November 8, 2011
Colonial Williamsburg’s Brickmakers Ignite Kiln Fires
Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades brickmakers fire up the kiln to burn 10,000 more bricks Nov. 16 – 20. Nearly all of the bricks produced will be used in the reconstruction of the James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury project in the Historic Area.
The November kiln is the second firing this year. A July firing produced 9,000 bricks that were used to build the forges and chimneys for the Blacksmith Shop. Bricks from the newest firing are destined for use in foundations for a workshop, a storage building and an outdoor forge. By year’s end, the brickmakers will have produced approximately 40,000 for the armoury reconstruction project, and they anticipate producing another 10,000 next year to complete the project.
Upon his appointment as public armourer in 1776 by the General Assembly of the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia, James Anderson began to enlarge his small, commercial blacksmithing operation into an extensive and diverse public manufactory — perhaps wartime
Williamsburg’s most important industrial site. 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 Anderson’s 18th-century operation.
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. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Good Neighbor Card is required.
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 actually 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.
The brickyard is located north of Nicholson Street between North England and Botetourt Streets in the Historic Area.
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.
Reconstruction and endowment of the James Anderson Armoury is made possible by a $4.5 million gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr. When complete, the project will reflect the complex and diverse activities of a work crew that included local smiths, French armourers, Scottish Highlander prisoners of war, American soldiers, enslaved African Americans and young men serving apprenticeships.
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. Explore The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum featuring the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670 – 1830 and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Colonial Williamsburg Hotels feature conference spaces and recreation activities from spa and fine dining to world-class golf. Colonial Williamsburg is committed to expanding its thought-provoking programming through education outreach on-site and online. Purchase of Colonial Williamsburg products and services supports the preservation, research and educational programs of the Foundation. 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.