December 7, 2010
Colonial Williamsburg Brickmakers to Burn Second Kiln Dec. 8
Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades brickmakers re-ignite the brick kiln Dec. 8 — the Historic Area’s second kiln burn of the year. The kiln fires require stoking for five days to push the kiln’s internal temperatures to nearly 2,000° Fahrenheit.
All of the bricks produced this year are for use in the reconstruction of the James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury — perhaps wartime Williamsburg’s most important industrial site. Upon his appointment as public armourer in 1776 by the General Assembly of the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia, Anderson began to enlarge his small, commercial blacksmithing operation into an extensive and diverse public manufactory. The reconstruction of Anderson’s industrial complex will include an armoury, a kitchen, a privy, two storage buildings and a tinsmith’s shop — all located on the site of the present blacksmith’s shop.
The James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury reconstruction, already under way, will require more than 25,000 bricks in three different sizes to complete. Two different brick sizes went into the first kiln burn in September of approximately 13,000 bricks. The December kiln will consist entirely of bricks in the third size — about 13,000 more.
Firing the kiln 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. The brickyard is located north of Nicholson Street between North England and Botetourt Streets in the Historic Area.
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 — one of those rare occasions when parents actively encourage their children to “play in the mud.” 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.
Colonial Williamsburg’s current 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. Bricks fired this year should satisfy comfortably modern building code requirements.
The reconstruction and endowment of the James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury is made possible through a $4.5 million gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program. Philanthropic support by individuals, corporations, and foundations benefits the educational mission of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
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. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at www.history.org.