Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia has a growing brick making business to provide handmade bricks for rebuilding traditional colonial buildings for their living history town.
Traditional methods make new bricks for the old town.
In the 18th century, it was the slaves, indentured servants or local laborers who would do the hot tiring work of making bricks for the growing town. Today, the employees of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation recreate these tasks to make authentic bricks for the new buildings being reconstructed. Visitors to Williamsburg in the summer can watch the workers making the bricks, which are set out to dry in the heat of the hot summer months.
Lend a hand or a few feet to help.
What was hard work to the early colonists may look like fun to kids who visit the historic town on vacation, so there will be opportunities to get involved. The brick makers may ask for help from bystanders. According to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “children particularly enjoy stomping water into the native Virginia clay with their bare feet.” If your kids love getting down and dirty, this is the place for them. After the bricks have been formed and left to thoroughly dry, they are fired in the fall in the wood fired brick kiln. The kiln is stoked 24 hours a day for five days until it reaches about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, then it cools down for a week or more. Visitors in the fall can watch this process of firing the bricks.
How bricks are made.
The Colonial Williamsburg website provides a detailed description of the brick making process. Water is stomped into the clay until it is smooth, then the clay is piled on the molding table, where any debris is cleaned away. The loaf of clay is then dusted with sand to keep it from sticking, thrown into the mold, and smoothed off with a stick. The bricks are dropped into soft sand and left for about a week, then stored out of the weather to dry thoroughly for about six weeks. About 20,000 bricks are stacked in the oven, with a small space between them to allow the fire to draft. The oven is sealed with clay, and the wood fires are lit. The fires burn for six or seven days and nights, with the brick makers monitoring constantly and adding wood as needed. The bricks are left to cool for at least a week before they can be removed from the kiln.
From Thomas Jefferson to modern England.
Thomas Jefferson had slaves to make the bricks for his Monticello home. His crew of three laborers and one molder were particularly skilled brick makers who could mold 2,000 bricks a day. A slave with such skills was highly valued.
Colonial Williamsburg brick makers have actually recreated the 18th century brick making methods with such accuracy that they have shared their skills with the mother country, England. A brick making company in Bellingdon, Buckinghamshire, England uses traditional hand made molding methods for historic restoration projects, but used oil fired kilns to fire them. They wanted to make wood fired bricks, so the Colonial Williamsburg brick makers headed to the United Kingdom to teach what they call “the forgotten arts and mysteries of wood-fired brick kilns” to the British artisans.
Visiting Colonial Williamsburg.
On your next visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, you can watch this process of brick making, and admire all the brick buildings around this living history town from colonial times. Look around at all the brick buildings and picture the amount of work each one of those wonderful old buildings represents, and perhaps lend a hand, or your feet, to help build the next reconstruction project.