Modern chimney sweep feels lucky to have found his niche

Jake Myers of Barnhill Chimney Co. examined the ChimScan video on the screen. The ChimScan allows him to examine the inside of the chimney closely without getting dirty.
Jake Myers of Barnhill Chimney Co. examined the ChimScan video on the screen. The ChimScan allows him to examine the inside of the chimney closely without getting dirty. staff

When you're a chimney sweep, it's probably best to embrace the stereotypes of the trade — the Mary Poppins references and the age-old reputation for bringing good fortune with a handshake or a kiss.

The employees of Barnhill Chimney Co. recognize this. They're quick with the lucky handshake and happy to give you the time of day — shortly after 8 on this particular morning. It's a few days before New Year's, which means the chimney-sweeping part of their business, which also includes sales, repairs, installations and manufacturing, is approaching the end of its busiest season.

"Chim chim cher-ee" sweep Jake Myers says cheerfully as he watches the boss, Brion Barnhill, climb onto the roof to inspect a chimney on Kingsway Drive. Barnhill leans against the clay chimney pots, which shift as he touches them. "Did you see that?" he calls down. The implication is clear: The loose chimney pots need securing or they could tumble off in the next gust of wind.

That would be bad luck for anyone loitering below.

Where troubles melt like lemon drops: Away above the chimney tops is where you'll often find Barnhill, who admits to being addicted to heights.

The Alabama native grew up on a farm, and whenever he'd go missing, odds were good that he could be found up a tree. "It's liberating to be up on rooftops," he says. "'Above the chimney tops' is supposed to typify the carefree moment, and that's where we work every day." Sounds as if he feels lucky to have his job. "I feel very lucky. The old chimney mythology is alive and well."

Inside the house, Myers and Lance Hosey spread out canvas dropcloths from the front door through the sitting room to the edge of the fireplace. Hosey positions the super-filtered HEPA vacuum that will suck up any ash and particles of creosote and hold them securely.

In order to know which stage of creosote buildup they're dealing with, Myers sets up a "ChimScan" and sends a camera up the chimney, then observes the moving image on the video screen like an ultrasound technician studying activity inside the womb. The camera can help diagnose the stage of creosote; it also can detect flaws in the chimney that could cause fire to escape.

"Fire is magic," Barnhill says. "As chimney sweeps, we take care of the place where magic happens."

He appreciates the metaphysical side of the profession. "That being said," he says, "fire is also a scientific/natural process that, as certified professionals, we're trained to know how to make as safe as possible." Contrary to Frankenstein's opinion, fire's not bad; fire just needs clear boundaries, and it's Barnhill and company's job to keep them well defined.

A hale and hearthy bunch: The crew doesn't dress all in black, because they shouldn't get dirty if they're doing the job right. It's the inexperienced chimney sweeps who get the sootiest, Barnhill says. No top hats either, at least during working hours. They're picturesque but not effective.

They do carry circular brushes that have changed little in shape since Victorian times. But their other equipment — the scans, the vacs, the powered rotary tools — would cause a 19th-century sweep to marvel, if the overworked young lad had any energy left in him.

Fortunately, the image of a chimney sweep as a boy harnessed into service almost as soon as he's weaned is one stereotype that child labor laws long ago blacked out. Barnhill Chimney Co. is a robust bunch consisting of five full-grown men; Arrow, the canine mascot; and Jessica Adams, the office manager. Myers stands 6 feet four inches tall. "It's good to have a giant," Barnhill says.

A broom with a view: What draws someone to be a chimney sweep? Barnhill tries to put his finger on it.

"There's something about this trade that attracts a free-spirited personality," he says. "If you actually enjoy doing work 40 feet up on a chimney, that's probably a factor in determining a personality type."

Barnhill got into the job through his brother, David "Fireball" Barnhill, who has his own company in Atlanta. In Lexington, Brion Barnhill began doing chimney work to help pay his way through the University of Kentucky. He found a mentor in now-retired chimney sweep Jeff Gitlin of Nonesuch, who preached the gospel of finding success and happiness in the trade. Barnhill has been building the business since 2000, and Gitlin's business phone now sends customers automatically to him.

Go invest, young man: Headquarters is a building on Delaware Avenue that Barnhill, 34, bought about a year ago. "A wise man told me to buy a building at the first good opportunity." In the front is a showroom for fireplaces and wood stoves, a new feature of the business. In the back is the workshop, where they custom-fabricate chimney caps and chase covers. On Jan. 1, the company went nationwide with a new cap of their own design for manufactured fireplaces that, Barnhill says, solves the problem of leakage caused by caulk failure.

Between the showroom and the workshop is the office, where manager and mascot keep the company's home fires burning, and other members of the crew often meet at the beginning or end of the day. Sometimes the talk turns to unusual experiences on the job — the live animals that jump suddenly from fireplaces with claws extended, the dead ones that are extracted with their teeth bared. Barnhill marvels at the many remarkable homes and horse farms they've been called to, places where "the age of the place is thick in the air." One home had a huge room furnished only with an organ. At another farm, he saw "hobbit-like houses built into the massive stone wall" that surrounds the estate. "Lexington is a lot more interesting than many people realize," he says.

Some would say that makes those who live there pretty lucky.