Window washer's job has best view in town

Entrepreneur rappels off of Bellingham’s tallest buildings

But Sherman, 60, is just doing his job: washing windows.

From the Dorothy Haggen Building in the Barkley District to the Leopold Building downtown, Sherman has cleaned the windows of almost all the multi-story commercial buildings in Bellingham.

“Each building has a unique challenge to it,” he said. “Old buildings are the most challenging because they’re not designed for window cleaners. You have to find air conditioners or piping you can anchor to.”

Up on top of the Leopold, where Sherman is undertaking a summer-long project restoring old, cracked wooden window frames. He has installed a line of cables that back-up his homemade anchoring system. The anchors consist of two steel clamps that latch onto the lip of the roof and can be adjusted to work on most buildings.

The custom anchors are just one of many simple inventions Sherman has designed to make his work more efficient. As a self-employed man, he is always looking for new ways to save time and costs.

“In all the catalogs I go through, all the equipment is made of plastic and they hardly last six months,” he said. “So I make a lot of my own equipment.”

Glancing in the back of Sherman’s Subaru will reveal his growing list of homemade tools. Extension poles with bike seat clamps rather than time-wasting, screw-on attachments. Shoes with foam soles that give him traction on metal roofs. A custom soap blend that won’t streak. Anchor systems that allow him to move sideways across a row of windows that would normally require him to descend from a single anchor point for each window.

He has also developed a unique cleaning method that allows him to wash a window and squeegee simultaneously, with the brush in his left hand and the squeegee in his right. He developed this technique after a skiing accident years ago left his right shoulder aching after work. So he decided to become more proficient with his other hand.

“There’s always new ways to do things,” he said. “I make sure I don’t waste any movements.”

And the results are paying off.

Sherman stays busy five days a week — sometimes more than that in the summer. Roughly 80 percent of his business is for commercial customers and the remaining work is residential.

“My commercial clients keep me busy all year long and the residential stuff picks up when the weather is nice,” Sherman said, adding that he often employs his sons, both in their 20s, during the summer. “My boys always have a summer job.”

Getting started

Sherman started cleaning windows back in 1976. He graduated from Western Washington University six years prior and quickly got a job in his field of study, teaching. Being the adventurous type, though, he was soon lured away to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he worked and skied in the winter and traveled in the summer.

Upon returning to Bellingham, Sherman began looking for work, but with a new perspective on balancing work and adventure.

“My philosophy changed: Rather than find a job doing the things I like to do, like skiing and rock climbing, I wanted to find a job that would allow me [the time] to do all the things I like to do,” he said.

With its flexible hours, washing windows presented that opportunity. The job requires a lot of motivation, Sherman said, but not much overhead.

“Window washing is perhaps the easiest business to start,” he said. “I got started for $50. My business license was $1 and it’s still good.”

Sherman originally partnered with his longtime friend Randy Elmore, but after two years they decided to split the business due to different work habits — “I like to get going early in the morning and he liked to get going around 9 a.m.” Both have maintained a steady client base over the years and will occasionally work together on large projects, Sherman said.

On the job

Every Friday, Sherman grabs his soap bucket and squeegee and heads downtown, where he has a regular list of businesses on an every-other-week cleaning cycle.

After 33 years in the business, such regularity can sometimes get boring, but such is true for most jobs, Sherman said. What keeps Sherman going is all the people he gets to meet.“On Fridays I figure it’s going to take me longer because I always run into somebody I know,” he said.

One of Sherman’s regular Friday customers is Gerry Kingslien, owner of Bandito’s Burritos on Holly Street. Sherman has been washing Kingslien’s windows since the restaurant opened 12 years ago, and Kingslien said he couldn’t be happier with the service.

“Nobody can really match what he does,” Kingslien said. “And he’s a very personable guy.”

At times when Sherman is a bit more isolated from people, like when he’s hanging off the side of a building, he listens to audio books or political commentaries on his headphones to keep his mind busy.

Sherman said he enjoys that his job is simple enough that “my mind can be busy with something else.”

The job keeps him fit.

“Washing windows is like doing aerobics all day,” he said. “It keeps me limber and I don’t have to spend money on a gym.”

Close calls

Washing windows can be a dangerous business, especially when ropes are involved. Safety is paramount and the penalty for unsafe practices can cost a window washer his or her life.

Ultimately, the responsibility to operate safely lies with the individual, Sherman said. This is a lesson that he said he learned the hard way.

Back in the early years of his business, Sherman was using a ladder to wash the second-story windows at a new condominium complex. He made two mistakes: he set his ladder down in freshly laid and unstable beauty bark and he did not stabilize the ladder at the top.

The building’s slick vinyl siding didn’t help the situation.

“I fell two-and-a-half stories and walked away from it,” he said, adding that he had a soft landing in the beauty bark. “It was the beauty bark that caused me to fall, but it was the beauty bark that saved me. After that I learned to put down a board and stabilize the ladder.”

Rain also presents a safety hazard. For instance, the device that Sherman uses to control his descent as he lowers himself from rooftops doesn’t work well if the rope is wet. Plus, cleaning an outdoor surface in the rain just seems futile.

Despite the area’s rainy reputation, the weather has never held him back.

“I can’t remember a day when I didn’t have enough to do because of the weather,” he said. “It’s not too hot or cold here and there’s enough weather to keep the windows dirty. It’s a perfect climate for a window cleaner.”

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