The Brick Kiln

brick kiln

Each October, the brick kiln in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area burns for five days and nights.

Learn more: The Brickmaker


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Jason Whitehead, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, he’s supervisor of historic masonry training. Which means what?

Jason Whitehead: Basically, I run the brickyard, as well as the apprentice program which includes bricklaying and plastering. And, of course, making the materials that are used in both bricklaying and plastering, including bricks and mortar and plaster.

Lloyd: I know a little bit about bricks which are made … still the same way. Clay and water, that’s it?

Jason: That’s it.

Lloyd: Now, this is the time of year when you fire them, right?

Jason:  Right. It’s a once-a-year event. We make and shape bricks all summer, cook them in the fall.         

Lloyd:  How many do you cook at a time?

Jason:  Well you cook all of them – that would of course depend on how many you’ve made in the summer. But we’re going to build a kiln big enough to cook every brick at one time.

Lloyd: You have to, right?

Ken: Right, right. Because the kiln is made out of the bricks being fired.

Lloyd: So there’s no big building, you just pile the bricks up?         

Jason: Right.

Lloyd: How do you get fire to them?

Jason: The kiln is just a big pile of bricks, with tunnels that run through the bottom. The way the bricks are stacked, you create a series of tunnels where your fire will burn. The outside of the kiln can be either closed-in with bricks that have been fired already, or just a real heavy coating of mud on the outside just to keep the heat in.

Lloyd: That sounds like a lot of fun.  

Jason: It is a lot of fun. And then once the kiln is built, you just put the fires in the tunnels in the bottom and just keep the fires going for about five days and nights. Twenty-four hours.

Lloyd:  Twenty-four hours, do you have somebody there 24-seven?
Jason:  Somebody has to be there the whole time, 24-five. Somebody is there the whole time. At least two people, because you have to keep each other awake.

Lloyd: (Chuckles.) When are you going to do that?

Jason: We will start on the 19th of October, which is a Thursday. Run through that weekend, and probably wrap up either Monday night or Tuesday that next day.

Lloyd:  So you’ll start on the 19th. When do you put the bricks up?

Jason:  Well that’s what we’re doing right now in the weeks before the firing. We spend about four or five weeks, literally, stacking the tens of thousands of bricks that are going to be fired.

Lloyd:  How many this year?

Jason: Well this time we have about 16,000. Which is a little bit fewer than last year, but it’s more than a couple years ago. So it varies from year to year.

Lloyd:  It’s all done by hand, and as I remember, by foot as well because you have to walk the air out of the clay?

Jason: Actually, walking through the clay gets the water into the clay. To break the hard, dry clay down into a consistency that you can actually mold and shape and work by hand. And it takes hours of working clay by feet to get it to that consistency.

Lloyd: When you fire it on the 19th, can people come watch?  

Jason: Yeah. Actually the yard is open from 9:00 in the morning until 10:00 in the evening. So you can come during the day, you can go out for supper and come back after supper and see it lit up at night-time. But somebody’s there all the time.

Lloyd: Is it more fun during the day, or at night?

Jason: Well it’s more fun at night. The yard is lit up with cresset fires burning in the cresset baskets and lanterns. It sort of takes on a whole different atmosphere in the evening-time. Especially as the kiln starts to heat up and the bricks inside actually start to glow.

Lloyd: That would be weird-looking.

Jason: Well you have to, I mean, it’s not like the whole kiln is glowing from the outside. It’s when it’s time to stoke the fires and work the fires when you sort of open up the tunnels and the bottom, and you can see inside the hottest part of the oven there.

Lloyd: I know something about you. You are the fourth generation at Colonial Williamsburg.

Jason: Costumed employee.

Lloyd: Ok, take me through it. Who was first?

Jason: My great-grandfather worked here. His involvement was as an extra in “The Story of a Patriot.” He’s the fellow that sits behind John Fry in the House of Burgesses. His best part is, he is the old gentleman who hands out all the muskets to the young fellows signing up to the militia.

My grandfather and grandmother both worked for the foundation. My grandfather ran the Williamsburg Theater, or as it’s called now, The Kimball Theatre, for about 30 years. My grandmother was in charge of the colonial post office in town for a number of years.

My mother worked most of her time behind the scenes, but she did costumed work as well in the evening programs and things like that. And then there’s me. And a fifth generation: my young son was earlier this summer in some filming for a new orientation video that will be shown alongside “The Story of a Patriot.” So there’s the fifth generation.

Lloyd: You just don’t think about that many generations, in modern America, where everybody moves around all the time and goes someplace else. Now you’ve got five generations of people in one place.

Jason: It means we just don’t go anywhere. We haven’t gone very far in life.

Lloyd: (Laughs.) That’s one way to look at it, I guess. Speaking of that, have you ever thought that you might want to try something else? Or is this what you want to do?

Jason: Well I didn’t grow up wanting to make bricks for a living. It’s just how everything sort of fell into place. I started at Colonial Williamsburg 11 years ago, selling hats out on Market Square. And spent two years in that position, and then spent over two years in our Collections and Conservation department working with the antiques in the collections.

I’ve always told people that it was a job, for two years, where you had to stay very clean, and make sure everything else was very clean. After two years of that, I decided I wanted to go the other way, and find a job where you could get as dirty as possible. I knew the fellow who ran the brickyard then, and there was a position open, and it sort of all fit into place.

Lloyd: Back to the firing – this year, you’ve made 16,000 bricks. You’ll fire them on the 19th. Let’s say it goes well and you have 15,500 bricks. What do you use them for?

Jason: The bricks that we make are used all over the Historic Area. Whether it’s in repair and maintenance of, say, the 1750’s wall around the Bruton Parish Churchyard – which we’ve made bricks for before – or the reconstruction of the outbuildings behind Peyton Randolph’s house. All the outbuildings are wooden buildings, but they all have brick foundations and chimneys in the kitchen and things like that.

Lloyd: So this isn’t just a way to keep you occupied, or a hobby: You’re making bricks because you need bricks.

Jason: Right.

Lloyd: Have you ever measured how hot the fire is? Because if you stuff things under a brick, it’s going to burn kind of hot, I would imagine.

Jason: You can over-fire a kiln. We used to always joke that the worst thing that could happen is you could have one, big, giant brick when it’s all done. When everything fuses together. I say we used to joke because then we had a fellow come from Delaware, and apparently there’s an old church by his house, and in the woods behind that old church is a big pile of bricks all fused together. So it could happen, and it obviously did happen.

We’ve been making bricks, in the historic sense, for this incarnation of the brickyard has been around almost 20 years. And for the first 10 or 12 years of that, we were measuring heat in the kiln, using all kinds of thermometers and pyrometers, and things to see how the heat would build in the kiln and how it would spread out through the bricks. And measure the heat every hour, every couple of hours to sort of watch how it’s moving around.

And you do that enough, you don’t need to measure the heat anymore. Because you get a feeling of what’s going on. And you can literally see what’s going on with the heat inside the oven. And so since 1998, we haven’t used any of those scientific equipment anymore. It’s all just done by eye.

Lloyd: How does a brick change as it gets hot? You’ve got this thing made of clay and water, in a square kind of thing. Now you put fire under it and what happens?

Jason: By that point in the process, it is very dry. It has been drying at least a month or two to get as much of that water back out of the clay as possible. So the bricks are structurally sound enough that you could build a house out of them, even if they haven’t been fired. The reason you don’t is because when you have a big rain, your house would turn into a pile of mud. So that’s why you fire them.

Lloyd: That’s discouraging.

Jason: Right. If you live in a desert, that’s your adobe brick. Just sun-dried clay. You don’t have to cook them. A couple of things will happen to the clay when it’s fired. It’s a heat that we know today is around 1,800 to 2,000 degrees. But again, that’s just through years of research; it’s nothing that we actually measure during the firing now.

At that point, the clay will begin to vitrify, which is a sort of physical change where the clay just sort of melts. The molecules melt and start to fuse to one another. And that’s sort of a physical change from clay to brick. Which is kind of an artificial rock. It doesn’t melt when it gets rained on.

It’s also during that process that the brick turns red. The clay that we use in the yard is more of a tan color, and when it dries out, it’s a very sand color – a very light beige. If we used a red clay, we’d have red bricks. If we used orange clay, we’d make red brick. If we use a tan clay, we make red bricks. Because in all that clay, there’s a lot of iron. When the iron is heated, it oxidizes, or turns red. And the shade of red will vary depending on where the brick is in the oven and how hot it gets. So you will have bricks that are kind of darker purples, and bricks that are orange, and hopefully a lot of bricks that are red.

Lloyd: You were saying the guy from Delaware came and told you about all the bricks going together so you have this huge hunk of 16,000 bricks. How does that happen?

Jason: Well that happens when you’re not careful enough with building the heat, and maybe just a little too excited about putting wood in the fire and get it a little bit too hot.

Lloyd: When you stack the bricks, are they stacked one next to another …

Jason: (Interrupts.) They’re stacked one on top of another …

Lloyd: … Or do you leave a little bit of space?

Jason: … With about a finger’s-worth of space between it.

Lloyd: So unless you really get careless, you don’t really have a true danger of all of them melting together in this lump of lump?

Jason: If you know what you’re doing; and that’s why you needed a brickmaker. Because hopefully that’s the person who knows what he’s doing. The kiln’s the only hard part of making bricks, everything else is just work. It’s labor, it’s going to be mostly slave labor historically. But you still needed a brick maker, somebody who knew kind of the overall what was going on and whose real skill lies in the firing process. To know when the bricks are hot enough without getting them to that point where they fuse together.

Lloyd: How did you learn how to do that?

Jason: Well I’ve been working in the brickyard since 1999, and I’ve been involved in a lot of kilns: some of which have burned beautifully, some of which haven’t. And historically, that’s how you learn. Unlike other trades, brickmaking was not an apprentice trade. You figure it out by watching it.

Lloyd: If you watched people make brick, you became able to make brick. So if it’s not an apprentice trade, that means generally speaking it’s not a craft.

Jason: Right.

Lloyd: It’s, as you said, just labor.

Jason: Right. Unskilled labor.

Lloyd: That would be sort of discouraging after you learn how to do something that somebody is tells you is unskilled labor. Not very complimentary.

Jason: Well I mean, historically, brickmakers tended to be lower sorts. People who couldn’t afford to go out or their parents weren’t able to secure an apprenticeship for them to learn a skilled trade. Probably because their parents were also poor and perhaps even brickmaking would pass through generations of families as a child growing up in a brickyard, you pick up on how to do it. And you don’t have the opportunity to go out and learn other parts of the business, or other trades. Most of the work anyway is going to be slave labor. So there’s not much opportunity to pass the trade on there as well. So again that’s why it sort of runs through family generations.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.