Burning Bricks.

brick burn

If you have never seen a brick firing at Colonial Williamsburg, you have missed out on one of the Historic Area’s more evocative experiences. The smell of wood smoke, burning cressets by night, the intense heat emanating from the kiln, the glow of the oven doors…this is a multi-sensory experience, and among our visitors’ most anticipated annual events.

This year, reconstruction at James Anderson’s Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury required not one, but two brick firings. The first firing, in July, produced about 9,000 bricks. Last Wednesday, November 16th, fires were lit for a second time, as 12,000 brick were readied for use in the Armoury outbuildings. It’s hard to say if brisk fall temperatures made this a more pleasant experience for the brickmakers. More than an inch-and-a-half of rain fell on Wednesday night, and with temperatures hovering in the thirties, it was a trying start. Interestingly, weather conditions do not affect the length of the firing. This one lasted for five days, wrapping up on Sunday with temperatures inside the kiln at roughly 2000 degrees. Eight cords of wood helped fuel those fires. Now comes the waiting period…more than a week…. as brickmakers wait for the kiln to cool sufficiently to assess the results.

A note about terminology: though commonly called a “kiln,” Colonial Williamsburg’s brickmakers are actually firing a brick “clamp.” A kiln is a permanent structure. Once the firing is over and bricks have been removed, a kiln is still there. A brick clamp, on the other hand, is constructed of the bricks that are being fired. Once brickmakers disassemble the clamp and and deliver them to the Armoury, there will be no lasting evidence of the “structure” you see in the images below.

Although we would like to give all webcam watchers access to the brick-firing, we have been stymied by connectivity issues. The images below should give you a taste of the last week’s activities.


  1. Jane Tressel says

    Do I remember correctly that nogging was going to be used between the exterior clapboards and the interior wall planking? It looks like they’re closing up the walls without using it. If it were used during the period, would it have been used throughout the downstairs?

    • Ken Schwarz says

      Jane- Your observations are correct. Our research shows that several contemporary armouries used nogging in the walls. I presume that this is done as a security measure. In order to access the weapons inside, the enemy would have to pry off the exterior siding, chisel out the brick nogging, and then break through the interior sheathing to get into the building.

      In our discussions about whether or not to place nogging in the walls, a concern was raised about long-term maintenance. Bricks can attract and hold moisture, especially as the season changes from winter to spring. The cold mass of the bricks causes moisture to condense inside the walls- not a good thing. Since we are a bit less concerned about break-ins (we have other means of security at the site)we decided not to put nogging in the walls, except where there is no interior sheathing. The interior of the stairwell is not sheathed, so it is being nogged as the stairs are constructed.

      Our hope is that this will reduce maintanance costs, and increase the life of the building in the long run.

  2. Ken Schwarz says

    Keith- To my knowledge, there is no evidence of cast iron fire pots in eighteenth century forges. What I see in documents and old photographs is a cast iron nozzle, or “tuyere” that feeds air into the forge fire horizontally from the side. The forges have been built with a square “box” under the chimney flue opening to hold the fire, and a tuyere set into the brickwork under the chimney openings and directed into the fire. There are no fire bricks in the forges, just plain brick.

    • Keith says

      Ken, thanks for the reply! Yes I am familiar with a side draft forge! I gues that would have been a better way to put it… side or bottom draft… no cast pot just the brick “box” for the “nest”. Would it be possible to post a drawing or model of the forge, the fire pot and the flue? They seem to draw well, plans of a known design that draws well are hard to find.

      Thank you for all your work on this project!!

      P.S. Are they going to be moving the cameras indide now that the exterior is closed in?

      • Ken Schwarz says

        Keith- I will try to put together a piece on the forge operation as we begin to set up the forges, probably in January. In the mean time, I will see how much detail we have on our digital models, and perhaps we can post one of those images.

        When I looked at the “roving camera” this afternoon, it was located inside the attic space of the Armoury watching the carpenters lay down flooring upstairs. I am sure that it will be placed inside for much of the winter, as that is where the action will be. Stay tuned!

    • CW Archaeology (Meredith Poole) says

      There are two different sized forges in the armoury reconstruction: one is 5’9″ wide by 6’0″ deep; the other is 4’1″ wide by 6’0″ deep. Both are based upon remains found archaeologically.

      • Keith says

        Meredith, thanks for the response! Are they using a cast iron firpot with a firebrick hearth(to protected the bricks) or did the masons build the pots?

  3. Ronald Heberle says

    Wow, I enjoyed the pictures and wish I could have been there for the firing, maybe someday in the future. Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving.

  4. Catherine Burch says

    We were there visiting. It was truly a special treat to see. The staff were super explaining things. The fires leading us to the brickyard at night were very special. We really stepped back in time. Super job!

  5. storrey long says

    Thanks for all the photos!!!!!

    What kind of wood do you use? Do you ever add any salts to the fire to get a glazed effect?

    • CW Archaeology (for Jason Whitehead) says

      We use a hardwood mix, primarily hickory and oak. We don’t add any salts to the mix to affect the glaze on the bricks. The glazing is a natural effect caused by the potash from the hardwood fuel combining with the clay. It will only occur where the fires are directly on the bricks and the potash can accumulate.

  6. Dafad says

    Fascinating and informative facts, combined with web cam views, watching each day as The Armoury changes, as has your weather(all this whilst sat at home in U.K) just amazing !!
    A well earned Thanks Giving to ALL who make Williamsburg a pleasure to explore via the virtuality of the web.
    Have a wonderful celebration.

  7. Kerry says

    Question and a comment.
    Could you share with us how the bricks come out of the kiln in a little different shade. I did a little research on the camp kettles.Seems Washington wanted the men to carry them in linen bags with slings.Request for 600 bags and slings were ordered from the quartermaster in MD. 1781. As you have mentioned the Anderson shop was very busy.It is funny,from
    1975 till 82 I was an active solder for both sides and never saw many kettles.Last, did anyone ask Eleanor home for Turkey dinner? Keep those bricks coming guys!

    • CW Archaeology says

      According to Jason Whitehead, “the bricks vary in shade due to the different heat from top to bottom and middle to outside. The darkest bricks appear where the fires were most intense at the bottom, while the lightest colors, or “samel” bricks come from the outer reaches of the stack with the least intense heat..”

      Thanks for the results of your camp kettle research (it takes a village to build an Armoury!). We may need to look into having linen bag and sling makers on site. It would certainly broaden our interpretation!

      As for Eleanor, I think she was on her own for Thanksgiving. I can vouch, however, for the fact that (just moments ago) she enjoyed a nice can of beef with gravy (which is apparently what all the Armoury workers were eating). Eleanor is hardly neglected! Now if we could just teach her to make linen bags….

  8. says

    I SO very much wish I could have seen this. Nice job Brick-men. Also…a VERY HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all you Armoury blogger out there! And thanks to all our ancestors, for without them we would not be hear to BE thankful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *