Chimney Sweep Has Cleaned a Lifetime of Soot

KITCHENER — Henry Rasmussen doesn't dance, sing or have a Cockney accent. But he does clean chimneys, and lots of them. Kitchener's Rasmussen, 66, is a real-life chimney sweep, unlike those jovial, acrobatic workers popularized in the Mary Poppins movie.

He's one of a handful of people left in Waterloo Region who are certified to clean out the chimneys from wood fireplaces and oil furnaces. He's hauled out a lifetime of soot, ash and creosote in a trade that's slowly being phased out by natural gas heating. It is, as you might imagine, not a clean job.

Chimney Sweep cleaning flue

"I'm pretty black at the end of most days. But I have a shower every night whether I need it or not," he said. "It's one of those jobs that people don't want to do themselves."

In 45 years as a mason and chimney sweep, he figures he's brushed, swept and cleaned thousands of home furnace flues, fireplaces, blast furnaces and even pizza ovens. The worst job was at the former KW Granite Club, built during the coal furnace era. He dragged 27 five-gallon pails of soot from the chimney. That was a five-shower gig. Of course it's dirty work, but it's also dangerous, too. There's always the risk of slipping and falling off roofs, and he's had a few close calls.

Once, while climbing inside a chimney flue at a former tool factory in Cambridge, the creosote lining collapsed on him, filling the chamber up to his nose. Wearing a hard hat, goggles and a breathing mask, he escaped only by slowly kicking the stuff away with his feet, and eventually wiggling back down the chimney.

"That's the closest I ever came to thinking 'that's it for me,'" Rasmussen said.

Regulations and practices have changed a lot since the days when asthma, cancer and inflammation of the chest were regular occupational hazards of being a chimney sweep. Rasmussen does what he can to stay safe, but he's not too worried, anyway.

"I never thought I'd make it this far," he said.

Then there's the raccoons — he's hauled plenty of them out of chimneys over the years, and has even adopted and raised about a dozen of them until they were old enough to be released on their own. He's pulled out dead ones, killed after vicious territorial fights, and little live ones, too.

"At one house, I was up on the roof when I pulled the brush out of the smoke chamber, and there were two baby raccoons sitting on the thing," he said. "It scared the heck out of me."

Rasmussen's licence plate on his pickup truck says "Soot 2." His wife drives Soot 1. He says he originally wanted to be a hairdresser, but wound up working as a mason when his job as a lab technician at a glass company ended. After he started building fireplaces, he began getting calls from customers looking for someone to service their chimneys. An opportunity knocked. His company, Masonry by Rasmussen, was born. Rasmussen likes that his work helps keep people safe, by preventing fire hazards and carbon monoxide threats caused by blockages in chimneys. He also enjoys the variety of the job.

"It's like a new adventure everyday," he said.

Then there's the special status chimney sweeps have as good luck charms, particularly among people from Britain. Strangers will occasionally approach Rasmussen and ask to shake his hand.

"If you touch a chimney sweep, it brings you luck. I had a guy come up to me and say, 'Shake my hand. I'm going to buy a lottery ticket,'" he said.




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