Chimney sweep Benjamin Schultheis, 34, has his own sweeping district in the Rhön
“Turning the gold buttons on my jacket is said to bring good luck.
It's hard for me to tell if that's true, but I know what it will definitely do: dirty fingers.
I will never forget how a woman jumped up to me to touch my buttons and then verbally abused me because her white dress was then stained.
She probably didn't realize why we chimney sweeps wear black gowns.
The soot comes through the gloves itself
When I come home in the evening, everything about me is coal black. The soot gets through everything, even your gloves. When I started as an apprentice 19 years ago, the jackets were still reinforced with leather, for example on the elbows. So you couldn't just put them in the washing machine like that. Today it's different, I wash my jacket every weekend. But already after the first use it is dirty again.
Now in winter I clean chimneys every day. My sweeping district is in the country, here many people still heat with wood, and regular cleaning is important to prevent chimney fires. Most of them are happy to see me. They like to leave a lucky charm in their house, and the subject of luck is often the starting point for a short small talk. For me, that is simply part of maintaining a good relationship with customers. For some I am even like a kind of pastor, they pour out their whole heart to me. But not a day goes by without stupid sayings. I come by more or less without an order from the homeowner to do my prescribed work, and then I hear sentences like: »You again? Well, it's going to be expensive fun again. "
Sure, my hourly wage as a chimney sweep is higher, but unlike, for example, carpenters who also earn money on the material, we only have to finance ourselves through the pure service. And cleaning chimneys is difficult and sometimes dangerous work. Climbing roofs in ice and snow is a challenge. I know several colleagues who have already fallen from roofs. One has been paraplegic since the accident. We have to secure ourselves financially against such risks.
The sweeper weighs four to five kilos, I also have to lug a ladder with me, and in every house I walk from the bottom to the top with it.
I easily get 15,000 steps every day.
Very few chimney sweeps therefore do the job until the retirement age of 67 years.
As masters, most of them have employees who do the sweeping for them at some point.
Until recently, I had two employees myself, but both of them gave me notice at short notice.
One of them has found a job as a journeyman for which he does not have to commute so far.
And the other one had just finished her apprenticeship with me and now wants to reorient herself because the job is too physically demanding for her.
I am very sorry that she is giving up her job completely.
I invested time and money in her training for three years and would have liked to have hired at least another chimney sweep: If you have a sweeping area in the city, you have to climb up roofs less often and wait for gas boilers more often, which is a lot physically is less strenuous.
There is a shortage of skilled workers in our industry, and people are wanted everywhere.
I am afraid that it will be difficult for me to find a replacement too.
But the nice thing about the craft is that colleagues help each other.
I will try to borrow apprentices from other master chimney sweeps.
This is quite common, and I, too, have already loaned employees out to colleagues who were just getting overwhelmed by their work.
When a journeyman snatches the sweeping district away from his boss
Our sweeping districts are put out to tender every seven years.
Any trained chimney sweep with a master's degree can apply.
Whoever wins the contract is determined transparently here in Bavaria using a point system: The marks of the journeyman's and master’s examination, but also advanced training courses or membership in the volunteer fire brigade count.
A lack of professional experience can, for example, be compensated for by seminars or additional training as an energy consultant.
I know a journeyman who applied for his boss's sweeping district and got more points than he did.
So he snatched the sweeping district away from his master.
That was of course bitter for him, but I think that's fair.
As a district chimney sweep, you are responsible for the so-called fireplace show: every homeowner has to have the operational and fire safety in his house checked twice every seven years.
This is required by law.
If there is an accident, such as the leakage of fatal carbon monoxide, the responsible district chimney sweep or the person who was the last to check the fireplace must answer.
The sweeping work becomes less and less
In principle, every chimney sweep can take over the chimney cleaning and inspection of the fireplaces, the district chimney sweep only needs to receive proof of the test. This can lead to the curious case that a new district chimney sweep has no customers for the "free" activities in his own sweeping district.
That happened to a friend of mine: his predecessor, who had lost the district due to the point system, signed contracts with all customers shortly before the handover. Out of 2,500 households only around 100 were willing to hire him as a new chimney sweep for sweeping. The only thing that stuck with my friend was the paperwork. He couldn't live on it. He then loaned himself out as a journeyman to other chimney sweeps across the country - and after seven years applied for a different district.
Fortunately, in my sweeping district, most of the homeowners are my customers too.
At the moment I can hardly keep up with work.
It is impossible to take care of 2500 households alone without journeymen, even if the sweeping work becomes less and less.
I used to have to sweep the chimney six times a year in many houses, now two or three appointments are enough.
The inspection intervals are getting longer, and many customers are switching from heating with wood pellets or gas to heating with heat pumps.
And we chimney sweeps are not responsible for checking heat pumps.
Systemically relevant work
I am a trained energy consultant myself and have already recommended heat pumps to many customers - even if that means that as a chimney sweep I can no longer earn anything from them.
I am practically doing away with myself.
That is strange, but I still have no fear of the future: I have already built up additional pillars, from measuring airtightness on buildings to gas stalls, and fire protection will always be important.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many were surprised that we chimney sweeps still came into their homes.
But our work is considered to be systemically relevant.
What happens when, for example, gas boilers are not properly maintained, you see again and again: In the worst case, people die.
It is no coincidence that chimney sweeps of all things are considered lucky charms.
In the Middle Ages, entire neighborhoods often burned down because the soot in a single chimney had ignited.
Chimney sweeps brought security - and thus happiness - into the house.
I think it's great to be considered a lucky charm.
For me, being a chimney sweep is more of a calling than a job.
Actually, I wanted to learn to be a car mechanic after school, but I would have had to wait a year for the apprenticeship position.
My uncle was a chimney sweep and arranged an interview with a colleague of his - in the middle of a fire brigade party.
I hadn't even considered the profession, but after an internship I was thrilled.
And that’s what I am to this day.
I wear the outfit with pride every day, only the top hat I leave off.
You keep bumping into the narrow skylights. "