August 5, 2008
Historic Masonry Trades brickmakers ignite CW's brick kiln Sept. 10 to fire 12,000 bricks
Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades brickmakers ignite log fires for the annual brick kiln burn Wednesday, Sept. 10. This year’s kiln will fire bricks to be used in the reconstruction of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.
The September firing occurs one month earlier than usual because the bricks are needed immediately this fall for the first major reconstruction on Duke of Gloucester St. in 50 years when Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will recreate Charlton’s Coffeehouse on its original foundations, reviving the 1765 hotbed of political, business and social activity adjacent to the colonial Capitol. The reconstruction project is made possible by a generous $5 million gift from Mr. and Mrs. Forrest E. Mars Jr. of Big Horn, Wyo.
After weeks of methodically stacking 12,000 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 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. Sept. 10 - 14.
The brickmaking season begins in mid-spring, after the last 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 late August, 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 covered 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. The bricks are used in Historic Area restoration and reconstruction projects and they must pass tests for compression strength and porosity. Bricks fired this year should comfortably pass modern building code requirements.
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 for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. “Revolutionary City®” -- a dramatic live street theater presentation -- is a 2008 Rand McNally Best-of-the-Road™ Editor’s Pick. 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.