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February 6, 2009

Historic Trades brickmakers use oyster shell to produce quick lime for masonry mortar using centuries-old technology

Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Masonry Trades craftsmen begin a weeklong process of producing lime for mortar Monday, Feb. 9 at the Brickyard in the Historic Area.

Guests have the opportunity to learn how oyster shell is burned and processed to make mortar and plaster for the reconstruction of Charlton’s Coffeehouse near the Capitol. The masonry tradesmen begin by constructing a “lime rick,” a methodically and tightly stacked circular pile of wood fuel and topping it with a mound of oyster shell. After five days creating the pile, the rick is set ablaze. It will burn for a day or more, reaching temperatures close to 2,000° Fahrenheit. As the rick burns, the wood ash and oyster shell fall into the center of the fire.

After the fire burns itself out, the burned remains of the oyster shell, now chemically known as quick lime, are recovered and combined with water to make lime putty for plastering, or mixed with water and sand to make mortar for brick masonry.

The masonry tradesmen plan to use the mortar mix this spring to re-point the 18th-century brickwork in the masonry foundation of the Charlton Coffeehouse. During the summer, they will use lime putty for interior plastering. The coffeehouse is the largest reconstruction project undertaken in the past half-century on the Duke of Gloucester Street – the Historic Area’s main thoroughfare.

Construction of the lime rick is scheduled Monday through Friday, Feb. 9 – 13 at the Brickyard off Nicholson Street in the Historic Area. The burn will occur Saturday, Feb. 14, and the brickmakers will process the burned shell into quick lime Sunday and Monday, Feb. 15-16.

Richard Charlton, an 18th-century Williamsburg wigmaker, converted an existing storehouse into a coffeehouse—a single story-and-a-half wood frame building over a brick cellar with a porch running along the entire front of the structure.

The reconstruction will provide an exciting new venue for Historic Area programming including using the porch as a principal stage for scenes from The Revolutionary City® and special event performances.

One of the most dramatic encounters of the period leading up to the American Revolution took place on the porch of Charlton’s Coffeehouse in 1765 when an angry crowd protesting against the Stamp Act confronted the appointed collector for Virginia, George Mercer, and demanded he swear an oath that he would not distribute the official stamped paper. The royal governor, Francis Fauquier, intervened and saved Mercer from the crowd. Mercer later resigned his position and the Stamp Act was repealed by the British Parliament the following year.

Reconstruction of Charlton’s Coffeehouse is made possible by a generous $5 million gift from Mr. and Mrs. Forrest E. Mars Jr. The Historic Masonry Trades program has enjoyed generous support from the Warren W. Hobbie Charitable Trust, Donn Branch and Charles D. Fox III.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution guests interact with history through “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281