Anyone with a pencil, pad, and 30 seconds can make a list of semi-obsolete professions that, if not completely gone, have at least faded into the dark niches of our minds.
Do you know someone who fixes anvils to make a living? Someone who sells typewriter tapes or does double-entry bookkeeping? How about a chimney sweep or a licensed instructor on how to ring a church bell? Do you know catapult launchers or specialists in repairing cassette decks?
A list of barely-there jobs could go on and on, but we should back off and think again about the chimney sweep. It is not a job opportunity that you will hear a lot about in career counseling courses, but there are still a few practitioners left and at least one of them is in Ukiah.
Though Nick Tillman grew up in a family of chimney sweeps, he didn’t immerse himself directly in the profession as a young man. (Chris Pugh – Ukiah Daily Journal)
Meet Nick Tillman, a young man who has worked as a chimney sweep for eight years and learned the trade from a father and two uncles who also make a living chasing soot, creosote and dead birds out of your chimney. Nick’s one-man operation is called Ashes to Ashes. If you’re wondering if he can make a living cleaning chimneys, you’d be surprised to find that his waiting list now extends well into January.
“It’s definitely a seasonal business,” Nick says, adding that the best time to inspect and clean your chimney is in the spring, at least in part because it’s not as busy in April as it is in December. Why should you spend your summer breathing all that gross, dried, cancer-causing creosote that lingers in your chimney? Also, scrubbing out a chimney in the spring or summer can help avoid what Nick calls the “vacation madness” of everyone else who queues to have their chimneys cleaned before Christmas.
Though Nick Tillman grew up in a family of chimney sweeps, he didn’t immerse himself directly in the profession as a young man. He went to college in Monterey first, and then one day called his father in Sonoma County with a few questions about the job. He ended up working as a part-time chimney sweep in Monterey for two years and then moved back to Cloverdale where he began a career working on and in chimneys.
Chimneys are a bit strange, they are both simple and complex, and while anyone who has a chimney probably knows where the chimney is and maybe even can go outside and point at the chimney that comes out of the roof protrudes, there is a little more behind it.
Nick knows all these other chimney parts and knowingly talks about the fireplace, firebox, lintels, and mortar. He understands what problems moss causes in your chimney and what creosote causes in your fireplace, and he can fix both of these problems. He also knows the importance of a well-kept chimney, because at least part of the time it is full of fire, meters from your sofa, and then it emerges from your roof, red hot and smoky.
He says the two most important things people don’t know about their own chimneys are the chimney cap and the spark arrester. Both is important. A cap prevents rain from washing away the inside of your chimney and damaging mortar joints, which can be a fire hazard. A wire mesh spark guard prevents these annoying scraps of newspaper from floating out of your chimney and ending up on your roof shingles or in a chimney next to you.
The spark arrestor also prevents rodents and birds from entering from above and set up an apartment in your beautiful, secluded chimney. The aroma of a dead animal nest blowing down from above is a scent that Nick says is both A) memorable and B) not what you want to smell when you walk into your own home. Tip: Nick Tillman installs chimney caps and spark arresters.
It also rises into the bottom of your chimney and removes all of the grime and grime that has accumulated since the last professional wipe of the chimney, fire box and duct, which, as we all know, was a long, long time ago. It’s a dingy job.
Nick knows this, but he likes the job. Cleaning the chimneys gives him time for camping and fishing in the summer months. He’s unconcerned about the prospect of his job being outsourced to India or of someone at Microsoft developing a chimney cleaning app. “I’m not worried that technology will take my job away,” he says. “It is what it is.” And it’s pretty much what it always was, because the job of cleaning out a chimney is immune to anything beyond the basics to get the damn thing clean.
The equipment used to be unsophisticated, and you may have seen pictures of kids with brooms and brushes doing the job. Nick wonders if the kids were lowered into the chimney and told to start scrubbing. The next great advance in chimney cleaning involved ropes, weights, and brushes connected to poles. Today they have street sweepers that are hooked up to a drill and work in a similar way to weed killers.
“What we are using today is much more efficient at removing the creosote,” he says. “Creosote is acidic and carcinogenic. It’s bad when it builds up in mortar joints, and getting rid of it is the best thing you can do for your chimney and your own health. “
Another difference between now and then is that there are professional standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. The NFPA recommends homeowners have chimneys checked annually and cleaned if necessary. Nick just thinks it’s sensible.
“I see fire hazards everywhere,” he says. “Most of the chimneys I see have potential problems. Unless it’s creosote or cracked smoke pipes, birds nest in the chimney. These are all dangers, and if you haven’t checked your chimney, it’s definitely a good idea. “
The problem, as mentioned earlier, is that you are running a little late. He says he gets four or more calls a day. At least put “Call Chimney Guy” in big black letters on your calendar for 2019. And while Nick is the only chimney sweep he knows in Ukiah, he believes there may be four or five more scattered around Mendocino County.
Aside from the nuts and bolts and brushes in a chimney sweep’s life, there are also the ancient stories and legends. And yes, we’ve all heard that old Mary Poppins song about a chimney sweep who is lucky, as lucky as it can be, but Nick says it’s true. At least it’s a legend. Or maybe just superstition.
Still, he’s a believer. He advises people to always shake a chimney sweep’s hand when they quit a job just because. Because it’s lucky. It is also a stroke of luck that a newly married couple is lucky enough to have a chimney sweep available at the ceremony to kiss the bride on the cheek. Better luck, you understand?
When Nick and I leave, I awkwardly grab his right hand and shake it well, and for a good measure, I grab his left hand and shake that too.
You can’t be too careful or too lucky these days.