Making new bricks in an old style

Cory Briggs throws clay and sand into the brick mold at the American College of Building Arts Tuesday.

Craftsman Cary Briggs can read old bricks like quarterback Peyton Manning can read defenses.

As Briggs walked around Charleston’s old city jail on Magazine Street recently, he pointed out color variations showing how certain bricks were closer to a wood fire. He noted how uneven shapes reflected the unskilled labor involved in dumping the clay into wood frames. And he pointed to black spots where iron deposits leached out as the bricks were baked.

Now Briggs, founder of the Tidewater Brick Co., is about to share his secrets with many more people here as he helps bring the tradition of wood-fired bricks back to the Lowcountry.

“Our eventual goal is to set up a permanent factory here,” he said.

Before that, Briggs and others will give a hands-on demonstration Thursday at the Historic Charleston Foundation’s headquarters at 40 East Bay St. His 5 p.m. demonstration will be followed by a 6 p.m. lecture.

When Charleston was a colonial city, most of its bricks were made on-site. A skilled brick master would arrive with molds and the knowledge of how to mix clay and sand, form bricks, dry them out and then stack them into a kiln for firing.

“The clay that built the bricks for Drayton Hall was dug up near Drayton Hall,” he said.

That gradually changed during the Victorian era as new railroads allowed master brick makers to settle down. They hired more skilled labor, began using coal and oil for fuel, and shipped their bricks inexpensively across long distances. Many of these bricks were harder and more uniform in shape and color.

“With all that, the bricks go up in quality,” Briggs said, and their more uniform appearance became trendy. “Then no one was making wood-fired bricks.”

Briggs also has teamed with the American College of the Building Arts and soon will begin a pre-apprenticeship program to reach about a dozen members of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers on making wood-fired bricks.

They will use clay from the western portion of the Middleton Plantation property, which is also where the bricks will be fired.

Mark Regalbuto at Renew Urban, a construction firm that does preservation work, said some of his clients will like the option of these new wood-fired bricks with a similar size and patina of historic ones.

“In many cases, we’ve been desperate to find salvaged brick, which is becoming more and more scarce,” he said.

Katherine Pemberton of the Historic Charleston Foundation said the more people understand how labor-intensive it is to make bricks by hand, the more they will appreciate the city’s historic environment.

“When we look around town, we see all these brick buildings. We see fortifications of brick,” she said. “Until you understand the length and difficulty of making them, I don’t think you have an appreciation of how Charleston got to be Charleston.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.