Ralph Gardner Jr: A Visit From Dr. Soot 'N Cinder

Nov 18, 2017

Consider kindling – you know the stuff you start fires with – and its ability to sow marital discord?

What promoted me to do so was last week’s hard frost and a visit from our friendly, local chimney sweep – Dr. Soot N’ Cinder.

We happen to be fortunate in that we’re surrounded by trees and have an endless supply of twigs and fallen branches. That’s probably what compels my wife to use vast quantities of the debris to start fires in both our fireplace and wood-burning stove.

Before we go any further let me give you her argument for doing so, even though I haven’t consulted with her about it lately. She’d tell you that we have lousy wood; if we had better wood she wouldn’t need to be so profligately pyrotechnical with our sticks and sprigs.

My defense for being judicious with the use of kindling has the advantage of being honest and true. And I have Dr. Soot N’ Cinder to back me up.

Actually doctors Soot N’ Cinder – Kurt Straub and Bob Balfoort – because both of these able professional sweeps showed up last Saturday to service our flues.

And they attested to the quality of our wood, if only because the build-up of creosote wasn’t as epic as it might have been given how much time has transpired since our last cleaning.

But the main reason for my diatribe is that it typically falls on my shoulders, back and quads to gather the kindling and reduce it to convenient size. Because kindling doesn’t always come in those picturesque sacks of perfectly measured fat wood that places like L.L. Bean sell for an arm and a leg.

And speaking of arms and legs, both are required for me to split and splinter the limbs that fall from our trees, the effort often at peril to my own appendages.

I crack them with my hands, or, with thicker less cooperative pieces, leave them on the ground, step on them to hold them in place, and then snap them with ferocious force, or more than occasionally fail to do so.

All I’m saying is that gathering kindling isn’t as simple or atmospheric as it’s cracked up to be. It’s a precious natural resource and should be accorded respect. Kindling doesn’t grow on trees. Actually, it does. But what becomes of it afterwards is the result of human effort and ingenuity.

My argument is that its ability to get a fire going is less about quantity than strategic placement and its relationship to the logs it’s intended to ignite. And also to yesterday’s newspaper, which I use as a fire starter.

As you can probably guess, I could go on for some time about the right matches to buy and how nearly impossible it is to find strike anywhere matches anymore. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Typically, three connected pages of the New York Times are sufficient. In other words, six pages. But if my wife wants to go to town with the newspaper I’m fine with that. I don’t risk repeat shoulder surgery or rupturing my Achilles tendon scrunching yesterday’s Op-Ed page or the sports section into a compact ball of fissible material.

So it’s nothing short of sad and depressing to experience that sense of well-being that comes with knowing you have an overflowing basket of fresh kindling only to discover your spouse employed half of it to get her last fire going.

And it’s unnecessary because, as I said, doctors Soot N’Cinder informed me that even though we hadn’t had our chimney swept in years, and it was dirty and needed a good cleaning, the creosote buildup wasn’t staggering. We weren’t at imminent peril of immolating the house.

And why? Because we have excellent, seasoned wood.

The way the doctors work is that they remove the damper and thrust heavy duty metal brushes on poles up the length of the chimney, scouring the sides to rid them of creosote.

That’s a dark tar that coats the walls.

Or as Mr. Balfoort put it succinctly, “Creosote is a fuel.”

He also brushed the walls of the fireplace with a hand wire brush and then vacuumed up all the detritus using an industrial strength vacuum cleaner. He did a great job – both the fireplace and the wood-burning stove were spotless by the time he finished.

However, I was slightly disappointed that their mission didn’t require them to climb to the roof of the house. They also didn’t show up in top hat and tails.

Mr. Straub explained that the origin of that evocative dress can be traced back to England. “In the old days chimney sweeps were pretty much considered second-class citizens,” he told me. “In an effort to gain more self-esteem they’d find top hat and tails to wear.”

But Mr. Balfoort said that the profession has become increasingly scientific and high tech in recent decades. In fact, he has taken courses that touch on subjects such as chemistry and combustion, with the National Fire Protection Association, a trade group.

There was some debate between the sweeps about how often one needed to get their chimney swept, the estimates ranging from one year to every three to five years.

But I suspect we can get away with the longer time frame. Due to the quality of our wood and, of course, the excellence of our kindling.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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