By 7 a.m., Steve Comstock has been up for two and a half hours. The Orange resident is one of eight men standing around the Chimney Sweep Fireplace Shop’s loading dock in Shelburne in the early-morning chill. It’s their last restful moment before beginning a busy day of lifting 500-pound stoves, sawing through plaster and siding, and building chimneys out of 4-foot sections of metal pipe.
Hands stuck in jeans pockets, Comstock chats familiarly with his truck mate and fellow stove installer Ed Bailey, also from Orange. Comstock, a broad-shouldered 30-year-old with three kids at home, has been on the job nine years; Ed, 27, has accompanied him for the last seven. The two are cousins — and, Comstock adds with a smile, over there are his cousin Damien, brother Allen and brother-in-law Josh. “It’s a family business,” he says with the broad vowels of a native Vermonter; he was born in Berlin. “We all carpool up here together.”
Comstock drives one of the Chimney Sweep’s four Shelburne-based trucks. The company, which has branch stores in Barre and Plattsburgh, recently added one to its Shelburne fleet to keep up with the growing demand for sustainable-fuel heating sources. “There was a point, before they hired my brother-in-law [in September, to drive the fourth truck], when I was booked out till January,” Comstock says. “It’s been a crazy summer; usually summer’s our slow time. I worked a few Saturdays to catch up.” Even with that extra truck, Comstock is booked through December.
While the other truck drivers specialize in installing particular types of stoves or building chimneys, Comstock and Bailey provide all of the store’s services: gas-, wood- and pellet-stove installations, inspections of all three and chimney building. Comstock recites the day’s schedule as he fills the tank with diesel: a gas-stove installation in Burlington, an inspection in Underhill and a wood-stove pickup in Morrisville for an installation in Shelburne.
Their first job is relatively easy. The small, black gas stove with elegantly curved legs weighs a mere 180 pounds, and the cousins are only slightly out of breath by the time they get it up the customer’s front-porch steps and into the living room. A woodstove that size would weigh closer to 300 pounds, Comstock says.
But when they begin cutting through the Depression-era house’s living-room drywall to create the vent hole, they discover a screen of horizontal wooden boards. Comstock guesses they were put in years ago to keep the insulation from falling down. After more sawing, a thin, crumbling white sheet of unidentifiable material dislodges itself from the falling debris — possibly asbestos. “In old houses, it happens quite often,” he comments neutrally.
All in a day’s work for Comstock. In between jobs, he takes time out to talk stoves with Seven Days. SEVEN DAYS: Did you recommend a natural-gas stove to this customer?
STEVE COMSTOCK: That would have been whoever she spoke with in sales. To me, I woulda gone with the wood, even in Burlington. The price of gas, you can never tell what it’s going to cost . . . You got people [who] put gas stoves in four, five years ago that are switching back to wood.
I’d recommend wood to anybody because of the price. If you’ve got trees, then, really, other than the woodstove and chimney, it’s free heat. If you can go out and cut it, it’s a little bit of work, but that’s what I do.
With gas stoves, as far as the owner, you just flip a switch and they’re on. That’s a lot of what people are trying to compare: the effort and the pricing.
SD: What do you own?
SC: I have an old Fisher [woodstove]. I haven’t broke down and bought a HearthStone yet, but I want the Mansfield. HearthStones are really nice stoves. They’re right out of Morrisville. Yeah, there’re a few of them that are named after Vermont places: We got a Shelburne, there’s a Bennington, there’s a Barre — that’s the new one.
HearthStone and Jotul, from Norway — those are the two we sell the most of. Ninety percent of what they’re selling is woodstoves, from what I see go out the door.
SD: When did you last install a pellet stove?
SC: I did a pellet insert two weeks ago. Other than that, it’s all wood. Roy [L’Esperance, owner] just started selling [pellet stoves] again this year — he sold them for a while; then he got out of them.
Woodstoves are simple. You got air, you got firebrick. You got the pellet stoves that are all fuses, computers, circuit boards. So it’s pretty obvious what you’re going to have less issues with.
SD: How long does it take you to build a chimney, compared with this job?
SC: When we install the full woodstove and chimney, it’ll take us anywhere from four to six hours, depending on the job. Yesterday, we did one that went through the basement up through a guy’s tile floor, up to his second floor, up to his attic and up through the roof. So there’s a lot more you gotta watch out for, a lot more planning.
SD: What’s the worst thing you’ve come across during an installation?
SC: Bats. Bats in the attic. That’s one thing that does bother me. You stick your head up through the hole and a bat flies by you.
SD: Apart from business increasing, what changes have you seen over the years?
SC: Faces change a lot, as far as help. The job’s real physical. The heaviest stove we’ve moved around is the HearthStone Equinox, which is pushing 800 pounds. We’ve installed a few of those. [The store] tells the customer to make sure we can back up to the door at least. Most of the woodstoves we do weigh about 500 pounds average. We got an appliance dolly with straps, but it takes two people working together a hundred percent to do it. Busy as we are, moving four or five of them in a day, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to keep coming back to work to do that.
The first year, I noticed aches and pains. But after you get used to it, figure out where to grab [the stoves], what’s the best way to push, you know. For me now, it’s not so bad.
SD: How did you get into this?
SC: My uncle [Tim] ran his own business, Deuso’s Black Magic [a chimney-cleaning business that sold wood- and pellet stoves] out of Moretown. My brother Allen worked with him right out of high school. Then Tim talked to Pete down in Barre — that’s Roy’s brother [who runs the Barre branch of the Chimney Sweep] — and ended up coming here. A year or six months later he called my brother and got him in here. Allen’s been here 10 years now. He’s always run the wood[stove] truck. Al’s a workhorse; he’ll do five, six, seven jobs a day. I couldn’t run that truck.
After I graduated high school, I did electrical work with Bates and Murray in Barre. They’re pretty different, electrical and building. Too many bosses in electrical work, too many people above you.
SD: What will you do after you’ve finished the last job today?
SC: Load up the truck for the next day, punch out at 4:30, drive all the way back down to Orange, go bow-and-arrow hunting. I got [a deer] Saturday. Went out and bought another bow license, so I’m not done yet.