Yesterday I noticed that several big chunks of the clay I’d dug out of the pond were bone dry, so I chucked ’em in the wheelbarrow and began the long, laborious process of making bricks. Emphasis on labor.

First I built a brick mold out of some 2x4s I had lying around. I know most bricks are 2x4x8, but I didn’t think it would be worth trying to build a mold to achieve a specific desired final dimension since I have no idea what the shrinkage rate is going to be on these suckers. I just went ahead and used the lumber as-is and ended up with some big honking mothas.

This wooden form is based on the wooden brick mold I saw in use at Colonial Williamsburg’s brickmaking site. You fill the mold with clay and then level off the tops with a flat piece of wood (I just used my hand).

To make up the clay, first I had to beat all those huge bone-dry clay chunks with a hammer into very fine bits and powder – otherwise it wouldn’t dissolve. (I found maybe three pebbles in the whole wheelbarrowload- this is very pure clay.) If I had a mechanical pug mill I would feel confident enough to use it straight out of the ground, but it’s much too stiff and dense for me to even try to work all by myself. So instead I just waited for the shovelfuls I had pried out of the ground to dry on a tarp, banged them into powder, dumped that in a bucket of water for a few minutes, and transferred the resultant drippy goop (trying to leave all the water behind) into a huge rubbermaid tub where I mixed it with straw.

I came really, really close to just getting in and mixing it with my feet colonial-style, but decided I’d rather not have wet feet and ended up doing all the tedious mixing by hand. For like half an hour. Bent over, lifting 10lb wads of clay. Dignity 1, back muscles 0 – mixing clay, even soft sloppy clay, is hard work. The next time I have a whole wheelbarrow-load to do (and oh boy there are so many more wheelbarrow-loads of clay in my future – to give you an idea, this whole batch made only 22 bricks, big bricks but still), I’m setting up the laptop in the sunporch so I can watch some TV or a movie or something and I’m stomping mindlessly away in that muck for as long as it takes. Josh can even take pictures if he wants.

Sadly, once mixed all the beautiful yellow, orange, and deep red perfectly delineated striations in my otherwise lovely white clay turned into baby-poop brown. I can only hope the oxides and iron in the bricks will change color again when they’re fired.

So the process goes: You set the mold on a ware board (which will hold the bricks later). You wet and sand the mold, you roll up a big wad of clay and sand that, smooth and press it in, lift off the mold, and presto! A brick!

At least that’s the theory. My clay was so soft and sloppy – it had to be, or else how could I mix it? – that it became not only the color but also the texture of runny baby poop. So while my first bricks did hold their shape admirably, I kind of held my breath as I moved them around. And then of course there are the little side mohawks they got as I pulled the mold upwards and they slid along it. Those will all have to be trimmed off with a knife when the bricks are firmer. Sigh.

Still, 22 bricks are on their way towards this Fall’s big firing. Or 17, if you deduct the average 20% loss rate I’m told to expect from the clamp-style firing I’m planning on doing. Or 44, if you count that they’re about twice as thick as regular bricks. Either way, while it doesn’t sound like much payback for a couple hours’ work and an aching back, it is very nice to have a tangible, concrete result for all that labor. It makes me smile every time I go into the garage and see them all neatly lined up in tidy rows. And besides, if you consider that it only takes 16 bricks to build a rocket stove, I’ve already completed one of my brickmaking goals.

5 Responses to “Foundation”

  1. heidi Says:

    love the baby poop adobe. Did you consult the OMREI expert…nooo.So how you gonna fire them? in the fireplace, on the barbecue or do you have a secret firing oven you found in the trash in the back 40?
    You gonna make a barbecue pit with those bricks??? or just “flagstones”?
    watch out for your back. my injuries were cumulative…

  2. diana Says:

    Hi mama, I’ll get into all the firing nitty-gritty later on, but basically I will be building a kiln out of the bricks themselves. Remember the brick “clamp” (brick kiln) we saw in Colonial Williamsburg? Mine will be like that. I’ll have pictures, etc. in a future post. But for now, I would be happy if they would just DRY, it’s been so humid they’re still squishy 3 days later. :/

  3. Richard H Says:

    Thats a really great start. It may be that the clay straw mix was a bit too wet going into and out of the molds. If it was really sticky like wet peanut butter, maybe try for more doughy or play dough like next time. You can trim them down once they are dry. It is ALOT of work, but feels great to have something you made by hand I think. The firing will be a whole different and fun thing to try. How many bricks will you be planning to try and fire? That will give me an idea on how you should build the clam and how long you will have to fire them to get a good batch. Keep up the good work!

  4. diana Says:

    Hi again Richard! I’ll email you this as well. I know my clay was too wet (wet peanut butter is a good analogy!), but I was too lazy (and didn’t have a plaster bat) to dry it out before molding. I thought next time maybe I’d reserve the powder and just wet the chunks; thinking that the powder would act to stiffen up the resulting mud a bit. How do you get your clay to the right consistency? Your bricks look so perfect.

    My bricks are now a bit less than leather-hard, so I smacked them around on the table some today and evened and smoothed out all their faces. They look great now – softer and definitely handmade, but pretty uniform. I’m excited. You’re right, the pleasure is all about having something you made with your own hands.

    How did you make your name press? I love the way your bricks look.

    I don’t know how many bricks I need to make total yet. For the patio I’ll need about 550 (!!!) but I also want build a mid-size woodfire oven and I just don’t know how many that will take! Do you? I figured I would just keep making bricks until it got cold enough for a bonfire to sound like a really good idea, then fire them all. So – hopefully – I’d be firing 500 bricks at once, though that seems extremely unlikely. Maybe 200, if I’m lucky?

  5. heidi Says:

    remember it took the colonists months…

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