (and baking on a hot roof during the summer) . . . about the long hours spent on bookkeeping chores and phone calls . . . or about getting bitten by a raccoon holed up in a smoke chamber with her offspring. You can spend hours scrunched in a fireplace, trying to remove and replace a rusted damper . . . there's always the risk of falling off a client's roof . . . and you may face some definitely lean times during the off-season. And as far as "freedom" goes . . . remember, that's a relative term. You may be your own boss, but your customers are your living. So when that emergency call rings in, you grab your brushes and go, whether it's convenient or not!

Still, as one sweep friend of mine put it, "You don't punch a time clock. You share pots of coffee in cozy kitchens with friendly folks you never would have met otherwise. Plus, you see the world from an entirely new perspective, and there's always that anticipation as to what the day will bring."

And yes, you can make very good money. But the field has become highly competitive these days, so only the fittest—those with the most know-how, business sense, and motivation—survive. According to one estimate, there were only a few hundred sweeps in this country in 1977 . . . today, there may be as many as 8,000 working part- or full-time. A lot of people are jumping onto the bandwagon . . . and many of them are falling off—disillusioned and out of money—a few short months or years later.

"But it doesn't have to be that way," says former college professor and onetime chimney cleaner "Sooty" Bob Daniels, who is now a sweep-equipment wholesale supplier, as well as an instructor in business-building and advanced techniques at chimney-sweep conventions and schools. "If you look at almost any kind of small business in America," he says, "you'll find more failures than successes. But it's the other way around when it comes to sweeping. There are many more successes than failures."

Why Do Some Chimney Sweepers Fail?

Harry Richart of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey started cleaning flues 25 years ago. Today, he's president of the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG)—the industry's major national trade organization—and, with his son, he operates a very successful business in New York City and its suburbs, extending into parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

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