Jim Matthews, managing director of independent brickworks HG Matthews, explains how the company has rediscovered traditional brickmaking techniques for use in heritage and new-build projects.
Britain is home to some of the most prestigious historic buildings in the world, from great castles and stately homes to top tourist destinations such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace.
These buildings are a key part of our country’s heritage. However, they require expert love and care in order to remain solid structures that visitors will be able to enjoy for generations to come.
As Britain looks to conserve these historic buildings, the need for the specialist materials to restore them to their former glory is increasing.
The art of making bricks
Traditional techniques are essential in creating materials that sit sympathetically alongside original brickwork, mouldings and facias – and the skills involved must be kept alive.
One craft, the art of making hand-made wood-fired bricks, was all but lost until a few years ago.
We are now using this traditional technique, first used thousands of years ago, to create more than 500,000 bricks each year.
As the only brickmaker in Europe to produce hand-made wood-fired bricks, we have a responsibility to ensure this historic art is not forgotten.
“As Britain looks to conserve these historic buildings, the need for the specialist materials to restore them to their former glory is increasing”
The bricks created are unique to the buildings they match in terms of the colour and glazing. This is as a result of the wood-fired kiln – an effect that simply cannot be recreated in modern oil or coal-fired kilns.
This is much more than simply a passing trend; it is essential to keep Britain’s heritage alive. However, like many industries, brick manufacturing has seen production concentrated in fewer and fewer but much larger factories.
If we want to continue to preserve some of Britain’s finest buildings then it is traditional techniques such as wood-firing that are vital to these buildings’ survival.
Not just for heritage buildings
It’s not just heritage and conservation sectors which are breathing new life into traditional buildings; developers are also looking to recreate an authentic look in new-build homes.
Furthermore, countries around the world are sharing in this desire for bricks made in the traditional way.
“The manufacturing process that each wood-fired brick goes through is closed-loop”
We sent our first shipment of wood-fired bricks to the US just last week, to be used on the site of an 18th century fort on the east coast. Developers in China and Japan are also looking to import these bricks in the coming months.
The manufacturing process each wood-fired brick goes through is closed-loop – from the clay that we source from our surrounding land, to the sustainable biomass used to dry the bricks, through to the use of wood from our own sustainable woodland for the firing kiln.
Although our skills are traditional, we’ve managed to adapt to the changing landscape of the construction industry and the increasing focus on sustainability.
Rather than using oil, we use wood as the heat fuel to dry the bricks, which is welcomed by the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
We’ve managed to become part of the green building movement, but retain traditional skills and techniques to meet ever-growing demands, therefore ensuring these historic buildings will be enjoyed for years to come.
Jim Matthews is the third generation owner of HG Matthews