Winning, Dashing, and Firing

Making Bricks In Danville PA

By Van Wagner

January 1, 2009




Clay bricks were made in Danville as early as 1813. The first brick house in Danville was the building on the north side of Soverign Bank on Mill Street, formerly Dr. Vaughn's dental office and once the law office of James Scarlet.  The second one was the Magill home on W. Market St. built around 1814, possibly 1816, there are conflicting articles about the date.   Alexander Montgomery had his home, the current American Legion, built out of brick that was made across the road from his house about 1819.  Clay was mined locally, processed in rendering pits, and fired locally to create the final product.  Bricks we used to build homes, roads, walls, canal and railroad structures, and the interior of iron blast furnaces. 


There were 5 steps to local brick making.  First was the “winning” or mining of the clay.  This was often done in the fall.  All mining was done by hand with picks and shovels until the steam shovel was invented in 1879.   The raw clay was allowed to freeze and thaw over the winter.  This made the clay more workable.  It is unclear where clay was mined locally.  There are several references to Mahoning Creek being used as a source.  Several of Danville’s brickyards were located near the river.  This may suggest that river clay may have been used.


The second stage in brick making was tempering or preparation.  In the spring the clay was worked as dry powder.  Another method was to soak the clay in pits and mix the clay with bare feet or hands.  The goal was to separate out any rocks no matter how small.  Rocks will cause cracks and explosions during the firing process.  At a pug mill the clay was mixed with a small amount of sand and mixed to a doughy consistency.  By the mid 1800’s horse driven pug mills were used.


Horse powered pug mill.  From Dobson.





The third step is moulding.  The clay was removed from the soaking pit or pug mill by a temperer who delivered it to the moulding table.  The assistant brick moulder was called the "clot" moulder and he would prepare a lump of clay and give it to the brick moulder. The brick moulder was the key to the operation and he was the head of the team. He would stand at the moulding table for 12 to 14 hours a day and with the help of his assistants could make 3500 to 5000 bricks per day. He would take the clot of clay, roll it in sand and "dash" it into the sanded mould.  The dash involved holding the ball of clay about head-level and throwing it into the mould.  The clay was then pressed completely into the mould with the hands and the excess clay removed from the top of the mould with a strike, which was a flat stick that had been soaking in water. Excess clay was returned to the clot moulder to be reformed. Sand was used to prevent the clay from sticking to the mould.

Moulding table shown in Dobson's Book


 Mould (top) and stockboard (below) of the kind used for making bricks in the nineteen century.  Beech wood was often used because moulders claimed it resisted sticking to clay. Brick moulds ranged from single, as seen above, to six. 




The “off-bearer” would then take the full moulds to the drying floor using a barrow (below).  He would then return the empty moulds to the moulding table where he would apply sand and water for the next batch. 


Barrow for twenty-six bricks illustrated by Dobson






Bricks were sun dried for 2 days before they were flipped and dressed by an edger.  The edger worked the bricks to ensure a smooth and straight edge.  After 4 hot, dry days the bricks were moved to a covered area called a hack or hackstead.  They were stacked under cover with at least a fingers width between them to allow further drying.  After 2 weeks in the hack the bricks were ready for firing. 



The fourth step was firing. The bricks were stacked into arches and the fire was built inside the arch.  The bricks themselves were the kiln. If fired bricks were available from a previous batch they were used to construct the outer walls of the kiln and the surface was smeared with mud to contain the heat. If no fired bricks were available, the kiln was constructed entirely of green or raw bricks that were stacked in such a way as to act as their own kiln. These kilns were called clamps or scove kilns. Some coal dust was added because it made them burn better, and some companies added red oxide for coloring. The walls and top were plastered with a mixture of sand, clay, and water to retain the heat.  Bricks were placed closer together and vented for circulation at the top to pull the heat up through the bricks. The kilns were originally fired with wood or anthracite coal.  I have not been able to find proof that bituminous coal was used but I strongly suspect that it was.  Pennsylvania’s “brick belt” is located in the bituminous regions and almost certainly used local soft coal.  Whether or not it was imported to Danville is unclear.

Kiln stack design from Dobson.



After drying in air the green bricks still contained 9-15% water. Due to this water, the fires were kept low for 24-48 hours to finish the drying process and during this time steam could be seen coming from the top of the kiln. This was called "water smoke". Once the gases cleared this was the sign to increase the intensity of the fires. If it was done too soon the steam in the bricks would cause them to explode. Intense fires were maintained in the fire holes around the clock for a week until temperatures of 1800 degrees F were reached. In 1828 brickmaker James Wood discovered that adding 'culm' (coal crushed into a fine dust) to the mixture reduced burning time for a kiln by one-half, from 14 to 7.  The knowledge and experience of the brickmaker dictated when the fireholes would be bricked over and the heat was allowed to slowly dissipate over another week. The total baking time for kilns ranged from 8 to 12 days.  Each finished brick weighed approximately eight pounds. Salt was added in the kiln "eyes" while the brick baked. This changed their color and made them waterproof.


After cooling down, the entire kiln was usually disassembled and the bricks were sorted. If only raw bricks had been used, the bricks from the outermost walls were kept to be burned again in the next kiln. Some bricks that were closest to the fire received a natural glaze. These bricks were used in the interior courses of the walls. Bricks that became severely over-burned and cracked or warped were called clinkers and were occasionally used for garden walls or garden paths.


The best bricks were chosen for use on the exterior walls of the building. Those that were only slightly under fired had a salmon color and early bricklayers knew that the porosity of these bricks would help to insulate the structure and they were placed on the innermost courses of the wall.



Who We Know Of That Made Bricks in Danville PA:


In 1892 Danville City directory lists that John Deibert manufactured bricks on CO-OP Court  and Joseph Flanagan made them on Mowrey at the Susquehanna River.  In 1895 John Deibert was still at CO-OP and John Keim (Kein) was making bricks at the corner of Cooper and Foust Streets.  Keim was listed as a brick manufacturer at CO-OP in 1901.

Keim had a very good business in the early 1900s.  He made all the brick for the wall around Castle Grove, presently known as St. Cyril’s.  This wall contains at least 300,000 bricks.  Mr. Keim made all the bricks for the orphanage on the road from Snydertown to Sunbury.  He furnished 80,000 brick to the Magee Carpet Co. to be used in building an extension to the factory.  An account just after 1900 said he had all four of his yards in operation employing five moulders.   He provided all the bricks for the new building being built at the Danville State Hospital.  The total order for was for 1, 200,000 bricks.  He had a dozen men employed daily hauling brick to the state hospital, piling up brick in the kilns, or digging clay for use next summer. Keim’s was the rough or red brick, they were handmade.


Danville may not have been a major brick manufacturing town, yet bricks played a key role in our iron heritage. In the 1800’s, brick was an engineering prerequisite of infrastructure.  Without bricks, a town lacked the essential building blocks for furnaces, mills, homes, canals, railroads, and factories.








Book:  Treatise on the Manufacture of Bricks, 1850, Edward Dobson

    The definitive reference for brickmaking in the mid-1800's.


Todd Jefferys.  Potter, Danville PA


Sis Haus.  Historian, Danville PA


Rick Bonomo. Potter, Berlin, PA


Leon Hagenbuch.  Watsontown PA