2006 South Bend Tribune article
"Making a clean sweep means no fear"

Steve Smitha usually only wears his black top hat when kids are around, or when enthusiastic reporters make a special request. He is a chimney sweep and plays the role perfectly, his long gray beard, black overalls and top hat completing the picture. Smitha has been a chimney sweep for nearly 30 years and has seen the profession go through ups and downs. With the recent shift toward wood-burning stoves, business is good. But Steve took a quick break to talk with Tribune staff writer Robin Toepp about this unusual job.

How did you get into this business? An article in Mother Earth News magazine was on alternative energy and alternative lifestyle, occupations, etc. It was back when energy was a question back then, too.

So what specifically inspired you about the article? Probably, it was working for myself, all of my life I was gearing toward it. I was in Junior Achievement, I had been in the Air Force, then I was working in the Indiana State Prison system as a medical technician, and then I saw the article on chimney sweeps. And it sounded like something I wanted to do. Of course I didn't realize at the time that I was afraid of heights. I bought all of the equipment for about $1,300 and went through the training that you need -- which at the time was reading a manual.

So you got up on your first roof and realized you were afraid? Yeah. (He chuckles.) But you can't be a chimney sweep and be afraid of heights. That fear is long gone. But she (indicating his wife, Kathy) a lot of times sits on the ground and prays.Some of the newer home construction means taller vaulted ceilings and roofs.

How does that affect chimney cleaning? Some of these roofs -- there is no way to get to the top of the chimney, they are too steep -- we leave that to the younger people. In Europe, a chimney sweep has to have access to the top of the chimney, and the roof. In Germany, that is the law. They have fancy houses with slate roofs and they have attic access that the sweep can just open the little door and get out there.

Do you have any safety harnesses? No, I have special boots, honestly, that are made for chimney sweeps. They are putting these bits of smooth (gripping material, almost fabriclike that sticks well to standard shingles) that stick on the soles of the boots. The soles peel off. Plus, I have ridge hooks if roofs are real steep or the shingles are real bad, but I don't use a harness.

How long does it take to clean a chimney? About an hour to an hour-and-a-half. It entails brushing out the chimney from the roof. Then, go inside, brush the smoke chamber and smoke shelf -- which is the area above the damper -- and also brush the fireplace itself. With a wood stove we brush the pipe. The whole time we have a high-powered vacuum with special filters so the dust doesn't get out. And when it is all done we run a video scan to make sure everything looks OK and is intact.

The video scan sounds interesting. Talk about that.Yeah, it is. When we got started we had a set of wire brushes, the vacuum, a top hat and the manual. Now it's high-tech. After you've cleaned the chimney, you hook the camera onto the pole, the ones I used with the wire brushes on top of the roof, and just slide it (the pole with the camera) up to the top. If there is any doubt about the integrity of the chimney -- cracks in the mortar or if the tile sounds different when we are cleaning -- we can let the homeowner know. Chimney sweeps used to use a rope and a weight, and you put the rope on the brush and drop it down the chimney and that is how you would clean it. That was a long time ago, in Europe.

You mentioned a training manual. Was there any other training? When we started, that's all we had, a manual. Now we go to conventions. We just went to one by the National Chimney Sweep Guild, but it's mainly O-J-T, on-the-job-training and seminars.

This seems like a very specialized profession. Yes, we are specialized. It is less common here (in the United States), but it is still popular overseas. When we visited our son in Germany, we saw chimney sweeps a lot more. They are also building code inspectors there. Here, we focus on wood heat. When we started, the sweep industry was just getting going again. We mainly do residential wood burning fireplaces and wood stoves. I did work for bakeries or restaurants with fireplaces, but now it's mainly residential.

With energy the way it is now, it's a revival of wood. There was also the Y2K era where everybody thought that world was coming to an end and installed wood stoves. Now, with gas prices so high, a lot of people are burning wood for heat.