The team had a bright and early start that began with an introduction to the wider Michelmersh range, followed on by a very thorough tour of their Freshfield Lane Brickworks.
We started with a look out over the Danehill quarry, seeing the huge stockpiles of brickearth that are kept on-site. Brickworks Manager Danny explained their process of mixing the various types of raw material in 50 tonne batches to achieve a composition to his precise ‘recipe’. We were shown the various mixing and grinding machines which reduce the huge lumps of clay down into fine enough particles to be mixed with water and thrown into the molds. As well as machine-made bricks, Freshfield Lane also have a small team of specialist craftsmen who throw the clay by hand and were lucky enough to watch them in action.
Once the bricks come out of the mold, they’re loaded up into a series of air-drying ovens that gradually increase the temperature to over 100 degrees. It’s important that the bricks are dried slowly so that the moisture has a chance to escape before the bricks are fired, “otherwise they just explode!” as Danny explained.
Eventually the air-dried bricks are solid enough to be picked up, and are carefully stacked outside to form a ‘clamp’ of up to a million bricks. Danny explained that they stack them in a way that leaves tunnels through at ground level, which lets them heat up the bricks from beneath with gas burners. It apparently takes around 16 days to fully light the clamp, during which time the fuel in the bricks will take hold and spreads 1200 degrees celcius heat throughout. Depending on where they’re stacked, the final bricks will come out either darker or lighter, but with a more distinctive character than some kiln-fired alternatives.
Having wandered around in the rain for much of the day, we were most cautiously excited to be led up on to the top of a lit clamp – with Danny explaining that we were “fire walking” and that we should keep moving unless we wanted our boots to melt! Through gaps in the protective top layer, we were able to look down and see almost two storeys of bricks, still glowing white hot as they were firing beneath our feet.
The Clague team have been lucky enough to have visited other brickworks that use more conventional kilns, which can be finely tuned to maintain a precise temperature throughout. However, as Danny explained once we were back on cooler ground, the clamp is a much more organic process that relies on his carefully crafted recipe being followed, making it much more like an art form than industrial science. Once the clamp has been lit, he says, it has to be left to fire through, and will produce whatever it produces. Despite this, Danny notes that where traditional kilns have a yield of 95%, his clamps will still consistently achieve over 90% – meaning that Freshfield Lane is able to produce almost 40 million bricks a year!
We’d like to extend our thanks to Steve at Brickability, Michelle at Michelmersh, and Danny at Freshfield Lane Brickworks for a great day out and a fascinating look behind the scenes. We look forward to specifying some FLB bricks in the near future.
Take a look at some of the images below.
Posted on | by Tim Wolfe-Murray