Brickmakers once dotted our nation, forming balls of clay by hand into thousands of sand-coated units each day, using little more than wooden molds and sheer force. By the 20th century, many manufacturers had switched to automated, extruded brickmaking techniques in which a die machine presses and wire-cuts long strands of brick into uniform units. Fortunately, the increasing demand for unique, artisanal goods—coupled with a long list of historic buildings overdue for renovations—has kept traditional brickmaking alive. Hand-formed bricks are distinct in texture, color, and shape, says Art Burkhart, vice president of sales and marketing for Old Carolina Brick Co. in Salisbury, N.C. “Handmade bricks are like snowflakes: Each one is different.”
Compared to extruded brick, hand-molded bricks have slightly rounded corners, though designers desiring a more rectilinear geometry can consider pressed brick, says Eric Barnhart, a local markets sales manager at Redland Brick in Williamsport, Md. “We put an extra man on our line to press it into the mold a little tighter, so it doesn’t allow for any air space,” he says. Popular in older church structures, pressed bricks are slightly more textured than extruded brick.
Water-struck brick (see “Breaking the Mold,” at left) is prevalent in the Northeast, says Paul Lachance, vice president for sales at Morin Brick in Auburn, Maine. “Virtually every campus in New England has it,” he says. “[It] has a non-uniformity, but it isn’t out of control … and they reflect color and light in a little different way.”
At the St. Paul’s School Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science in Concord, N.H., Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects used water-struck brick to tie in to the scale and materiality of the campus’s 19th-century buildings, says principal Bruce Wood, AIA. “It has the appearance of handmade, but … it’s [also] very durable” and can stand up to New England’s harsh winters.
Not surprisingly, handmade bricks require more time and labor to make than do extruded bricks. Old Carolina, the largest handmade brick manufacturer in the U.S., produces 10 to 12 million bricks each year. “Extruded brick plants will produce that many in a month,” Burkhart says.
Unit for unit, the bricks cost 50 to 75 percent more than mass-produced bricks. But after accounting for their longer length—8 inches instead of 7 5/8—Barnhart estimates that a wall constructed of hand-molded bricks will cost “about 8 to 12 percent more than a mass-produced product.” Historically, brick sales have paralleled the overall construction market. “This most recent dip, since 2008 or 2009, has been unprecedented,” Barnhart says. Redland used the downtime to improve its marketing efforts. “We weren’t taking full advantage of this niche product,” Barnhart says. The company created a website to feature its handmade brick exclusively, and sales have increased in the past two years. “Once people find handmade brick,” he says, “they see the value.”