All in the hands - Demand for handmade bricks with Michelmersh Brick Holdings

Clay Technology magazine
,
12 Aug 2013

Melanie Rutherford speaks to Frank Hanna and Greg Crownshaw from Michelmersh Brick Holdings in Sussex, UK, about how the company is meeting renewed demand for handmade bricks.

In an industry looking to become ever more efficient and reduce costs, a handful of manufacturers are still making bricks the traditional way. Handmade bricks are increasingly popular with architects looking to create innovative brickwork façades or elevations.

Michelmersh Brick Holdings in Sussex, UK, is one such company, producing a range of handmade bricks alongside its machined product range. Frank Hanna, Group Commercial Director at Michelmersh, explains, ‘In the UK, current demand for brick is around 1.5 billion units a year. We estimate that the handmade brick and tile market is 1% of this – that’s 15 million units.’ While Hanna admits that demand for handmade bricks has been affected by the downturn, ‘Some clients are more aware of handmade products and the premium they attract. We supply a good mix of residential and commercial projects, with a strong demand for high-end residential properties with a market value greater than £3m.’ He adds that commercial buildings are also beginning to reflect the contemporary designs and sizes achievable using handmade brick.

But the sector has nonetheless felt the effects of the recession, which has put pressure on product price and margin. ‘Unit manufacturing costs have risen through cost increases in labour, raw materials and energy,’ says Hanna. ‘The handmade sector has reacted by cutting output to meet market needs and adapted by offering more contemporary products.’

This is not the only challenge of operating in such a bespoke market. According to Greg Crownshaw, Factory Manager at Michelmersh, key to producing these bricks is finding good handmakers – ‘who not only want to, but are capable of handmaking to a good quality and rate of production,’ he explains. ‘This requires everything from knowledge and experience of our quarry to operating large-scale machinery to handmaking special shapes to a high standard.’ At Michelmersh, the artisan method is not just about shaping bricks. Many of the handmakers are multi-skilled and can operate kilns and dryers, plan deliveries, drive HGVs, detect faults on computercontrolled machinery or help maintain plant facilities as required.

However, these count for nothing without the ability to produce a brick by hand. ‘Some complex specials with intricate designs and angles take a lot of skill and experience to get right, and some of the larger blocks are particularly hard to make, dry and fire,’ says Crownshaw. As such, his staff undergo extensive training in manual handling to develop the hand–eye coordination, strength, stamina, care, attention and eye for detail that Crownshaw says are paramount qualities in a handmaker. Patience, too, is key – ‘being able to repeat quality, accurately, time and again. Becoming a skilled handmaker takes time, and not everyone is capable of it.’

The handmade process
The handmaking process starts at Michelmersh’s on-site quarry, where various types of clay are dug and a special blend passed through the preparation area comprising a wet pan, souring bays and mixers. ‘A clot of clay is then extruded, cut into shape to manageable clots and fed onto the picking conveyor,’ Crownshaw says, describing how the mechanised system is regulated by staff via two control panels on the conveyer according to how fast the handmakers are working. ‘A handmaker grabs a clot and throws it into the mould on a pre-sanded bench. The quality, grading and consistency of the facing sand is critical to the mould release, which governs the shape and quality of the finished product.’

Excess clay is scraped from the top of the mould and returned to the mixer via two conveyor belts, and the mould turned out onto a tray to release the wet brick. These are transferred to a dryer stillage, which, once filled, is forklifted into the chamber dryers where it will stay for around 48 hours. After drying, the stillage is set into a pack ready to be forklifted with a special clamping attachment into the gas kilns for firing for around 50 hours.

While some elements of the process parallel those for machined bricks, what distinguishes a handmade brick, says Crownshaw, is its character. ‘Machined bricks are more consistent, more standard, more uniform. Handmade have many more creases and folds, and are reliant on the skill and expertise of the particular handmaker for their shape, strength and character.

‘Different mould sizes, shapes and inserts can be used to produce a massive range of bricks, and different colours and textures are achieved by varying the sand type and/or the clay mix,’ he adds. ‘A handmade brick has a subtle aesthetic quality that is often hard to define, but is probably made up of several components – the gentle crease marks that give it its unique fingerprint, crisp, clean and consistent arrises, and strong individual colour development. Attempts have been made, and continue to be made, to imitate all of these qualities using machines. Fortunately for us, this has never quite been achieved.’

Past and future
Given its flexibility of production and the ability to produce a large range of shapes and sizes, why are more manufacturers not adopting this age-old method? ‘The handmade process limits the scale of production,’ says Crownshaw. ‘It would take 50 handmakers to produce the same number of bricks in a day as a modern brick machine, and setting the dried bricks by hand takes more labour and space.’

But despite the extra labour required, handmaking holds several advantages over its modern counterpart. Having ‘a flexible, skilled workforce that can adapt pretty rapidly’ means that, should demand for handmade bricks suddenly rise or fall, staff can be shifted over to the machine-made operation or vice versa. ‘During downtime we can move our handmakers to another part of the factory to keep them gainfully employed,’ says Crownshaw, referring to the plant’s twice-yearly planned shutdowns that give staff the opportunity to get on with the large-scale maintenance jobs and projects that normal production does not allow time for. ‘And new machinery, although cheaper in the long run, is an expensive investment that requires intensive maintenance,’ he adds.

That said, the handmaking operation at Michelmersh looks very different to how it would have done 100 years ago. More and more mechanical aids, such as forklifts, conveyors and scissor lifts, have been introduced over the years, and the company continues to look for ways of improving accuracy and efficiency. ‘We have an ongoing clay preparation development project, which should add greatly to our flexibility and efficiency,’ says Crownshaw. Transformation of the stockyard is nearing completion, the company is reviewing and experimenting with packaging options, and work is being done to optimise kilning and drying to improve product yields and colours.

And, as is the case for the rest of the brick industry, environmental issues are becoming increasingly important. Crownshaw explains, ‘For some time we have been registered and operating under Pollution Prevention and Control Environmental permit conditions with our local Test Valley Borough Council, and we are currently working towards a fully audited and accredited ISO 14001 Environmental Management System.’

It is evident that even when adopting methods used in the earliest days of brickmaking, it is not only unavoidable but crucial to move with the times, if a successful business model is to be achieved. Just as Michelmersh has learnt to incorporate modern methods to optimise the handmaking operation, machine-made brick manufacturers can also learn a thing or two from the past.

For more information, contact Frank Hanna, email cmarle@mbhplc.co.uk