Here’s something that’s been in my thoughts lately… how do you make homemade bricks? Like, the kind that the pioneers would have made for their chimneys. The kind that make up the old chimney which stands in our woods.
I’d love to build some front steps, and boarder flower beds with bricks, but I definitely can’t afford the expense of buying them new! If I could make my own, that would be so cool.
I’ve been reading over countless tutorials, and searching through my books to find more info on how making bricks from clay is done. Here’s what I’ve put together:
Why Should You Learn to Make Bricks?
Brick-making, and building with bricks, are both ancient technologies.
Even in this modern age, the practice remains important all around the globe but it isn’t just something that can be done with industrial manufacturing, or be practiced in low-tech cultures of the Third World in the form of mud bricks or adobe bricks. It is a good skill for homesteaders to learn, too.
Brick as a building material has many advantages: it’s long-lasting, relatively easy to do, durable, has a degree of fireproofing and resists pests. And there is an undeniable aesthetic beauty and charm to a well-crafted brick wall, one that will only grow over time as the bricks patina.
Then there is the logistical ease with which bricks can be made at the small scale. All you need to make bricks is the right mix of dirt, sand and clay, with simple molds and plenty of time.
You can even speed things up by using a kiln. The recipe and process can also be adjusted depending on your needs and your materials on hand.
Learning to make your own bricks can be a great way to save money on construction projects but also be an enjoyable experience. It’s a traditional, timeless skill, and manual labor that connects you with the earth, yet it still yields a tangible and lasting product at the end of the day.
Many people find brick-making, and building with bricks, to be a calming and satisfying activity despite the hard work involved.
And not only is it an incredibly useful skill to have in any home improvement project, but brick-making can be a great source of side income for those who are willing to take the time and effort to learn the trade and produce specialized bricks for local buyers.
Who knows, it might turn out to be an unexpected new career path for you!
Tools of the Trade
Before we get to the process of making your very own bricks on the homestead, it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with the tools of the brickmaking and bricklaying trade. The following list is not totally comprehensive, but more than enough to get you started.
Riddle Sieve – Used for sifting soil before mixing it into clay for brick-making. This helps to get the proportions just right when mixing or adding components.
Clay Spade – Used to dig clay and turn it over as needed.
Molding Board – Generally a wooden box, open on the top and bottom, used to make bricks in rectangular or square shapes by pressing the clay onto it and then cutting off excess with a wire or thin knife. The interior can be any size, but a standard brick is 203 mm × 92 mm × 57 mm.
Drying Board – A flat, uniform surface that your bricks can rest on after they come out of the mold prior to firing. Good plywood sheets works fine if well supported.
Mold Release – Used to help your bricks slip out of the molding boards without damage after setting up and avoid sticking to the drying board. This is usually a powder for the molds, and common cooking oil for the drying board.
Gauge Rod – Optional. A simple rod that is used to ensure all of your bricks are of equal size and shape. You can also use a square for the purpose.
Kiln – A kiln is used to fire the bricks for finishing and maximum hardness and durability you don’t need a kiln if you have access to plenty of sunshine and dry weather, but it helps produce a superior product and can speed up the process dramatically. You can make a kiln yourself, also!
Brick Trowel – A must-have for bricklaying, trowels come in many shapes and sizes but the main purpose is to spread mortar between bricks.
Mortar Box – This is a box with handles that can be filled with mixed mortar to make it easy to transport from one place to another.
Brick Hammer – A heavy hammer used for breaking up large lumps of clay or mortar during bricklaying.
Jointer – A tool used for finishing off the edges of bricks and ensuring they are square and even.
Now that you know what tools you need, let’s move on to learning how to cast your own bricks and build with them!
Making Your Own Bricks
The process of casting your own bricks is fairly simple but requires the right ratio of materials and careful attention to detail, and of course time for the clay to dry or fire. Here’s a quick guide on how to make your own handmade brick:
Step 1: Find the Right Raw Materials
Before you do anything else, you must find the right clay. Look for good quality clay that is clean with minimal contaminants. Certain parts of the country have much higher clay content than others, and you will usually have the best luck looking near river banks.
You’ll also need some sand to mix with your clay to form the bricks, and similarly a small-size, clean sand works best. Try not to source and “natural” sand that has lots of debris in it as this will severely weaken your bricks unless you sift it well prior to use.
Step 2: Knead Clay
Once you have the clay, it isn’t quite ready yet. You’ll need to knead it thoroughly depending on how uniform it is and this is messy, hard work. One of the easiest ways is to place it in a large, flat, drain pan or kiddie pool and then step on it, like mashing grapes, with rubber boots on.
Add a little water here and there to ease the process and aim for a smooth peanut butter consistency; it should be tacky and sticky, but easy enough to work that you can fill the molds entirely. Don’t add so much water that it starts to dissolve into a slurry! If that happens, add a little more clay and keep mixing.
Step 3: Add Sand
Add sand to your clay mixture. The proper ratio for basic clay bricks is 1 part sand to every 4 parts of clay. Depending on how much clay you are working with in the beginning you might be able to precisely pre-measure this or you might not. Do the best you can.
Step 4: Mix
Add the sand, and mix, mix, mix, adding a little bit of water only when needed. Remember, you are aiming for a smooth and uniform but still moist and sticky consistency you can work with your hands.
Step 5: Prepare Mold
Let the clay rest for a bit. While this is happening, oil the drying board (use straw if you don’t have or want to use oil), place your molds on the drying board and prepare the interior of your molds by dusting them with either charcoal dust or a commercially prepared dry release agent.
This will allow you to remove the bricks from the molds after they are done setting up.
Step 6: Fill Mold with Clay
Now pack your prepped mold with the clay. Make sure to pack it in fully so that it fills all corners uniformly up to the top. Mash it good so the bottom will be flat and not cupped or deformed.
Step 7: Trim Excess from Filled Mold
Using your wire or knife, trim off the excess clay overflowing from the mold. Add this clay back to the pile for filling the other molds.
Step 8: Remove Mold
Let the clay form up in the molds for about half an hour. Then, carefully lift the molds straight up taking care not to deform the bricks as you remove them from the molds. If your mixture is just right, you should not notice tilting, bulging sides or sagging corners. Remember for next time!
Step 9: Dry Bricks
The bricks must be allowed drying time to cure before they are fired, a process that takes anywhere from 3 to 5 days in full sun depending on the weather. Only leave them in a dry area: If rain is in the forecast you must move or protect your bricks at this time!
Step 10: Fire Bricks
The last step in the production process proper is firing the bricks. This is done in an outdoor kiln, with bricks placed inside. The kiln should be tended for about 8 hours, depending on the size of your bricks and the intensity of your fire.
Note: More intricate brick making processes may fire bricks multiple times with various additives for glazing and other effects. This is not required for basic bricks, but can yield better performance, although that is a discussion beyond the confines of this article.
Step 11: Clean Bricks
Let the bricks cool for at least an entire day after the fire is out. Then retrieve your bricks cautiously (they might still be hot!) and wash them off with water and a gentle brush when totally cool. This is an important step to prepare them for building with mortar.
Step 12: Ready for Building!
You’re done! Your bricks are now ready to use in whatever project you have in mind, from a simple retaining wall or planter to an outdoor oven.
Why Shouldn’t I Just Cast Concrete Blocks Instead?
Casting and building with concrete is a fundamental skill for most DIY-savvy homesteaders, and with good reason. For many it’s much easier to get the proportions of bulk-buy sand, cement and water just right than it is to deal with clay, dirt and sand mixtures sourced from elsewhere, especially considering the many variations in both clay and soil that can affect the finished product.
Concrete bricks are also quite cheap and easy to make or buy in bulk for large projects. So why would someone bother with “old school” bricks at all?
For starters, concrete has some drawbacks as well. Firstly, concrete blocks lack the aesthetic appeal that brick often has. There is no comparing the rustic charm of an old brick wall or cobblestone paving to the cold and brutal uniformity of a concrete structure.
Secondly, although both materials are very durable and long-lasting, concrete can be more susceptible to damage in certain circumstances. For example, it is not as resistant to freeze-thaw cycles as bricks are which can cause cracks which can then lead to accelerating damage or even failure.
Concrete also does not provide natural insulation quite as well as clay bricks do. When environmental control is a factor, bricks have the edge. Finally, the environmental footprint of concrete is far higher than that of clay bricks.
Clay is made out of all-natural materials and can often be re-used or recycled, while concrete production typically requires additional resources to manufacture and cannot be broken down over time into its constituent parts as easily as clay brick.
The bottom line is that both certainly have their place, but don’t let anyone tell you that traditional clay bricks no longer have their place!
Frequently Asked Questions
To ensure that your homemade bricks are of high quality, make sure to use the right high-quality ingredients for the mixture, use consistent molds and measurements to ensure each brick has a uniform shape and remove any variables that you can from the process. You can also consider adding pigments to your mix for colored bricks.
Yes, you can make your own mortar at home with some basic components including sand, cement and lime or gypsum.
When building with homemade bricks, you will need several different tools such as trowels, a brick hammer, levelers and a chisel. Additionally, it’s helpful to have a wheelbarrow or cart for transporting materials as well as safety equipment such as gloves and goggles.
When working with homemade bricks, it’s important to take several safety measure such as wearing proper clothing, safety equipment and a dust mask. Always make sure that your work area is free of any distractions and that all tools used are in good condition.
Finally, be aware of any potential hazards such as tripping over cords or uneven surfaces when lifting bricks. Bricks are very heavy, and can collapse flimsy structures or inflict major injuries if they fall on people or pets!
The best way to store homemade bricks is in an area that is dry, slightly elevated off the ground, and free from direct sunlight. The bricks should also be sturdily stacked with some room between them to allow air circulation. Finally, make sure the space is lightly covered with plastic sheeting to keep out moisture.
When cutting homemade bricks, it’s important to use the correct tools such as a diamond-tipped saw blade or masonry chisel. Additionally, you should use a slow speed and make sure to keep the blade cool by using water or oil as a lubricant.
If any of you have ever made homemade bricks, or have any advice to share or corrections to make, I’d love to know what you think!
Homeschoolers: This would make an excellent project for the kids to do as a lesson!!
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.