by Justin Bailey



James Vieira

by Justin Bailey

There were four contenders for The Pete Luter Innovation Award for the best new product in the chimney industry, sponsored by Sweep’s News, at the NCSG Convention in 2015.

The winner was The MAJTool — an adjustable roof scaffold system that allows chimney professionals and roofers to set up workstations, on planks, on steep roofs. Using Majtool, workers can move freely about the roof, with plenty of space for materials and tools, gaining the mobility to work effectively. The MajTool is a free floating, quickly assembled scaffold system that works on shingle, tile, and metal roofs with pitches between 8/12 and 14/12.

The other three entrees to the Pete Luter award were:

1) DrySafety: is an alarm that can be installed between the dryer and the transition duct. Pwered by a 9 volt battery, it senses restricted airflow and excessive heat, and it signals an alarm of 3 beeps. Similar products have been marketed before.

2) Poultice Creosote Remover (PCR): created by Saverysystems, is a dry powder. When mixed with water to a mayonnaise-like consistency, it is applied to thick layers of glazed, stage 3 creosote. Upon contact with the creosote deposits, the PCR begins to melt the creosote. As it dries, PCR forms a poultice that weakens the bond between the glazed creosote and the clay flue tiles. The creosote begins to flake off, and is then easier to remove, using mechanical sweeping equipment.

3) ServicePal: is a customer relations management software program that can be used with an ipad and quickbooks online, and has been adapted to the chimney industry with help from Jake Cromwell of Top Hat Chimney & Roofing in Arkansas. At the time of the show, ServicePal wasn’t quite ready for full compatibility with quickbooks, but Cromwell said it will be ready soon. ServicePal combines scheduling, point of sale, invoicing, and checkpointed chimney inspection functions in one customizable online application.

I spoke by telephone with the winner, James Vieira, inventor and patent holder of the MAJTool. A general contractor by trade, Vieira said he does a lot of roofing work, which gave him the idea for the product.

“We were looking for a safer way to be able to work off the roof,” said Viera. “Still being able to work under the surface of the scaffold, without causing damage to the roof. It allows you to lift up the rails if you need to.”

Vieira said the evolution of the MAJTool has been a long process.

“We’ve been testing it in the field for 12 years. We got a patent last year; it took us 9 years. This is the only free floating system there is. We have a 20 year patent on it; they granted us an additional 3 years because of how long it took to get it.”

Funded completely out of pocket “from doing construction work and little by little building the company up,” MAJTool’s manufacturing facility is in “a shop of my own,” Vieira said. “We do all the manufacturing in house. We buy all the materials local, U.S. made.”

The MAJTool retails for $470.00. It comes with two sets of twenty feet of railing, two ridge mount brackets, and four plank mount brackets, giving sweeps the capability to mount two, movable work platforms on a pitched roof.

“I’m getting the best response from the chimney people,” said Vieira. “Our biggest sales day, by far, was the NCSG trade show. It seems like the chimney people are more concerned with safety. MajTool gives you a good solid work platform to hold your tools and materials.”

MAJTool is available directly from the manufacturer. To learn more, go to, send an email to, or call Vieira at 570-341-8960.

Masonry Heater Association, Annual Meeting

Masonry Heater Camp at Wildacres!

By Justin Bailey

The Masonry Heater Association of North America (MHA) had its annual meeting at a retreat center called Wildacres in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina from April 11-17th. The word ‘meeting’ doesn’t adequately describe the week-long festival. I’ve started to think of the experience as “Masonry Heater Camp.”

Accommodations are simple, but comfortable. Everyone shares a simple room with a roommate, and there are enough beds for about 120 attendees.

I first heard about MHA and Masonry Heater Camp when I took a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep Review course from Rich Rua 2014, in Columbus, OH. Rua mentioned that he’d been to the MHA annual meeting as a part of his overall education in the chimney trade. I asked him about it later, and I put it on my bucket list.

But I never had the opportunity to get seriously involved with masonry heaters until last year, when I got a call to look at a gigantic masonry heater, an Austrian “Tile Oven,” built from scratch in the 1990’s. The heater sits in a ski lodge called the Bavarian, at Taos Ski Valley, 10,200 ft altitude. In 2013, a billionaire bought the ski resort, and the masonry heater came with it.

I looked at the heater, asked lots of questions, scanned the flue, and it became clear that I needed more information and knowledge. 8 or 9 years ago, I learned, they burnt some green firewood in the heater, and it hadn’t worked ever since. Nobody could figure out how to fix it. They’d hired a local mason, who just made it worse.

I knew where the firebox was, and where the chimney was, but what lay between them was a mystery. There were no readily accessible soot doors, like Tulikivi heaters have. The heater was massive. I needed a plan. I needed information.

Thanks to the NCSG and the course I’d taken with Mr. Rua, I knew there was somebody out there I could call for help. A google search led me to the MHA, and I got executive director Dick Smith on the phone. He suggested I join the organization. The cost of a full voting membership was $300.00 per year. That’s how much I charged the billionaire for the initial service call/inspection, and I became a full voting member of the MHA. It turned out to be a pretty good investment.

After making some calls and talking with a couple of masonry heater builders from the association, I felt like I could at least write an estimate to fix the thing. I stated clearly in the proposal that there was no way for me to know how long it would take me to fix the heater, or how much it would end up costing. I found space in the estimate to mention that there was exactly one member of the MHA in New Mexico.

I got the gig, and soon enough, I was on the phone with one of the founding fathers of the MHA, Jerry Frisch. Jerry spent over an hour on the phone with me, that first time we talked. He asked me about the heater, and had me take photos of it and email them to him. He said that it sounded like there was a blockage in the flowpath. He told me how to find the masonry cleanouts, and how make the penetrations through the masonry material to access the passageways. When I offered him money for his consulting help, he refused.

“I just want to pass down the knowledge,” he said. “I’m only going to be doing this for another 20 years. My wife and I talked about it, and we agreed that we’ll do this for 20 more years and then we’ll talk about it again.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I said.

“I recently got remarried,” he said. “My first wife passed away. I just turned 80.”

With phone help from Jerry, I was able to get the heater working, test it out, clean the glaze from the flowpath and chimney, and install cleanout doors. I was fascinated and excited with the project. I felt grateful to have the job and the opportunity, and to have the help of the guys from the MHA. The first time we fired up the heater, with glass taped over all the cleanout openings so we could watch the smoke pass through the passageways in the heater, the manager of the Bavarian was happy to see how it all worked.

When I called Jerry Frisch to thank him for his help, he invited me to the World of Concrete (WOC) Trade Expo in Las Vegas, NV. “We’re going to build a masonry heater in the parking lot,” he said.

“Count me in!” I said.

Las Vegas and WOC were a blast, and got to see a masonry heater built by an expert from the ground up. I also helped build a wood fired pizza oven.

Fast forward a few months, I found myself at Wildacres for a week of Masonry Heater Camp. There were masons from the US, France, Russia, Canada, Germany, Finland, and Japan, all of them building heaters on site, answering any question you could think of. Of the 120 attendees, 7 of the masons own and/or operate their own testing labs. The CEO of Tulikivi International had flown in from Finland. Founders of other European startups were there. I’d signed up for the HMED course (Heater Mason Education & Development Program) which was developed by Jerry and Jim Frisch. Jim, Jerry’s younger brother, taught the course.

The classes and seminars included a bricklaying workshop, Chris Prior’s class on masonry arches, a course on emissions testing, and several history courses. I wasn’t able to attend many of them, because the HMED took up the majority of my time. Most days, the last class or seminar would let out around 10:00 p.m., and the festivities would already have begun.

And yes, they have an auction too, kind of like the CSIA action the NCSG convention.

By the time Friday rolled around, the newly built heaters were all fired up and running, including the large pizza oven. Pizzas started coming out of the oven in time for dinner – the best pizza I’d ever tasted in my life.

By nightfall, a group of musicians had gathered to play old standards and folk songs, seated on the warmed, L-shaped bench of a rocket mass heater with a cookstove top, where somebody was making crepes. I got to hang out with CSIA’s Darcy Marlett and Ashley Elridge, who were attending. People were dancing and the beer was flowing.

The pizza party was still raging as I headed down the mountain in my rental car at 2 a.m. to catch an early morning flight out of Charlotte.

The next morning, before noon, (according to photos I saw posted on facebook,) all the brand new heaters and ovens had been disassembled and the materials put away in storage. Ashley Elridge pointed out that the masons and students could learn as much or more by taking apart the heaters as they did when they built them.

In all my years in the chimney business, I’d never enjoyed myself more than I did during the week I spent at Masonry Heater Camp at Wildacres. I’ll be back next year, for sure. I hope to build my own masonry heater in my house soon, and I would like to become a certified masonry heater builder. With the HMED under my belt, I’ve taken the first step, but I have a lot more to learn.

If you would like to attend the Masonry Heater Camp next Spring, google the Masonry Heater Association of North America or go to

Then and Now
I’ve been a certified chimney sweep for years, and a member of the NCSG too on
off. I’ve been getting Sweeping magazine once a month, every now and then I’ve taken
advantage of the many discount opportunities available to guild members from various suppliers
and manufacturers. In business since 2000, I’ve gotten by for years; I paid the mortgage, kept
my one and two truck operation going by borrowing some money from a credit card during the
off season and working insane hours during the fall, often working in the office (which was in the
kitchen) until 11 p.m., catching up on paperwork, billing, putting orders together, replying to
emails, etc.
I never came to a convention because I thought I was smart. I thought I was so smart, I
spent years reinventing the wheel in New Mexico. I was constantly figuring it out when
it came
to technical issues in the field or administrative problems in the kitchen. I’m a problem solver!
Whenever I got invitations to the guild conventions I thought, ‘Why would I want to spend a
bunch of time and money to go most of the way across the country and meet with a bunch of
chimney sweeps? I cant afford that!’
My business: was it growing? No. But the bills got paid. Was I miserable during the
busy season, working 16 hour days? Yes, but that’s the life I chose. Did I have a panic attack
every August, wondering how I could survive another fall? Yes. My staff: mostly drunks and
But things came to a head, and I came to a point in life where it became clear that big
changes were not optional, they were required. As part of my project of becoming a better
human being, I decided that I should visit my elderly grandparents, in their 90’s, who live in
Toledo, OH. The NCSG was happening in Columbus that year, so it looked like I could write off
a trip to visit my grandparents. I booked my ticket, found a cheap place to stay, and signed up
for the convention.
What I found in Columbus at the NCSG convention amazed me. I learned that there are
highly successful, profitable chimney service companies all over the country. They run like real
businesses. Better yet, these companies are owned by wonderful people, willing to share their
knowledge and expertise with somebody like me. I met Mark Stoner, president of the CSIA, who
told the story of his business failures and eventual success to the entire convention.
Presentations by people like John Meredith, Jerry Eisenhour, and Russ Dimmit opened my eyes
to new possibilities. Interactions with other sweeps inspired my to improve myself and my
The connections and friends I made at the NCSG 2014 convention and trade show
changed my business and my life forever. I’ve upgraded most of the equipment we use in the
field. My staff are now sober, responsible citizens. My full time office manager takes care of the
phones, the books, and other administrative duties so I can quit work at 6 p.m. I added another
truck, and my business grew 60 percent in 2014. I’m able to provide them with a real livelihood.
They can take care of their families.
None of those changes would have happened if I had not attended the NCSG
convention in March of 2014.
That’s why, when Sweeping Editor Darcy Marlett asked me to contribute some articles
about the convention this year, I jumped at the opportunity to be of service to the organization.
As I write these words in my hotel room in Lancaster, PA, I’m very grateful to the NCSG
and all the folks who work so hard to make the convention happen. Sure, the wind chill factor is
21 below outside. But I’m nice and warm, and my business is running on its own while I am
here; the team did a relining yesterday and a chimney installation the day before that, and I
didn’t have to lift a finger. My business answered the phone, made deposits, completed payroll,
and one of my sweeps is busy designing our booth for an upcoming home show in Santa Fe,
All of those good things are possible because I tried to do the right thing (visit my
grandparents) and as a result ended up attending a NCSG convention for the first time in 2014.
It was a good family visit; I helped my grandfather with chores around the house, I read books to
my grandmother (she’s mostly blind now) and listened to stories from their life together.
Best of all, with my new financial and business freedom, I hope to visit my grandparents
every year for the rest of their lives, whether there is a chimney convention in Ohio or not.

Eulogy for John Bordelon
By Justin Bailey
I met him at the NCSG convention in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2014. It was my first
chimney sweeps’ convention and I didn’t know anyone. I found myself sitting next to Mr. Bordelon
during the auction, 500 crazy chimney sweeps from all over the country, running around, wearing
costumes what
was the theme that year? Pirates? Polynesia? Puritans? I can’t remember. But I
remember Mr. Bordelon sat in a chair, his legs crossed, a gentle smile on his face. I think he could
tell I was feeling kind of lost. He had a drink in his hand, an easy smile, and we struck up a
The auctioneer was doing it up full blast, moving the mountain of of chimney parts, chimney
tools, equipment, memorabilia, a solid glass lifesized
full of cash floating around the room,
books in foreign languages on the history of chimney sweeps, artwork featuring chimney sweeps,
chimney sweep quilts, chimney sweep mugs to hold the 12packs
of chimney sweep beer, and of
course the official chimney sweep uniforms from Germany with the famous double row of brass
buttons down the front.
Mr. Bordelon watched the whole thing calmly and told me about the chimneys of Lafayette,
Louisiana, where he lived. It made me feel right at home.
So when he sat next to me in the back seat of a shuttle van two years later, I remembered
his white hair and beard, his smooth Louisiana accent. It was the Meirs shuttle that runs from the
Orlando airport to the Rosen Plaza Inn. It was late at night.
Within a minute or so, he was telling me a love story.
It was good to hear that story after the day I’d had, driving through a predawn
blizzard in New Mexico in four wheel drive to catch a flight, thankful for the snow tires, while the giant
flakes accumulated on the pavement so quickly you couldn’t see where the road was. And then
running through airports and riding on planes until nearly midnight. And now we were almost to our
destination, the 2016 NCSG conference in Orlando, Florida.
Bordelon said, as we rode in that van together, that he’d attended his first NCSG Conference
in 1988, in New Orleans, when he was 33.
Less than an hour after he’d arrived in New Orleans for that convention, he was waiting for a
streetcar on St. Charles Street, and he met a woman. He never told me her name. She had a
suitcase with wheels on it, he remembered. He didn’t know if he had ever seen that before wheels
on a suitcase.
When the streetcar came, Bordelon got on with her and sat down across from her and when
she got off, he did too. He went with her to the locked door of the hostel where she’d arranged to
stay for her vacation. The hostel was closed, but they found a way into a garden in a courtyard.
“There, I gave her a foot rub,” he said.
Later that night, at the opening night banquet for the NCSG convention in a restaurant, a
restaurant that rotated, spinning slowly around, “I was drinking with both hands,” he said.
“Meaning you had both hands on one drink?” I asked. “Or a drink in each hand?”
“A drink in each hand,” he said. “Because back then they had free drinks, and we were
getting ready to go hit the quarter, so I wanted to be ready.”
His voice smooth and quiet, like some fallen aristocrat in an Anne Rice novel. They were
together for the week of the convention, he said.
“Then we spent the seven most passionate weeks either of us had ever known at my place
in Lafayette. And then finally one morning we woke up and looked at each other and we said, ‘We
can’t do this.’”
So she went back to Orange county, where she was from, and “once or twice a decade ever
since,” they would meet up for a week or so, including the time when he was at the NCSG
convention in Reno.
“She joined me there, wearing a red dress,” he said. “Somehow the dress got torn in the
hotel room. So she shredded it into long strips, and I wore the lace bodice around my head. I put the
hurt on her so bad in Reno that she came with me to Denver afterwards.”
They enjoyed a road trip through the rocky mountains and parted ways again.
“And just last month,” he said “She came to see me for Mardi Gras and we were at my place
in Lafayette and I took that red lace bodice out and showed it to her.”
He’d saved it, after all those years. They went to New Orleans and spent a week in a hotel in
the French Quarter, where by some stroke of sweep’s luck they had a room with a balcony
overlooking Bourbon Street.
“And I haven’t been able to get her out of my head since the moment she went back home,”
said Bordelon, as the shuttle pulled up to our hotel.
“That was exactly the story I needed to hear tonight,” I told him. “Thank you!”
And ever since, I’ve thought John Bordelon epitomized the romantic soul and the passionate
heart, the zest for life and the tenderness that it seems all chimney sweeps should have.
Rest In Peace, John. I’ll miss seeing you at the conventions.

Introduction to Masonry Heaters with Chris Prior

by Justin Bailey

One of the most beloved and admired members of the National Chimney Sweeps Guild isn’t actually a chimney sweep. Legendary mason Chris Prior, inventor of the Prior Fire masonry fireplace, donates time and energy every year to Sweep’s Week at the CSIA technology center in Plainfield, IN, constructing incredible things out of bricks and mortar. His homestead in Upstate New York serves as the domicile of the New York State Chimney Sweep’s Guild Annual powwow. His Santa Claus beard and the twinkle in his eye have been familiar, reassuring sights at guild conventions for many years. He serves as sort of an unofficial liaison between the National Chimney Sweeps Guild and the Masonry Heater Association of North America (MHA). At the NCSG he and Steve Bushway manned the MHA booth at the NCSG trade show. I asked Prior about his role as ambassador between chimney and masonry trades. “It’s a perfect marriage,” he said of the strengthening bond. He said each group has knowledge that benefits the other group.

Prior’s seminar on masonry heaters at the 2016 NCSG convention represented a new high point in the relationship between sweeps and masons. A giant room at the Rosen Plaza was filled to the brim with chimney sweeps, eager to learn anything Prior has to teach. Although Prior could be seen working on his PowerPoint in the main foyer of the hotel until a few minutes before he presented it, his seminar couldn’t have been better. It was clean, streamlined, informative, educational, and entertaining, and it established him as perhaps the world’s foremost expert on masonry heaters.

Prior began by discussing humankind’s earliest use of fire to stay warm and to cook food. In Western Europe, he said, people were mostly intrigued by the flames themselves, and they enjoyed looking at the fire and getting warmth directly from the flames. In Eastern and Northern Europe, however, people became fascinated with how the heat from the flames could be stored in the rocks around the fire pit. That’s why, Prior explained, as centuries went by, Western Europe turned into more of a fireplace culture, where folks liked to sit around the fire looking at the flames, while Eastern Europe developed the technology of the masonry heater. The Colonial United States was primarily settled by Western Europeans, he said, which is one of the reasons masonry heaters are not very well known in the US. He then launched into the most concise, complete, and informative discussion of masonry heaters I have ever seen or heard. His talk covered the five basic designs of masonry heaters (Finnish Contraflow, Swedish 5 Run, German/Austrian Grundofen, Russian Heaters, and the newest type, called Bell Heaters.) He covered strategies for servicing each kind of heater, and he covered the principles of heat transfer, including conduction, radiation, and convection and how they relate to masonry heaters. As any chimney sweep who has passed the CSIA exam should know, radiant energy emitted from a hot surface travels through the air in radiation waves. What many of us may not know, though, is that radiation waves emitted from a hot metal surface has a short wavelength, whereas radiation from a masonry surface has a much longer wavelength. Longer wavelengths of heat radiation are more comfortable to live with, Prior said. That’s one of the reasons why heat from masonry heaters (and soapstone wood stoves) is so much steadier and more comfortable than the heat that comes from from steel or cast iron wood stoves. A masonry heater is like a battery, he said. When you fire it, you are charging it with energy. Then, the heater does its job and distributes the heat through the space via conduction and radiation over the course of the day. The mass of the heater holds and distributes the heat more evenly than other types of heaters. A typical masonry heater is fired once or twice a day, for about an hour, and keeps the house warm 24/7.

A quick google search will show you all kinds of beautiful masonry heaters, including some diagrams of what the insides look like. But Prior’s discussion gave an in depth description of how masonry heaters work, why they work so well, their origins and evolution, and the fairly recent development of masonry heater technology in the United States. Masonry heaters have
been in use for thousands of years in Europe, they were even used to heat the roman bathhouses in ancient times. Prior did mention that Mark Twain, the great American author who lived in the 1800’s, encountered and wrote about masonry heaters when he was traveling in Europe. Somehow, Prior was able to summon Twain’s ghost from somewhere in the darkness of the audience, and the spirit of Mark Twain, in a southern accent, spoke Twain’s own words to everyone in attendance: One firing is enough for the day; the cost is next to nothing; the heat produced is the same all day, instead of too hot and too cold by turns…America could adopt this stove, but does America do it? The American wood stove, of whatsoever breed, it is a terror. There can be no tranquility of mind where it is. It requires more attention than a baby. It has to be fed every little while, it has to be watched all the time; and for all the reward you are roasted half your time and frozen the other half. Many experts agree with Mr. Twain and consider masonry heaters to be the most efficient way to heat with wood.

The masonry heater association is a valuable resource for sweeps who need help figuring out how to service or fix masonry heaters. Their annual meeting, a week long festival of classes and workshops in the mountains of North Carolina, is growing in popularity. For more information about masonry heaters and the masonry heater association, including a directory of members, go to .