November 2, 2012
Colonial Williamsburg’s Brickmakers Prepare to Fire the Kiln
Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades brickmakers fire up the kiln to burn approximately 20,000 bricks Nov. 14-18. The bricks produced will be used in the reconstruction of the James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury project and other restorations and reconstructions in the Revolutionary City.
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.
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 Saturday. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Good Neighbor Pass is required to enter the Brickyard.
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 Revolutionary City.
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.