While it is always a good idea to have your chimney and fireplace cleaned and checked by a professional once a year, you can do some general cleaning yourself on occasion. Fireplace cleaning is important to prevent dangerous fires due to buildup and to ensure that everything is working properly.
Safety When Cleaning Your Fireplace
The first thing to remember when cleaning your fireplace is that coals can stay hot a long time. It is best to wait at least 24 hours after you have a fire in your fireplace before you start your fireplace cleaning, and even then – be cautious when you first start removing ashes. Coals can still be burning when you begin, so focus on safety first.
Another safety consideration is creosote and ash inhalation. Professionals will often wear respirators when cleaning chimneys to prevent breathing in these substances. Since you are probably not going to grind away serious amounts of creosote on your own, a basic facemask is probably enough to prevent inhalation of larger particles.
Wearing gloves, a breathing mask, and clothes you do not mind getting dirty, begin by shoveling and then sweeping out all of the ashes in your fireplace. You can add these ashes to your flowerbeds or your compost pile if you like, or deposit them in the garbage. Just make sure there are no live coals in there before you do so!
Once the majority of the ashes are shoveled out, you can use a shop vacuum to pull out the remainder of the dust and ashes. You can use a stiff brush to brush any remaining material off of the fireplace bricks or backing material. You will only be able to remove so much without a professional cleaning, but it is still worthwhile to brush off any loose material. Sweep all this up and then perform an inspection after the fireplace cleaning.
Look to make sure your damper fully opens and closes, check for cracking or missing mortar, and check how much creosote (the black buildup) has accumulated. If you see more than a quarter inch or so of creosote, you should have the chimney professionally cleaned as soon as you can to prevent possible chimney fires.
Check to see how your fireplace doors are working and if the hinges need oiling. You can clean them if you like. This can usually be accomplished by using a razor blade to scrape buildup off of the glass, followed by a dishwashing detergent solution and water and some elbow grease.