February 9, 2010
CW brickmakers re-introduce lost art of wood-fired brick kilns to United Kingdom
Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades brickmakers re-introduce the forgotten arts and mysteries of wood-fired brick kilns to the United Kingdom later this month.
Skilled and experienced in 18th-century brickmaking methods, the historic masonry trades artisans will demonstrate the assembly and burning of a wood-fired kiln for a family-owned company in Bellingdon, Buckinghamshire, England that specializes in brick production for historic restoration and reconstruction projects. The company currently uses traditional handmade molding methods and modern machine technology – including oil-fired kilns — to produce brick and wants to add wood-fired brick to the company product line.
Historic masonry trades apprentice Bill Neff begins constructing a kiln by hand in late February at the H. G. Matthews Brickworks. Historic masonry trades supervisor Jason Whitehead joins Neff a week later to manage the firing of the wood-fueled kiln. The kiln-firing process should be similar to the annual brick-kiln burn in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area — stoking the kiln 24 hours a day for five consecutive days to push the internal kiln temperature to nearly 2000° Fahrenheit, then allowing the kiln to cool down for a week or more.
The project is a result of a meeting last fall between the Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers and the Matthews family arranged by Dr. Gerard Lynch, an international authority on traditional brickwork who specializes in the art of gauged brickwork — decorative work requiring cutting and rubbing bricks to various sizes and shapes. This type of brickwork, often found around doors and windows, was very common throughout the colonial period and is found extensively in Tidewater Virginia. Dr. Lynch has been very interested in re-creating wood fired bricks in England for restoration work and has been working closely with the Matthew’s brickyard who are also interested in this process. “The family invited us to do this demonstration,” Whitehead said. “They want to be able to offer their clientele wood-fired brick for restoration projects that has a more authentic appearance than oil-fired brick. Wood firing creates a wonderful glazing on the bricks exposed to the wood fires that just can’t be replicated in a modern process.”
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our brickmakers,” said Jay Gaynor, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of historic trades. “It is always a rewarding experience for our tradesmen and women when they get to re-connect with the British roots of their trades.”
H. G. Matthews Brickworks is third-generation family owned and operated company that began making bricks in Bellingdon in 1923. They supply a wide variety of bricks for restoration and modern construction.
Whitehead will again represent Colonial Williamsburg and return to Bellingdon in the late spring for the brick company’s “open days” and demonstrate the firing process to an invited group of conservators, architects and others in the trades who deal with 18th century and earlier brickwork.
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 www.history.org.