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Where There's Smoke ...

The ups and downs of a chimney sweep.



It's an uncommonly beautiful November Saturday. No one seems in a hurry. Even the leaves are taking their time as they drift to the ground. As I pull into a driveway on Central Avenue in Midtown Ken Robinson waves at me. He is wearing some sort of mountain-climbing get-up, suspended in mid-air from a chimney.

"Scaring squirrels out," he shouts.

"There's about four squirrels in that elm there," he says once he's on the ground again. "I've had to wave my arms around like a scarecrow to keep them from coming back while we're patching up the hole." As Robinson tells me this, his face lights up like a kid at Christmas and his arms flap. Even on this gorgeous Saturday he's obviously happy to be working, hanging out with a family of angry squirrels on a roof with the pitch of a black-diamond ski run.

At first glance you probably wouldn't peg Robinson as a chimney sweep. There's no hint of Dick Van Dyke's Mary Poppins character. With his long, braided hair he looks more like an artist or maybe a professor of some sort. Actually, if you didn't know that he owns a macaque named Ernie, routinely sits under houses in the dark on all-night raccoon stakeouts, and has rescued an 8-foot, 70-pound ball python from a storage facility, you might write him off as an average Midtowner.

But Robinson makes his living in the smoke chambers of 100-year-old chimneys, wearing a respirator. He is a chimney sweep's chimney sweep, having been a certification instructor for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a director of Region Four's National Chimney Sweep Guild for six years, and secretary and vice president of its board. He claims his business, Coopertown's Mastersweep, Inc., is the oldest sweeping business in Shelby County and does everything from removing unwanted rodents to cleaning out dryer vents. He's also an expert on the smoky history of his profession.

THE FIRST CHIMNEYS WERE PROBABLY BUILT around the 13th century. Soon -- no doubt after a few houses had burned -- it was determined that creosote, a thick tar-like substance, would build up inside chimneys and eventually catch fire. Once it became obvious that chimneys had to be regularly cleaned, numerous methods were tried: tying brush to long sticks, stuffing small trees inside, and dropping ducks down the chimney (or geese or turkeys, depending on the chimney's size). None of these were ideal, and as houses became larger and taller the task became much more complicated. "Chimneys would go up and then turn at a 45-degree angle and then maybe turn again and maybe again," says Robinson.

Such complex chimneys couldn't be cleaned by a guy with a stick -- or even an overactive duck -- so chimney sweeps began using children. Literally.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries it was not uncommon for children to be kidnapped or taken from orphanages as early as age 3 and indentured to chimney sweeps. "[Children] were like a cork in a bottle; their body was a brush," says Robinson. Chimney holes were called nines and eights -- as in 9-by-9 inches or 8-by-8 inches -- so the children had to be very small and very young. Robinson continues: "It was all they could physically do to squirm through, and that action cleaned the chimney." Most of these children had a life expectancy of about three years, due to heavy exposure to carcinogens, suffocation, and burns.

One story Robinson recalls tells of a master sweep leaving a boy he thought was dead in a chimney. The lad was discovered by the owners of the house later, when they lit a fire. He survived and they adopted the lad. But others weren't so fortunate. "Often they just left dead children [in the chimney] if they were in a place that didn't block the path of smoke. It would just burn them up, dehydrate them, and all the odor would go up," says Robinson.

Robinson recalls a story he read about an Allied spy in Germany during WWII who disguised himself as a chimney sweep and spent long periods of time hiding inside chimneys, eavesdropping. One day, while leaving a chimney, he was noticed by a guard. The spy stabbed him to death and stuffed him up the chimney onto the smoke shelf.

Though Robinson was once practically buried in an avalanche of tiny mouse skeletons, he assures me that he hasn't ever run across anything that macabre in a chimney. He has, however, discovered secret rooms. And once, while mapping the chimneys and flues of a house in Midtown, he found a torture chamber. "I was thinking it was a joke," he says. "A very elaborate joke." When the owners came home they confirmed his find, but Robinson was sworn to secrecy. He continues cautiously: "I will say it was one of our well-known old political leaders. One of his chief enforcers had built the [room]. It had manacles on the walls, hooks, a drain in the center of the floor. The hidden flue I had been confused about went to an incinerator. It's still there, I guess."

Robinson says chimney sweeping as Americans know it really only started about 25 years ago. "They were all a bunch of hippies who weren't afraid to get dirty and I was right in the middle of them," he says.

Since then one of the things most chimney sweeps, including Robinson, have given up is the traditional attire -- a top hat and coat with tails. The outfit is attributed to George Smart, who is credited with inventing a flexible rod-and-brush chimney-sweeping tool in 1803. (It was a welcome and humane alternative to using children.)

Smart's closest friend was an undertaker, a profession which at that time included paying people and dressing them up to pad the crowd at funerals when the deceased lacked sufficient family and friends to fill the church. The undertaker gave his worn-out mourning clothes to Smart, who wore them to sweep chimeys. Old ragged top hats and formal coats with tails quickly became associated with the new breed of sweeps.

Now sweeps are moving away from their historical roots in favor of a more technology-centered, baseball-cap-and-khakis approach. "But we can still take our digital video cameras and other modern technologies up the chimneys with us without forgetting the historical and traditional aspects [of our profession]," says Robinson.

Like anyone who cares about his trade, Robinson has pet peeves. For instance, he hates prefabricated chimneys. While the price difference between a good masonry chimney and a prefabricated chimney can be more than $10,000, Robinson says it can also be the difference between life and death for a homeowner.

Prefab chimneys consist of a metal pipe inside another metal pipe. The air-space between the two provides the only insulation from the chimney's heat. "The metal used in the pipes is thin enough that you can take a pocket knife and stick a hole through it," says Robinson. The fire box is built the same way -- a box within a box -- only with a veneer of faux brick, so that when you and your sweetie are all cozied up in front of the fireplace it looks ... real. Needless to say, Robinson prefers masonry.

There are two kinds of masonry chimneys, he says -- lined and unlined. Chances are if your house and/or chimney was built within the last 55 years you have a liner. If your house is older, then you may not. A good chimney liner stands up to the high temperatures of chimney fires and will resist creosote acids, which can break down masonry. If you don't have a liner, Robinson says, then you absolutely must clean your chimney annually. Otherwise a lot of damage could be done to your chimney and ultimately to your house.

"I love Midtown because there are real chimneys," Robinson says. "If you go anywhere else in Memphis ... if you drive up to a brand-new $1 million home there will be a $2,000 prefabricated chimney in there. The yard lights and mailbox cost more."

And more often than not, Robinson says, the owners aren't even aware of it. "You'll talk to the owner and he'll say, 'Yeah, they tried to talk me into one of those prefab fireplaces but I wouldn't have it.' You hate to tell him, but ..."

Robinson says using a prefabricated chimney comes with other costs, too. In 15 to 20 years (the life expectancy of current prefabs) you should be prepared to install a new one. And if anything goes wrong in the meantime, Robinson says it's often hard to find parts. "Maybe you only need one part, but a lot of the time we can't find it because they are constantly coming out with newer models."

Robinson estimates that only one of every 35 to 40 prefabricated chimneys are properly installed. He tells of being at a local prefabricated fireplace dealership when the manager handed the new forklift driver a manual and sent him out to install a chimney.

Robinson concedes that if a prefab is properly installed and is kept up, it can work out fine. Just be careful, he warns, that you know who is installing it. According to Robinson, most sweeps will install one correctly for $300 to $400.

Another thing that gets him worked up is vent-free logs. According to Robinson, closing the damper is a bad idea. "Vent-free logs sound great," he says, "but a chimney was designed for air to be sucked up as the temperature rises. The room air helps to cool everything down." If you close the damper, Robinson says, the coolest part of your fireplace is now the hottest, and this can and has led to fires. Robinson warns: "Even the mantel can catch on fire."

According to Robinson, the best time to get your chimney swept is in the spring or summer. During the winter months sweeps may be cleaning up to 40 chimneys a day (including Saturdays). However, no matter what the season, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Fire Safety Tips From the Chimney Safety Institute Of America (CSIA)

-- Starting a fire in a fireplace: Open damper and wait 10 minutes to let cold air in chimney fall into room and warmer air to rise into chimney.

-- Light gas-log lighter or burn balled-up paper for about 3 minutes to establish draft.

-- Add more paper balls and small dry pieces of wood and wait 10 minutes.

-- Add more small wood and a couple of fire logs (be sure all wood is seasoned).

-- Keep all combustibles 36 inches from fireplace openings.

-- Do not hang stockings, garland, Christmas cards, or other combustibles on mantel.

-- Do not burn gift wrapping, boxes, paper, or other highly combustible items in fireplace (can cause chimney fire).

-- Keep tops of flames 6 inches to 8 inches below lintel (top of firebox).

-- Have fireplace inspected for creosote and structural defects by a CSIA-certified chimney sweep.

-- Have fireplace and chimney swept if necessary.

-- Be sure damper is open.

-- Keep ABC-rated fire extinguisher in home.

-- Keep combustible decorations on roof away from the top of the chimney.

-- Keep spark screen in front of fireplace during burning cycle.

-- Keep Christmas tree far away from fireplace.

Fire Numbers

United States Consumer Products Safety Commission's Most Recent Chimney Fire Statistics (1998)

-- 18,300 residential fires in the U.S. originated in chimneys, fireplaces, and solid-fuel appliances. These fires resulted in 160 personal injuries, 40 deaths, and $158.2 million in property damage.

-- The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) recommends that people have inspections performed by CSIA-certified chimney sweeps. These chimney sweeps have earned the industry's most respected credential by passing an intensive examination based on fire codes, clearances, and standards for construction. The CSIA recommends all chimneys be inspected annually.

-- To receive free information about wood-burning safety and for a list of CSIA-certified chimney sweeps, call (800) 536-0118 or visit the CSIA Web site at

Tips on firewood

-- Wood is purchased by volume not weight. One cord equals 128 cubic feet. A contemporary cord is four feet high, four feet wide, and eight feet long.

-- To judge if wood is seasoned, look for radiating splits on the cut end of the log.

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