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Hands in the Mud
How 'Authentic' Brick Making Sets One Company's Products Apart

Mike Dahl, LC/DBM



As part of the manufacturing process at the Old Carolina® Brick Company, clay made from pulverized North Carolina shale is rolled in sand by hand and then flung into wooden molds. This technique imparts distinctive folds, finger marks and other surface irregularities that distinguish the bricks from conventional machine-made ones; making them well suited for restoration assignments, projects that desire a traditional look and stately homes. The sand helps the bricks release more easily from the molds, gives them some extra texture, and helps control their color. The manufacturer lists 8 standard colors and 4 special order colors.


Besides the standard bricks made with help from this "mud throwing line," the company also hand molds clay to produce a variety of special shapes and 3/4 " thin brick, which is growing in popularity according to a recent survey. The products all meet ASTM specs.

Facing constant warnings of the overwhelming, and probably harmful, effects that automation has on our modern middleclass workforce, stories such as this one offer some positivity, for even though automation has a role in this tale, it is an old fashioned principle, possibly best described by the word handcrafted, that plays the lead.

Crafting by hand in this case includes the act of throwing mud. That may bring to mind mud ball battles as kids but it is an adult pursuit at the Old Carolina® Brick Company. There they make bricks in a very traditional way, which results in a distinctive product, giving contractors an alternative building material choice.

According to Art Burkhart, the manufacturer's vice president of sales and marketing, they are the largest maker of authentic handmade brick in the country. Their technique includes workers throwing mud into wooden molds.

The mud is made up of pulverized North Carolina shale that is put into a mixer from 1929 called a pug mill, which blends it with water. The heavy mixture comes out of this machine in a long continuous cube from which pieces "about the size of a bowling ball" are cut off and continue down a conveyor belt to the mud throwers who then roll the pieces in sand and sling them into the molds.

"Sand acts as a release agent for the bricks to come out of the molds," says Burkhart. "But also it adds a little texture to it. And we get our different colors with different color sands."

After being taken out of the molds, the brick-shaped forms are left out to dry for up to 24 hours, and then placed into a dryer at about 500 degrees for more moisture removal. Next they are placed into the tunnel kiln, where their travel time through is about a day.

"It's a slow push through the kiln," Burkhart admits.

The heat starts off at around 500 degrees but about a third of the way up the tunnel it hits 1,950 degrees in what is known as the fire zone. The bricks gradually come out the other end and they're still rather warm. The final results all meet ASTM specifications.

Six to eight people working eight hours a day, five days a week on the mud-throwing line account for about 150,000 bricks in a week. The company also has a "special shapes" room where workers throw mud into a variety of molds to create additional products.

A 45-year-old venture, it got its start when ceramic engineer Dudley Frame bought a young brickmaking company that was failing. Having experience designing kilns, he helped develop much of the machinery for his new business. Restoration projects were the main focus originally since, thanks to the distinctive process, the bricks have an old-world look.

"We make it just like they were made hundreds of years ago," says Burkhart, then thinks about it briefly and adds, "thousands - like Moses' time."

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May 22, 2018, 8:35 am PDT

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Last Updated 05-21-18
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