Williamsburg’s most prestigious buildings start with humble clay. Brickmaker Jason Whitehead tells the story.
Harmony Hunter: Hi. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. You don't have to look far down Duke of Gloucester Street to see evidence of the brickmaker's trade. His work is the fabric of many of the buildings in the Historic Area. Our guest today is supervisor of Historic Masonry Trades, Jason Whitehead, who has come by to tell us about the legacy of the trade he practices today. Jason, thanks for coming by.
Jason Whitehead: Not a problem. Thanks for having me.
Harmony: So I said historic masonry trades. You actually work in the brickyard making bricks?
Jason: For most of the summertime, yeah, that's where we work in the brickyard making bricks, everyday.
Harmony: I want to think about this trade in the 18th century. Who would have been making bricks?
Jason: Well you have a person that's known as a brick maker. Usually that's going to be a free person. This is a professional job, just like anybody else practicing a job or a trade. We don't really use the word trade so much in our work because it wasn't considered skilled work. There's no apprenticeship or anything like that.
But you have a person who is known as the brick maker, usually a free person, and that person would have a certain skill set, certain knowledge base like how to fire bricks in a kiln and such, that not everybody would have. Most of the physical work of making the bricks in the brickyard would have been done by forced labor. So a lot of slaves, maybe even some convicts and indentured servants, but primarily it's slave labor who did the physical work of making the bricks.
Harmony: For somebody who hasn't visited the brickyard, where does the process of a brick begin? How is a brick born?
Jason: Brick is born when you dig a hole in the ground and get clay out of the earth. And in this part of Virginia, clay is the ground so we can practically dig a whole anywhere they let us and make bricks out of it. Most of that clay digging would have happened in the winter months when you weren't able to make bricks anyway because the weather's too cold, the clay would freeze with water in it and such so that was a good job that the laborers might have in the later fall into the early winter just digging, literally, tons and tons and tons of clay out of the earth and just piling it in heaps, allowing the winter to break it apart and freeze and thaw it. So by next spring, you don't have to dig clay anymore because it's ready to go. So that's where it starts.
And then we have a mixing area where we can put the clay and water together in like a pit in the ground and then you literally mix the two together with your bare feet. You're walking around in your feet breaking the lumps of clay up, making it all nice and smooth, getting out anything that's not clay, like if there's a rock or a piece of iron or shell or a frog. You know, whatever's in the clay, you want to get it out.
Harmony: So you dig the clay, you tread the clay. After that what do you do?
Jason: Then it would be put up onto a table where a brick molder would work shaping the bricks. That person's going to grab a ball of clay and, roughly enough clay to make a brick. Something in a modern sense, smaller than a volleyball, but about that size. That gets coated with some dry sand, so when it gets pressed into a mold it doesn't actually stick to the wooden mold.
The wooden molds that we use are very much like the wooden molds you would have seen in the 1700s. They usually do two bricks at a time and then you scrape off whatever clay is left on top. Then another person, in this case usually a child, would have the job known as off-bearing. So they would be carrying the filled molds from the table where the molder works out to a cleared area somewhere on the grounds where the bricks can be set out in the sun to dry. Then they take the empty mold right back and get it filled up again. Of course, while they were walking away the molder was filling up another mold, so they just turn around and carry two more bricks out to dry.
Harmony: And then they're fired. I think people might not expect that the kiln that bricks are fired in is made of the bricks themselves?
Jason: Right. The firing happens at the end. You've got an order. Let's say a customer needs 50,000 bricks. So the brick maker and the laborers are going to mold and shape and dry 50,000 bricks. And they only take a couple days to dry out so then you have to stack them off to the side in some weather protected area, whether it's in a shed or a barn. We have a large drying shed in the brickyard, but you might also get away with just covering the stacks of bricks with planks and tarps to keep the weather off of them once they're dried. Then once you finish making all the bricks, you build what's known as a clamp. A clamp is basically a type of kiln that's built completely out of the bricks you intend to fire and you stack them up. The clamp is a stack of bricks, usually about 10 feet high, maybe about 10-12 feet deep and as big as it has to be across the width to stack up all the bricks. At the bottom of that you leave a series of tunnels where you're going to put the fire underneath the bricks and you would normally have one fire tunnel for every three thousand or so bricks. So you could build a kiln or a clamp with 9,000 bricks, like we fired back in July that was 10 feet tall and had three fire tunnels on it. Or you could build something like what Mr. Jefferson was looking at in 1778 at Monticello, which was a clamp of 103,000 bricks that was 10 feet high but had 36 fire tunnels in the bottom.
Harmony: So you must have to give a lot of thought into how heat is going to travel through this clamp or this kiln in order to get all those bricks cooked?
Jason: Yeah, the bricks are stacked about the space of your fingers left in between them so the heat has a way to sort of get up through the pile until it comes out the top. The top layer of bricks are set flat and usually tight together, which sort of gives you a cap. To contain some of the heat the outer sides, there are a couple of ways you could finish off the outside of the clamp. If you have some bricks that have been previously fired, available, you can use those to build what's called a casing, which is just sort of an outer shell you stack on the outside to help keep the heat in and then you would apply a layer of mud or clay over that just to kind of seal up the outside. If you don't have any previously fired bricks available then you simply apply the mud or clay layer just right onto the unfired bricks and seal it up that way.
Harmony: And you've got a special vocabulary for the different types of bricks that you're going to end up with?
Jason: Right. When you fire a clamp, if you get a little more than half the bricks, maybe 50 to 60 percent of the bricks they'll be well-fired. That's a good firing. You're always going to have some over fired bricks which are normally known as clinkers. Your darker colors, your hardest bricks that got, in some cases they can become very hard, which make them very hard to cut or shape if you need to do that when you're building a brick wall.
In some cases they can also be even misshapen by the incredible heat and stress they're under. They can warp, they can twist, and in some very extreme cases they can even fuse together, so you might get lots of bricks just all stuck together that you really can't do anything with, which doesn't happen that often. You'll also get a percentage, maybe 20 percent or so, of undercooked bricks which would be the top layers, the outer most layers of the pile, that just, they're never going to get hot enough anyway. They're still good enough to use normally, but would really just be used for fill brick inside a wall so they're not the outside brick in the weather.
Harmony: In your work today, do you find that the bricks that you make are used to replace or repair 18th century structures?
Jason: Yes. We have a couple projects going on right now that are using as many bricks as we can make. Right in the Historic Area there's the Anderson Armoury reconstruction that's going on. Last year, we produced about 23,000 bricks for that job. This year, we'll probably produce about the same number and it's pretty much all just for the Anderson project.
We're also part of an effort in the Historic Area, a big conservation of masonry effort that's just started up in the past couple of years. There was an evaluation done of all the structures, originals, reconstructions, and just sort of see what the state of the masonry is and whether it has to be repaired, replaced, whatever has to be done with that. So we're involved with that work as well.
Harmony: What happens to brick over time? What's the natural enemy of brick?
Jason: The natural enemy of brick is water. Masonry buildings, they need to be able to breathe water in and out. They get wet either through weather, you know, rain and snow, ice, whatever, but they also get wet by just being in the ground. They absorb moisture from the ground and that water has to be able to sort of move in and out of the wall pretty easily, which over time can cause traditional mortars, I mean over time meaning hundreds of years, that just sort of slowly break down and have to be re-pointed, replaced. That's just normal maintenance of a building.
What's happened though really within the past 100 years is a lot of that maintenance work was done using more modern materials which work differently than the old stuff did, and can actually cause a lot more water to be trapped within the masonry which can make the problems even worse. So, we've undertaken where we're removing cement-based mortars that were used say 20 or 50 or 80 years ago and putting back in the traditional materials and then replacing whatever brick have suffered because of that.
Harmony: Thinking about brick buildings in the 18th century, do we find that it's the more prestigious public buildings that are made of brick versus those that are made of wood?
Jason: Well, your government buildings are made out of brick. I mean, in town the Courthouse, the Capital, the Palace, the College, the Church, the Magazine. Those are your big brick buildings, and they're all owned by the government. If you're out in the country, living in a county somewhere, in truth the only brick buildings you might ever see were the Courthouse and the Church, but then again those are government buildings.
Bricks in construction for houses, they are generally reserved for people who are doing pretty well for themselves whether it's upper middling sort or the gentry class. But you see some of the middling sort who are able to at least build a brick chimney on their house, which is better than somebody else who is building a wood and mud chimney on their house, which is your only other option if you want to build a chimney on your house.
Harmony: We've said in Virginia, clay is plentiful. How are they getting bricks to other colonies that don't have a good source of natural clay?
Jason: Well, clay is plentiful not just in Virginia, but really along the eastern seacoast. So, you know, folks from the northern parts of Florida or Georgia, all the way up into Pennsylvania and Jersey, there's not as much brick making happening in parts of New England, but there is still some.
Where clay isn't readily available, then you typically don't find a lot of brick work, but you might find stonework because you might not have clay but you've got rocks everywhere; field stone, quarry stone, whatever you got. You just work with what you have.
Harmony: I imagine that if I were the brick maker and I could look at these brick buildings I had made there'd be a like a great satisfaction in seeing those completed. Do you feel that satisfaction and do you think it's something that you would have shared with your 18th century brick making counterpart?
Jason: Everybody who works in the brick yard, there are three of us who work here full-time, and are really not just learning the brick making but we are also involved in the bricklaying and the construction aspects of it so I think we all get big kicks, you know, if you see a chimney that you built and there's actually smoke coming out of it or something it's like, you know, "we did that." I speak for myself, but I think I can speak for everybody else that works down there that we all sort of share that.
Whether or not they would have felt that sort of pure pleasure every time smoke came out of a chimney, I doubt it, but there is something to just stand back and if you've built something like the Wythe House and you made a quarter of a million bricks for something like that, you know. That's a job. That's a pretty good job.
Harmony: Jason, thanks so much for being our guest today.
Jason: Not a problem. Thanks for having me.