Keep a Safe, Clean Chimney All Winter Long with this Helpful Guide

On cold winter days, there’s nothing more comforting than a warm fire crackling in the fireplace. You can curl up in front of the fire with a book, a movie, or your pet, and enjoy the natural warmth of the fire while snowstorms rage outside. However, enjoying a fire safely means taking steps to ensure that the smoke and carbon monoxide produced by the fire are funneled outside through the opening on the roof. 

If the opening is unclean, blocked, or in dire need of maintenance, the smoke’s ability to leave your come is reduced, and this could lead to a build-up of dangerous carbon monoxide in your home. Chimney-fires are also a hazard. As flammable creosote builds up inside of it, there’s a chance it can heat up to the point of igniting. This is an extremely dangerous situation and causes 25,000 chimney-fires per year.

Signs Your Chimney Needs Cleaning

 When is it time to clean your chimney? How do you know if your fireplace is dirty? There’s a simple technique you can use to figure out how dirty the structure is. Take the pointy end of a fire poker and gently scrape it against the liner. If you notice soot build-up thicker than ⅛ inch (that’s about how thick a nickel is), then it’s time to clean it. Most professional chimney-sweeps recommend giving it a thorough cleaning every fifty to seventy burns.

Tools for DIY Chimney-Cleaning

So, how do you keep it clean? How do you make sure it’s safe to use for indoor fires? Fortunately, cleaning your home’s smoke structure is an easy DIY job you can do over a snowy winter weekend at home. All you need is a few pieces of equipment and some patience, and you’ll be on your way! You probably already have most of these tools in your garage, but if you’re missing anything on the list, you can easily solve this with a trip to your local hardware store.

Here are the tools you need for the cleaning project: 

  • Dust mask
  • Flashlight
  • Safety goggles
  • Shop vacuum
  • Long-handled brush
  • Canvas tarp
  • Large sheet of plastic

Once you have all the necessary tools ready, you can get started on step one of the process. Overall, cleaning the entire structure takes a couple of hours and can be completed in eleven easy steps.

Take a look at our 11-step DIY chimney-cleaning guide below:


Safety First: Get Your Gear On!

Before you crawl into your fireplace, the first thing you should do is strap on your safety goggles and dust mask. The inside of your fireplace structure is filled with soot, ash, and all kinds of particles that will irritate your eyes, nose, and lungs. You can protect yourself from harmful soot by keeping on your gear for the entire cleaning project. If you need to take a break, be sure to properly suit back up before you resume cleaning. 

Inspect the Area for Built-Up Soot

The first step toward getting a clean chimney is doing an inspection. The inspection will shed light on how much soot is built up inside. Soot ⅛ of an inch thick or less is a simple DIY job, but anything thicker requires professional cleaning. The same goes for soot that looks thick and tar-like; this is a material called creosote and needs professional removal. Creosote is highly flammable and the number one culprit behind chimney-fires, so you should absolutely avoid burning fires in your fireplace until the creosote is cleaned out.

Open the Damper and Prepare the Fireplace for Cleaning

If your damper is closed, you’ll have to open it before you have access to the smokestack above the fireplace. The damper is a flap above the fireplace that can be closed when the fireplace isn’t in use and opened when you need smoke to rise safely through the opening. The damper prevents cold air from entering your home via the fireplace, in addition to preventing warm air from escaping from your home during the cold winter months. 

Standard chimney-dampers can be opened using a knob or chain located at the top of the fireplace opening. It’s not always easy to visually tell if the damper has been opened, but you can test for a draft with your hand. If you feel a draft, that means the damper is open! 

Once you have the damper open, you should next open a door or window in your home to equalize the pressure. Wait a couple of minutes before continuing onto the next step to make sure the pressure has adequate time to settle out and equalize.

Clean out the Fireplace

As wood burns, pieces of carbonized wood and ash will collect at the bottom of the fireplace. You can scoop out the waste with a fireplace shovel, or any small shovel or scooper if you don’t have a fireplace set. Once the ash is cleaned out, remove the grate and set it aside The grate will be dirty and covered in soot, so we recommend setting it on your canvas tarp to minimize the mess. 

Plastic Sheeting will Protect Your Interior from the Mess

Speaking of minimizing the mess, let’s get the canvas tarp and plastic sheet set up. Once you start cleaning the structure in earnest, tons of ash is going to start floating around, and you don’t want it drifting out into your home and covering your furniture. 

First, spread your canvas over the hearth of the fireplace and drape the end on the floor in front of your fireplace. The sheet of plastic should be placed over the opening of the fireplace itself. Hold up the plastic at the desired height and use duct tape or masking tape to secure it in place. Leave one lower corner untaped so you can insert the shop vacuum’s hose when the time comes. 

Set-Up You Shop Vac Outside to Vent the Mess Outdoors

The shop vacuum is the most heavy-hitting tool in your chimney-cleaning arsenal. However, it can make a bit of a mess, so we recommend setting up outside. If the vacuum cord isn’t long enough, you can add an extension cord to extend it to the proper length. You may have to add extra length to the shop hose as well, but it’s well worth it! 

Most shop vacuums don’t have filters fine enough to trap the smallest of soot particles, which means they’ll blow straight out of the exhaust port and into your yard. 

Set-Up You Shop Vac Outside to Vent the Mess Outdoors

This is where the job gets exciting! Getting up on the roof is the easiest way to clean out the top part of the structure. Be very careful, as this can also be one of the most dangerous parts of the job. 

Channel Your Inner Chimney-Sweep and Get Sweepin’!

Before the vacuum can filter out the debris, you’ll need to do some serious brushing to loosen up the built-up ash. Grab your sweeping brush of choice and start brushing downward, doing only small sections at a time. You may need brush extenders to reach the bottom depending on how long it is. As you move down the structure and loosen each section, it will naturally fall to the bottom where it will be removed by the shop vacuum. 

Climb Down from the Roof and Move On To the Firebox

Your work on the roof is done, and you’re free to return to solid ground. Now that the upper of the structure is clean, you can start cleaning the firebox. Pull up a small corner of the plastic sheet and slide a long-handled brush into the firebox. 

As a head’s up, this isn’t like brushing your teeth, so you’re going to have brush hard! Put in some serious elbow grease and then check the spot with your flashlight to see if it’s clean. Once that spot is clear, you can move on to the next section. This can be time-consuming, but it’s important not to rush this step; even small patches of creosote can ignite and start a fire! 

Once you’re satisfied with the scrub-job, you can turn the vacuum on and clean up all the ash and creosote you’ve just loosened up. Be sure to give the entire firebox a thorough vacuuming, removing any piles of ash and burnt chunks of wood. 

Remove the Sheets and Clean Up the Mess

There’s no way to avoid it: getting a clean chimney is a messy task. Luckily, by preparing the area with a canvas tarp and plastic sheeting, most of the mess is contained for easy clean-up. Carefully remove the sheeting and fold up the tarp. Bring both outside and simply shake them out to let the ash drift away naturally. 

Close the Flue to Keep Out Drafts

Unless you plan to use your newly cleaned fireplace for a fire right away, remember to close the flue. This will keep cold air from entering your home and creating unwanted drafts.

How Else Can You Keep Your Fireplace Clean?

Going forward, there are some rules of thumb you can follow to prevent your fireplace from getting so dirty and put off your next DIY Chimney sweep service for as long as possible. The best way to keep it clean is to only use firewood that’s been properly split and seasoned. 

You can also keep your fireplace clean by making sure your fires have proper airflow. This type of fire burns bright, quick, and hot, which means it generates less soot and creosote. Slow-burning, smokey fires, on the other hand, generate a lot of creosote and will cause your fireplace to get dirty in no time flat.