Firing the brick kiln

Christine Trowbridge explains the laborious process of making bricks and the intangible rewards of the job. October 10, 2005

Transcript

Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org.  This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time I’m asking Christine Trowbridge who is the master brick maker at Colonial Williamsburg, and the first question has got to be “What is a master brick maker?”

Christine Trowbridge:  That is a very good question. A master brick maker actually didn’t exist in the full form in the 18th century. And what I mean by that is most trades required an apprenticeship to be served to learn how to do that trade. Brick making is what you would call an unskilled trade. It’s a labor. It’s not something that you need to serve a seven-year apprenticeship to learn how to do. Typically in a trade, you would serve a seven-year apprenticeship; you’d become a journeyman; those journeymen then can branch out on their own, open their own shop, and declare themselves a master of that trade. Brick making is just a labor. Slaves, indentured servants, convict servants are set to this labor. And, there’s one person who knows how to maybe fire the kiln, maybe knows some arts and mysteries of the trade, and you might call that person a “master” in quotes, but he wouldn’t fully hold the title of master.

Lloyd: Okay, so the master brick maker, who is not the master brick maker, how do you make bricks?

Christine:  (Laughs) Making bricks is actually very simple, as I said. It is a procedure of taking clay straight from the earth, softening it with water, drying it, and kiln firing it. 

Lloyd:  Nothing but clay and water?

Christine:  Nothing but clay and water, and in our region – we are on a peninsula between two rivers – all of our soil is clay, so it’s a wonderful place to make bricks.

Lloyd:  Nothing but clay.

Christine:  Right, so the resources are there.

Lloyd:  Okay, so here at the brick yard, I don’t see a kiln.

Christine:  You’re right. Brick kilns are one-time use structures. You build a kiln every time you are ready to fire a batch of bricks, so you are only firing typically once a year. Brick making is very much a seasonal occupation. It is something you can only do in the warm weather between the frosts of the year. So you spend your summer shaping your bricks, and then come fall, you take those bricks, and you pile them up to create a kiln, and you bake them before the winter arrives.

Lloyd:  So, you don’t bake them in the kiln, they are the kiln.

Christine:  Thank you, yes, exactly…exactly.

Lloyd:  Okay, okay, that makes sense. I know a little bit about ceramics, but that’s not the same thing at all.

Christine:  Very different, in fact, ceramics, making pottery here in the colonies was illegal. It was something that you had to purchase from England …

Lloyd:  Oh really?

Christine: …so any potters that you hear of were working under cover.  (Laughs)

Lloyd:  Were there any that you know of?

Christine:  There were. There was “the poor potter of Yorktown.” So-called poor potter. Apparently, archeologically we have found his operations; he had a huge kiln, obviously a big operation. Well, the king had heard about him, and the king wrote the royal governor and said, “What is this I hear about a potter in Yorktown?” And the governor wrote back and said, “Oh, don’t worry about him, he is just a poor potter, and he is of no threat to your kingdom.” And the king let it go at that, but from what we have found, he had quite an operation, so there was a black market for such things.

Lloyd:  That would have attracted me, only because of the black market. Doing wrong is so much fun…

Christine:  (Laughs)

Lloyd: So you get all these brick, and what? Once a year you fire them, because you said it is between the frosts?

Christine:  Between the frosts, right, so our season is…you could start making bricks here in April. We start typically in June, and spend June, July, and August shaping our bricks, and then every October we have a grand kiln firing. And we manage to make between 15,000 and 20,000 bricks a year on this yard, so that means our kiln stands about 14 feet tall. It’s a solid cube of bricks, maybe 12 feet deep, 14 feet tall, and however long we need it to be to accommodate that number of bricks that we have.

Lloyd:  How do you make a fire hot enough?

Christine:  You tend that fire 24 hours a day for five to seven days.

Lloyd:  What temperature are you trying to get?

Christine:  We’re trying to get to a place where the bricks glow yellow with heat, which is well over – we know now – 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lloyd:  That’s the same temperature they try to make glass at, 2,000 degrees, which is supposed…

Christine: …a little cooler than glass…

Lloyd: …a little cooler?

Christine:  Yes, yes, it’s hot like that.

Lloyd:  A couple of times you’ve said “shape the brick.” How do you shape the brick?

Christine:  Shaping the bricks is…

Lloyd:  You’ve got clay and water, that’s it – blam.

Christine:  That’s all you’ve got. You’ve got the clay. You are taking it right out of the ground. You are putting it into a mixing bowl, if you will, ours is a big pit in the ground. You add water to it, you take your shoes and socks off, and you walk through that clay with your bare feet, and that smoothes it out and gets it to a nice dough. And, we have a ball doing that, kids come and help us all summer long. Our guests are welcome to come in and “mush” the clay. Walking through the clay does smooth out the lumps; it mixes in the water, and it pushes the air pockets out of the clay for us.

So, in pottery you need to wedge your clay, the walking though does that for us. Then the clay is brought to a table where a wooden mold is placed. The wooden molds are two bricks long, so you can shape two bricks at a time in this pine mold. You sand the inside of the wooden mold. You sand the outside of the loaf of clay, and then you throw it in to the mold and you press it down. The sand is your release agent; that’s going to allow that clay to slide back out of our mold. It’s like using flour when you bake, so your cake will come out of the pan.

Lloyd:  Or silicone when you do car repair.

Christine:  (Laughs)Sure.There you go – any analogy that works for you. So, you are shaping two bricks at a time typically, and then this filled mold is carried – and it weighs about 25 pounds when it’s full – it’s carried from the table out to a drying field out to the sun, where the mold is tipped over, and the clay can slide out…and begin to dry…

Lloyd: …because of the sand…

Christine: …right, because of the sand, and the sun is going to help it to dry.

Lloyd:  So, you are carrying…all day that you are making, shaping the brick, you are carrying 25 pounds at a time out into the sun, turning it over, releasing the brick, going back…you don’t look that big.

Christine:  (Laughs)Actually the people who usually do that job are children – between the ages of eight and 12 years of age. They are the ones carrying this 25-pound mold back and forth, and they are making 1000 bricks a day, so you are talking about 500 trips back and forth, for a child, it’s a workout. Like I said, brick making is a labor. It’s something that the poorer folks are said to…

Lloyd:  Yeah, you said that from the very beginning – not a journeyman, not a master, you just…you make brick. That’s what you do. So, did you tell me how many brick you make in a summer typically?

Christine:  We make between 15,000 and 20,000 typically.

Lloyd:  How many have you made this year?

Christine:  20,000.

Lloyd:  20,000. Now, when you make the 20,000, do you quit?

Christine:  No, no, we don’t. We stop with the weather, when the weather gets to a point…you know we have to count back from the frost. Say the frost arrives November 1st. All of our bricks need to dry for six weeks; we need time to build our kiln, we need a week to fire the kiln; we need two weeks for that kiln to cool down, so if you start counting back from November 1st, really, right around Labor Day we need to stop making bricks, stop shaping bricks, and we need to turn towards building our kiln, allowing those bricks six weeks to dry, and then burning the kiln…

Lloyd:  I hate to ask you this right out loud, but it just occurs to me, have you ever had a kiln that just went terribly wrong?

Christine:  Thankfully no, not yet. (Laughs) I guess the possibility always exists.

Lloyd: No, I mean, everything is being done by hand, you are even building the fire by hand, you get no help at all; the opportunities for something to go wrong are everywhere.

Christine:  Oh, they are huge. Yeah, huge. A brick kiln has so many variables, that you’re right, you have great opportunity for failure, but the nice thing about it is there’s a lot of room, or margin for error in this process. It’s not a perfect technology. Imagine having fires down low, and I guess that is what you should understand about the kiln, it’s 14 feet tall, but there are tunnels down at the bottom where the fire goes. And then the heat travels through this 14-foot-tall stack of bricks. Well, you can imagine the bricks closest to the fire are getting much hotter than the bricks 14 feet up in the air.

So out of every kiln that you fire, no matter how well you fire it, you are going to get three qualities of brick. You are going to get these bricks down at the bottom that get burnt. You have to burn some in order to get the majority of your kiln a good heat so that then you end up with some up top that just don’t get hot enough. The burnt bricks are clinkers, and they tend to be brittle, the red bricks are the strongest, best bricks, and the orange bricks are called salmon bricks…and they are very soft, they are going to absorb moisture, they are going to freeze and crack over time.    

Lloyd:  Okay, of your 20,000 brick, how many will be good brick?

Christine:  No one knows until we break open that kiln after we fire it.

Lloyd:  Oh. Okay, the answer is “whatever…”

Christine:  But the nice thing about that is though that maybe we get the kiln a little too hot, so we have an abundance of clinkers, of burnt bricks. They’re still usable. They’re not the best bricks in the world, but you can still build with them.   

Lloyd:  Oh, okay…

Christine:  So, an ideal ratio would be 70% good brick and then 15% clinkers, 15% salmon, but if your ratio changes a little bit, so you get…

Lloyd:  Can the salmon be used?

Christine:  The salmon can be used; they are the trickiest to use, though. You don’t want to use them in a place where they are going to see weather. So on the exterior of your building is a bad place, in the ground in a path is a bad place, but you are building walls that are three bricks thick – lengthwise – thee bricks thick, you have a lot of space inside that wall where the weather isn’t going to reach the brick…

Lloyd: …where it wouldn’t make any difference whatever…

Christine: …so you can use the bricks in that situation, or you can burn them again…We know Thomas Jefferson, he had a brick maker named John Brewer come to Monticello, and he made 103,000 bricks in one season, in one summer…they fired one kiln…

Lloyd:  He didn’t shape them by himself, come on…

Christine:  No, he had slave labor, he had Jefferson’s slaves, but it was only a gang of four or five people producing all of those bricks. They fired a kiln of 103,000 bricks, and Jefferson rejected 13,000 of them as being under-fired. Jefferson didn’t even want to fool with them; he didn’t want to use them at all. So, if Brewer was smart, and we don’t know, the record doesn’t tell, he re-fired those, which you can do. You burn them over, you make them stronger, so that’s an opportunity.

Lloyd:  Now, you’ve got these – in your case, we’re going to predict 20,000 perfect bricks…

Christine:  Absolutely!

Lloyd:  What does Colonial Williamsburg do with them?

Christine:  We use them here in the Historic Area for reconstruction work primarily. Specific projects will be chosen, for example, we just finished Peyton Randolph’s property right up the hill. We reconstructed his nine outbuildings that we found archaeological evidence of, and we actually used the original foundations that were still in the ground, and we used our bricks in those foundations, and built right off of those, those existing foundations.

Lloyd: You’ve answered all the professional questions, now a personal question – how does a person get to be a brick maker?

Christine: It makes you scratch your head and wonder, doesn’t it?

Lloyd: It does indeedI mean if you said “computer programmer,” okay

Christine: Okay that’s fine…for me, I come with a background in history; I come with an interest, a strong interest in historic preservation and preserving buildings. And what better way to understand preservation than to understand how you actually make the materials to begin with. And, I think that’s what led me to brick making.

It’s a wonderful…you know, it’s only what we do in the summer time. We lay bricks, and we plaster buildings, and we burn oyster shells to make lime for mortar and plaster; we do lots of other things, brick making is a summertime occupation, and you know, it’s very rewarding. You turn around at the end of the day; you see what you’ve done with your day. You see what you have managed to produce, and then you see these buildings being built, constructed out of the bricks that you made out of dirt, out of clay right out of the ground…so…

Lloyd:  I can see the reward to it. I don’t understand the attraction. Essentially what you are doing is you are playing with dirt all day.

Christine: Yes, you are making mud pies.

Lloyd: Yeah, you are making mud pies, and then you are building a huge fire.

Christine: It’s a childhood dream!  You just answered your own question.

Lloyd: I guess it appeals, but…

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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