Painting Tips by a Professional

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How I Clean My Own Chimney (and $ave Hundreds Each Time)

How do you clean a chimney yourself? Easy. I’m a painter, but I do clean my chimney myself. It’s a big savings, but a dirty job.

Yes, I’m a painter, but here’s a photo tutorial of how to clean your own chimney. It’s not hard, but it is dirty. Prep and quality tools are key. For a fraction of the COST OF ONE CLEANING, you can DIY.

I know, I know, what is this doing on a painter’s website? But this is so good I had to tell you. Trust me. Didn’t I show you how to paint a floor? Well, er, uh. Well. Oops. Anyhoo…

Check out this Honest Movie Trailer for Mary Poppins to inspire you.

Preamble

I have an 8-inch diameter liner. I had a professional sweeping company come after my first winter in this house and he charged me an arm and leg for the 2-story chimney and refused to do the 3-story because it had rust. The photo shows a true-light image: not touched up. My chimeny got red because it was so old. Hello new chimney.

Hot chimney this photo is real, not enhanced
This photo is real, not enhanced. It was taken with an iPhone one morning!

Cost? $250 for ONE. The small one! Wow. I paid him and said, “Maybe I’ll learn to do this myself”. He said it was not possible because I could not get the flexible rods. Oh? Really? Click to Amazon. Bing. Well, never bing.

Now, I save perhaps $600 every time I sweep. (About $250 for the small and maybe $300 for the large plus tax.)

The cost of the rods? about 1/3 of that! I had to buy the 12-rod option.

I was told to sweep after one cord of wood has been burned (for maple, hardwoods, not pine). This is my guide, but you must check with a pro. I am not sure and I am not writing this a fact. This article is just for your enjoyment reading of what I do to save money and this is not advice: I am a painter, not a chimney expert!

But I do know that if you are too forceful you can damage a liner. On the topic of liners, read this great post about good vs. bad chimney liners. Always get the highest gauge steel, never the thin stuff.

I had the rusty liner section replaced and old very thin flue (that you see in a real photo above)and decided to do it myself. Here is where the fun starts.

The tools I own

First, a good drill 
My drill motor gets very warm doing this and it’s a quality drill. This is hard work for a drill, so I would recommend you avoid a cordless. If you only have cordless, have at least one full battery standing by. You’ll need it. I also recommend my favorite cordless drill set. Pricey but worth every penny.

Main Tool: Cleaning Rods and Brush

This is the key tool. This is what the pros don’t want you to know about. The set costs about half of one professional cleaning. I read the bad reviews: one guy says, “stick with metal brushes”. Bad advice, sir. A metal brush will tear up most liners. If you have clay, maybe ok, but still metal will chip the clay. Other reviews don’t jibe with my experience.

The rods connect by screw, so no chance of rods separating inside the chimney (it does dryer vents too), as long as you only run your drill in the tightening directions. If you reverse your drill, they come apart and you’re bleeped.

You can get the 30′ kit, which is ok for most, but I have a 3 story chimney that uses about 40 feet. So, I bought the 40′ kit. Totally worth it.

Chimney brush attaches by screw far superior to the old kind with the spring-loaded ball

Measure your chimney and add 5% for error. Now click on the link just above, then on the “Holikme store” and they have all these under dryer vent cleaning:

  • 45 foot set
  • 43 foot set
  • 40 foot set
  • 39 foot set
  • 38 foot set
  • 34 foot set
  • 30 foot set
  • 15 foot set

Tape (to make dust booth)
Regular masking tape or other tapes can pull off the paint. (Yes, I’m the painter!) Use painter’s tape which has glue that is very forgiving. Green tape is the better deal, but blue tape is better quality. You can leave it on most surfaces safely. Ceiling paint is probably the most fragile indoor paint, but I have yet to pull any off with my good tape.

Plastic
Lightweight painter’s plastic requires the least tape to hold it up. Get some extra to cover all furniture and especially electronics. Often there will be no soot escaping but this is very inexpensive insurance.

Shopvac (with a good filter!)
You must have a vac with a filter but if you get one that comes with a filter just for ash, you will have less mess. DO NOT USE A SHOP VAC WITH NO FILTER. You’ll just blow black dust everywhere!

This new Stanley is also a wet-dry vac and is well worth the cash-ola.

Also, PowerSmith makes the Cadillac of ash vacs: washable filters (easy to find online too), design such as the metal container just in case some coals are still hot, and small tools designed for a fireplace or stove. If you have the money, it’s worth it. Probably more for pro chimney sweeps. Not free shipping makes it in the 120 range.

Fireplace Mortar (caulk)
To seal the flue/pipe where it could suck your air up the chimney (or leak smoke). This gets as hard as clay after the first burn, and you need to break it and replace it every time you clean, or at least I do. I keep the opened tube in many layers of plastic and it keeps fine. One tube does 3-4 cleanings for me.

Work light / flashlight
Here is my little light but perhaps you want a flashlight you can put on your head or hold in your mouth to see as you first insert the brush as well as during cleanup. There is also an excellent LED light I use a lot.
Multitool

Respirator
I would not recommend a doctor’s mask for this. They leak air around the edges. I use my main respirator described fully in this post. If you prefer a full face mask respirator, read this. (Another option is my CanHeal mask that can work with N-95 medical type mask and does not leak. Small is for children only I found.)

Gloves
Pros wear these but I don’t. I found that taking a shower right away gets it all off the skin and you simply cut and clean your nails.

Misc screwdrivers, socket set, etc.

Highly recommended: A carbon monoxide detector.

I my CO detector on 365/yr. Takes almost no electricity but saves lives. CO is colorless and odorless and deadly. Keep one with your gas or oil burner as well. Anywhere there is a flame.


Prep Day

I put aside an entire day, but I have 2 chimneys and need all that. Gather your tools listed above the day before your day.

I prep the day before: taping a plastic booth around my woodstove, getting my chimney kit out, etc. (I clean my tools before storage so I don’t get black soot on my hands when I set up.)

Dust Booth is key
This soot has a mind of its own, so make a booth that is as air-tight as possible. If all goes well, the job will actually not be very dirty, but just in case…

My makeshift dust booth
I hang my dust booth (plastic and tape) and get out my bags of stuff. I have my mini shop vac dedicated just for this work*, all the used plastic from last time, cloth to cover opening (keeps the soot from flying out) and all the tools except the drill in storage bags I keep in a dry basement.

* Until I got my new vac, I used a mini and kept one washable cloth/paper filter just for the chimney work.

The actual work

Chimney cleaning brush rod blocking dust
Chimney cleaning brush rod blocking dust

Cover the hole with a large cloth that will be ruined (mine is dedicated to this task).

Speedbump:

In my main chimney, I have to make the rods turn a 90° angle that is out of hand’s reach. So I created a system to force it upwards:

After other ideas failed, I came up with just a string to bend the rod up and make the turn. Then I release one end of the string and pull it out so it does not go up the chimney with the brush. This would work with any style brush.

Disconnecting Individual Rods from the Line

If you have screw type rods, skip down to “How to use the tool”.

The most difficult part is to unhook a rod from the drive bit. The bit has a spring-loaded ball that catches the rod and makes it rotate. That ball must be pushed in to slide off the rod.

The key to getting the rod detached from the drill bit without frustration is to push the ball in with the tool the maker provides,* and then JIGGLE the rod to back it off the bit. Then you put the tool in your pocket and pull of the rod. It’s tedious but these rods are part of the same process the pros use.

You have to push the ball to release the rod and the tool they provide is not as good as my custom pusher
You have to push the ball to release the rod and the tool they provide is not as good as my custom pusher

* I use a custom ground tool: see the photo. It’s just an old file that broke off: it makes the perfect tool for this, and I keep it with the kit. I tried to make the tip concave a bit to fit on the ball.

How to use the tool

This time, since I know the basement chimney uses 11.5 rods, I thought I’d push up all 12 rods at once so I won’t have to connect one at a time. Hmm. Then I planned to spin the brush only on the way down.

But it did not really work. There’s no getting around adding one rod at a time. You can try doing two at a time to save some work, but forcing 2 up is tricky. If you have a teen child, put them to work pushing as you slowly drill, and maybe do 3 at a time.

IMPORTANT NOTE: don’t let the brush get caught in your rain cap. Since you don’t know what the interior of the top/cap looks like, feel it out carefully. Do some math as to how many rods you think you’ll need. Measure the chimney from the outside. Count your rods going in. When you feel you are near, or when you hit the top, just spin a bit and come down. If a bristle of the brush were to get stuck in a rust hole or seam at the top, you have to call emergency service and you’ll pay a lot. The brush is very well made and you will not be able to pull it out. And if you leave a plastic bristle in the chimney…. bad.

Also, the whole rig is heavy at the top: all those rods add up. I found that 5 rods can be left without support but 6 rods slide down. But I have a sharp angle.

Don’t forget to spin the sweeper inside the wall connector pipes (flue), and inside the stove itself. Dust will fly.

Clean up

Dick Van Dyke Photo from Honest Trailers
Photo from Honest Trailers

Vacuum out the creosote dust that fell to the bottom. Here’s where you MUST have the paper or cloth filter in that vac. This dust would probably kill a house (carpet) vac, so be careful there.

Replacing the pipes that make the connection from the stove to the wall is the hardest part of the entire job. I have an elbow that swivels and keeping the shape with a 90° and a 45° bend is important for easy replacement.

The guy who replaced my flue showed me how to remove it: just a few screws at the top, and break the old chimney caulk at the bottom. I suggest you ask a pro. Just a one time payment and you learn so much.

Replace chimney caulk a.k.a. Fireplace Mortar in a caulk tube. I have written bout the best caulk guns from England. Never buy from Asia if you can afford a bit more for a lifelong caulking gun.

I get about a gallon of creosote/soot per year (I only burn about 2 cords these days). Careful, this stuff is very flammable. I spread outside near a creek.

Final step

A shower and a cold, cold beer.

Oh …

Once I used a dust mask with a silicone holder. This is what I use where masks are required in stores etc.

See the black! And this cleaning was not a dirtly one as I am getting better every time.

Respirator traps a lot of dust
Respirator traps a lot and the time I did this was a fairly clean event. The filters that come with this are not suitable for a virus, but great for dust.

More on the rods:

On the Amazon Q&A, one dude wrote: “ just be careful not to spin the rods in one place for too long as I melted and broke three of my rods because they heated up from the friction from contact against the side and they broke.” Thanks.

Please leave me a comment if you do this? I’m just a painter and this post is just for fun. I’ll be happy to post some photos if you send me some by email. I’ll see your comment right away.

Good luck!

Brad (the painter and not the chimney sweeper!)

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