October 16, 2009
Brickmaking season goes up in smoke when masonry tradesmen ignite CW's brick kilnThe Historic Trades brickmakers of Colonial Williamsburg ignite the log fires of the annual brick kiln burn Wednesday, Oct. 21 to finish the brickmaking season.
After weeks of methodically stacking 15,000 unfired bricks that were molded and air-dried since mid-May, the brickmakers begin the five-day burn that will raise internal kiln temperatures to more than 1850° Fahrenheit. The kiln also will re-fire 2,000 partially fired bricks from previous brickmaking seasons. When fired, the bricks will be used for restoration and reconstructions in the Historic Area and Great Hopes Plantation. Bricks fired in the 2008 kiln burn were used in the most recent reconstruction, R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse.
The kiln firing is a 24-hour operation as the brickmakers fuel the kiln fires day and night. Once the target temperature is achieved, the fires are left to die and the kiln begins to cool. During the active firing, the brickmaking site is open to the public 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 21 - 25.
The brickmaking season begins in mid-spring, after the chance of frost has passed. Brickmakers, eagerly assisted by barefoot guests, tramp through the brick “mud” pit, thoroughly mixing clay and water to the consistency of bread dough. It’s one of those rare occasions when parents actually encourage their children to “play in the mud.” Until early September, the brick mix -- or “mud” -- is molded into “green,” or unfired, bricks and allowed to dry in the open air for at least five days before being moved under cover to continue the drying process. After a one-month minimum of covered drying, the bricks are ready for stacking in the kiln.
The kiln typically produces three grades of brick, distinguishable by color. Most of the bricks will appear dark red, indicating the strongest bricks. Bricks farthest from the kiln fires acquire a salmon color; these bricks are softer. Bricks closest to the fires often acquire a dark glaze as potash from the wood fuel bonds with sand in the brick clay. These bricks are the most brittle and are often used in decorative masonry patterns.
The brickyard is located north of Nicholson Street between North England and Botetourt Streets in the Historic Area.
Colonial Williamsburg’s brickmaking program began in 1987 with funding support from the Warren W. Hobbie Charitable Trust of Roanoke. The brickmakers began by investigating and testing 18th-century brick formulas, kiln construction and drying and firing techniques. They also consulted ceramics engineers, soil experts and modern brick manufacturers. Since the bricks are used in restoration and reconstruction projects, they must pass tests for compression strength and porosity.
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. 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 www.history.org.