Chimney Sweep Boys
Flue sweep? Not many open fires around these days. And no chimney sweep boys spending their formative years coated in black soot as they climb inside them and destroy their lungs. They were true chimney sweeps – more’s the pity.
I clean a couple of flues: for the woodstove in the living room, and for the log fire in the lounge, where it’s inside an old brick-lined chimney.
The house (a weatherboard Edwardian villa design), is very old by New Zealand standards – in the early years of its second century. When we came on the scene nearly thirty years ago it had three open fireplaces, all brick-lined. I sealed off the one in our bedroom and the one in the living room. We kept the living room’s red brick fireplace and surround and stacked firewood in the recess.
The lounge chimney sits on the roof’s ridgeline. We’re pleased we kept one chimney – the house would be missing an essential architectural element without it. I can see and touch the lounge’s chimney bricks when I go up in the roof space. Embrace the chimney’s hard, edgy feel when I sweep the flue.
Over summer, we usually have the woodstove going for three hours or so every second evening. Time enough to cook a meal and heat the water for a couple of days. Now that autumn’s here, it’ll be pretty much every evening, letting it die out around nine.
The log fire in the lounge is held in reserve for severe winter weather. And any time the ambience (provided by its warmth and the red glow through the glass door), is deemed necessary for socializing, convalescing, or relaxing.
Our ceiling and underfloor areas are well-insulated with wool batts, and a combination of curtains, honeycomb blinds and pelmets also help keep the cold out and the warmth in. It’s surprising how infrequently the lounge fire is called on to provide extra heating.
The woodstove and its two radiators are usually all that are needed. Even in winter we often don’t light the stove till after lunch. On a cold day, if you close the doors, the living room stays at a tolerable temperature all morning.
It’s not the modern way – centrally heating the entire house with no need to worry about letting the heat out and the cold in. Our place, you’ll have a cosy living room on a freezing winter morning despite the fire having died out in the early hours, but the rest of the house – brr.
We absolutely rely on our woodstove, and the log burner adds to life’s enjoyment – an occasional pleasure. To keep them burning efficiently, I like to sweep out both flues in autumn, and the stove again the following spring.
For several years I used a cheap brush with thin plastic pipe extensions that you screwed together. Eventually, a starling’s nest that lodged itself someway down the log burner’s flue, plastic that had gone brittle, and a frustrated, increasingly aggressive operator proved to be all too much.
Here I was, winter fast approaching: a big nest and plastic flue brush jammed down it. The brittle pipe plastic had snapped half a metre up from the brush.
After much trial and even more error, I managed to get a string line with the slender length of a heavy nail attached past the obstacles and into the firebox. Exchanging the nail for a wide bolt I hauled it back up and managed to hook the brush.
Bugger! The brush fish got off the bolt hook, and the nest didn’t budge.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’d set the whole bloody lot on fire. I soaked a rag in petrol and lowered it down till I was pretty sure it was stuck on the brush. Tossed down a lit match and “Boom!” I mean explosively “BOOM!!”
I jerked back my head, lucky to escape with singed fringe and eyebrows, and feeling stupid. Oh, and a very cross June who happened to be in the garden at the time and was probably suffering from shock more than I was.
At last, I started to see sense: I’d buy a decent flue cleaning kit.
I found one in Timaru’s Mitre 10 by slavishly following an assistant down those towering aisles. There it was, hiding in a corner. What a beauty: four inches of bristling, steel-tined brush head; rugged, flexible alkathene pipe extensions, and deep grooved screw threads on chunky aluminium alloy ends for connecting the pipes.
The Mitre 10 guy said plumbers used them to clean out drain pipes. That was good enough for me.
Nothing cheap about this beauty. From memory (it was years ago), the brush was a bit under $80 and the pipes close to $40 each. All up, a brush and four pipes for around 230 bucks. Cheap really: a chimney sweep said he’d clean our flues for $50, and that was more than twenty years ago.
You get some serious curves and even more serious gunge in drain pipes. What if I shoved the brush up the firebox and shunted the blockages out the top of the flue? That’d be a test of its ramming and flexing powers. Especially as the flue pipe had a stainless steel concertina-like section that traversed a dog-leg in the chimney that was designed to align it with the roof’s ridgeline.
The pipes, when screwed together, had a 6 metre reach, and I had to curve them at close to 90 degrees to get up the flue from the firebox. What a grunt, especially forcing the steel tines past the snaking section’s stainless steel corrugations. Shunting out the blockage was easy as after that!
A bit of an irony come to think of it: I’d pushed the chimney brush up the chimney and out the top like chimney sweep boys did yonks ago.
When I do get round to sweeping them this autumn, I’ll be on the roof jiggling the pipe up and down the flues till the brush has got them thoroughly clean. I’ll also be thanking my lucky stars that I was not born into a poor family in Victorian England and ended up as one of the chimney sweep boys.
In fact, I’ll be in a serene frame of mind: the pipes won’t snap, and the fine netting under the cowl will have foiled the nesting plans of starlings.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl for this week. I look forward to having your company again next Monday. Bye for now.