Brickmakers at Colonial Williamsburg re-ignited their brick kiln Wednesday, the Historic Area’s second kiln burn of the year. The kiln fires require stoking for five days to push the kiln’s internal temperatures to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
All of the bricks produced this year are for use in the reconstruction of the James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury, perhaps wartime Williamsburg’s most important industrial site.
Upon his appointment as public armourer in 1776 by the General Assembly of the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia, Anderson began to enlarge his small, commercial blacksmithing operation into an extensive and diverse public manufactory. 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 the present blacksmith’s shop.
The James Anderson Blacksmith and Public Armoury reconstruction, already under way, will require more than 25,000 bricks in three different sizes to complete. Two different brick sizes went into the first kiln burn in September of approximately 13,000 bricks. The December kiln will consist entirely of bricks in the third size — about 13,000 more.
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-Sunday. The brickyard is located north of Nicholson Street between North England and Botetourt Streets in the Historic Area.
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. The brick mix (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.