Chimney cleaning

The wire brush sticking out of my pocket is for cleaning the &^%# chimney cap, the worst part of the chimney cleaning chore. (Photo by Patti Johnson)

Cleaning the woodstove’s chimney is an annual chore. A dirty, grimy, sooty chore. Often fraught with excitement because there is a danger, however remote, that I might tumble off our steep roof and injure or kill myself.

Most years the chimney does not require much cleaning, since it has a stainless steel liner and is a “straight shot” up from our woodstove, providing little rough surface and a quick ascent for smoke-borne creosote, that vile stuff, that clings to a chimney’s inner surface and builds up on the flu. Also, I stoke a roaring fire about once each winter month, usually when my beautiful blonde wife is in town, that burns away any creosote accumulation. Not an actual chimney fire, nothing that risky, but a roaring blaze that makes the stovepipe glow.

For the most part, chimney cleaning is a messy but trouble free task. The problem is the chimney cap. Creosote build-up in the cap is greater than the entire rest of the chimney’s 22-foot length, and that build-up can plug the cap and fill the house with smoke. We have had it happen. A smoky kitchen does not promote domestic tranquility.

In our experience, the chimney inevitably becomes blocked on a windy day in January when temperatures have dropped to single digits and snow and ice have created an Olympic bobsled run on the roof. Did I mention that our roof is quite steep? A 45-degree slope that would result in an estimated speed of 35-40 miles per hour before a hapless chimney cleaner would catapult over the edge and fall the final 20 feet to the ground. An emergency cleaning of the chimney in January should be avoided at all costs.

Hence the annual cleaning in September. On a warm and windless day. Preferrably at that time of early fall when the wasps are no longer nesting in said chimney cap.

So up to the rooftop I go, resembling Santa Claus in workman’s garb. A wire chimney brush is attached to a flexible fiberglass rod, conveniently segmented in four-foot sections, and I run the brush down and up the length of the chimney half a dozen times. The brushing removes about a hatful of creosote, so little that we could clean the chimney only once every three or four years without worry.

But I cannot brush it out until the cap is removed, and therein lies the difficulty. I’ve thought about doing away with the cap altogether, but rain and snow would leak in, and an occasional songbird would blunder down our chimney and into the stove. The cap is necessary, but it was always the most difficult part of chimney cleaning. And the most dangerous.

Years ago we used a chimney cap that was coarse-threaded and attached to the chimney top with a clockwise twist like the breach of an artillery piece. This was a handy and sturdy enough fitting, and it never blew off in high winds. The downside was that its threads would become sealed tight with creosote, so tight that removal was nearly impossible. Epoxy-glued tight. Spot-welded tight.

Straddling the roof peak, off balance and straining to untwist the cap, dizzily looking downward at a 30-foot fall, is a special kind of terror. Usually, I would take a rubber mallet in my chimney cleaner’s tool kit and pound the damned thing loose, a technique that bent and battered the cap and likely would have damaged the chimney itself over time. Finally, the cap would budge, and with a lunging, violent jerk it would break free its locked-thread seal – and leave me teetering and wildly counter-balancing like a lumberjack in a log-rolling competition.

By good fortune, the day came when I lost my grip on that noisome chimney cap and flung it into space during this dance macabre. It bounced twice on the roof, hit the limestone border of the flower plantings below, and was twisted and smashed beyond repair. The replacement cap I bought at the local hardware store was a bit over-sized and had to be attached with duct tape, the metal kind that has a peal-and-stick facing and is its own sort of misery to work with. This cap has worked well the last six or seven years, can be removed by cutting away the tape, and seems to have much less creosote accumulation. Win-win-win.

This year’s cleaning was a 20-minute task, less than it took to re-black the woodstove. After 36 years of chimney cleaning, I’m much more skilled. Or maybe just less obsessive.

We are now good to go for the winter ahead: four cords of seasoned firewood cut, split, and stacked, a box of kindling split, and chimney and stove cleaned and ready. I was eager to build our first fire of the season (a man needs to test his work), but yesterday afternoon a heat wave settled in, and it was 81 degrees.

Okay, I can wait. Maybe a week. Temps are supposed to drop down into the 40s in the next few days. That’s cool enough for a fire, right?


More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through at  Jerry Johnson Author Page


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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