Tag Archives: clay

Brick roads make a comeback in the United States

Brick streets in downtown Natchitoches, Louisiana

As I was riding a city bus yesterday, I noticed a patch of brick road when we stopped at an intersection. Not sure if it was in Vancouver or Burnaby, but I just stared at it. The other side of the street was paved and it seemed like the old brick was just peeping out. It was beautiful. As I gazed at it, I wondered about the formula that was used to make them because I have a heckuva time with terra cotta bricks here because of the freezing and thawing cycle in winter and spring. Chunks of brick just slough off. Brick used in the “olden days” must have been made out of materials that could withstand both heavy weight and varying climates. However, the old formulas must be in use once again, because it turns out that brick roads are making a comeback in the United States. I hope it catches on here…. Evidently, many cities and towns have decided to turn back the clock in an effort to have more old-fashioned looking burgs. While I seldom read USA Today, I did come across an article by Emma Schwartz that is very good. She writes about a town, Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, where “residents celebrate the city’s old brick streets with an annual ‘Brickfest.’” Amazing and heartening in one!  According to Schwartz, brick streets have a 50-year lifespan and repairs can be easily done by replacing specific bricks. Yet, what are we investing our road dollars in? And how long does it last? “Concrete has a similar life span but is more prone to potholes,” she said, and “asphalt roads require resurfacing about every 15 years.” The majority of brick roads in the United States were built in the late 1900s, writes Schultz. She reports that Bedford, Ohio learned that maintenance was less expensive over time and that Davenport, Oklahoma, recently made the decision to preserve its brick streets. Now that bricks are again in demand, companies are supplying old-style pavers. One such is Pine Hall Brick in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which “makes bricks to match the ones laid in the city during the 1920s.”  Historical Bricks Incorporated in Iowa City, Iowa “scours dumps across the country for bricks,” states Schultz. The owner said that 40 to 50 million pounds of bricks were reclaimed by his firm over three years.

Cumberland maryland

Brick buildings and brick streets: Cumberland, Maryland

Champaign, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa: “ban paving over brick streets with other materials. Both cities spend nearly $100,000 a year to maintain brick streets.”

Cumberland, Maryland: plans to “expand preservation of its brick streets to another 6 square miles. The city already protects brick streets within its historic downtown neighborhood.”

Brooksville, Florida: “is removing pavement to expose long forgotten brick streets. To keep the cost of exposing the city’s 2 miles of uncovered brick streets low, the city uses prison labor, public works director Emory Pierce says.”

Amarillo, Texas: “has spent $200,000 already to restore one block of brick street. The city plans to restore part of another later this year, says city engineer Michael Smith.”

Blair, Nebraska: has “shelved a proposal to pave over the city’s dilapidated brick streets with asphalt after some of the 7,500 citizens urged them to keep the old surface for historical purposes.”

Winter Park, Florida: Brick streets were “so popular that many residents demanded brick streets in their neighborhoods….They even agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of removing the asphalt from their blocks and re-laying the old bricks. Residents of four more blocks hope their streets will be redone in the next fiscal year.”

Brick streets are lovely…the warm color enriches and the shape of the bricks themselves is attractive. A street made of brick has so much charm. I bet many areas in Canada have preserved brick streets, but because the U.S. is that much older, there may be more examples there. Brick street preservation is good news! And it’s nice to get a bit of good news in this day and age, isn’t it?


South Brooksville Avenue Historic District, in Brooksville, Florida


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Earth plaster & clay slip for straw bale homes

The material used on the outside of straw bale homes is made of clay, sand, and organic matter. These days it’s called earthen plaster, but this mud mix has been used for about centuries in the form of wattle and daub, rammed earth and adobe. Until mud bricks were first fired and construction methods evolved, clay was an essential ingredient for home building. JSCW previously reported on sustainable building methods which have made a comeback and even here in the temperate rain forest of southwest British Columbia. (Click here to see our article on cob homes or here to begin reading our series on the history of bricks.) Today, I am concentrating on earth plaster and clay slip, the substance troweled and painted on the finished surface of a home built with these methods. This form of building is eco-friendly, inexpensive and easy to fix. The surface plaster differs from stucco which is made of lime and sand or Portland cement, sand, and water. When I was looking for a source of earth plasters and more information, I turned to a company that makes one of the clays I use, Plainsman Clay, in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Plainsman appears to have a good selection of earth plasters and it certainly knows its clay. After clicking on the link above, scroll to the bottom of the page to see natural colorants. Another writer enlightened me about the final coating on traditional strawbale home and was I ever surprised! And, naturally, once I learned about it, I found it very appealing. “A clay slip, known to some as an aliz, is used on an earth-plastered wall almost like paint is used on other surfaces,” says Carol Crews on the Last Straw site. “The purpose is to seal and beautify the surface.” She uses kaolin and ground mica as the basis of her clay slip, to which she adds flour paste. The kaolin would certainly make a smooth finish. She cautions people to use a mask to prevent inhalation of particulates, a familiar warning. (Over the weekend, I made sure I was wearing a mask when I used the Dremel to grind down the edges on a clay mold I’d made.) If you are interested in seeing actual straw bale homes in use, take a look at this International Straw Bale Registry Project for homes in your area and to learn whether you can drop in to visit the owners or whether you have to make an appointment. In my area, there is a straw bale house on Denman Island. You can read about it on the owner’s blog, Stuff from Denman Island. It is a straw bale house that has mixed lime plaster on its outer walls. Yet, from what I’ve been able to tell, if your eaves are deep enough and your foundation good enough, you won’t have trouble with earth plaster if your house is built correctly. A most interesting touch with  straw bale homes is the truth window, through which viewers can see the building material. I love the very idea of it and whatever metaphors can be divined. As my husband said, it would make a good name for a book.


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How clay is created in nature

Earlier today, I was thinking about clay…how it is strengthened when molecules overlap. This lead to pondering the organic material itself. I’ve always been curious about how things work and this tendency led to an interest in scientific processes. So, after looking at a few sites, I came across a description about the formation of clay in entry on the Absolute Astronomy site. It included everything I needed to know. Basically, clay is created when rocks weather over long periods of time, which makes chemical changes happen. According to the entry, rocks with silica eventually create “low concentrations of carbonic acid and other diluted solvents. These solvents, usually acidic, migrate through the weathering rock after leaching through upper weathered layers.” It said that slowly forming clays present in two ways, either as a “residual deposit” or, if we’re talking about thick clay formations, then by the sedimentary process after erosion and movement shifts it from its “original location of formation.” Clays are also found in marine environments, near big lakes or by “marine deposits.”  This would explain why there is so much naturally occurring clay in my area, at the end of the Burrard Inlet in Metro Vancouver. Many creeks feed into the inlet. Just on my street, alone, five creeks intersect the four-block long lane, then head downhill to the ocean. There has been much ancient and modern-day mudslide activity here. It has left big boulders and large river-type stones above  and below ground here. Ocean water is four blocks away, at present, but I don’t know where the waterline was in ancient times. Back to clay, though. Evidently, kaolin is formed on the spot, but other clays have moved by way of water and erosion. A type of clay is determined by different ways of grouping and categorizing. This source says there are up to four main types:

  • Kaolinite
  • Montmorillonite-smectite
  • Illite
  • Chlorite (sometimes considered a phyllosilicate)

Apparently, these are further broken down into some 30 odd pure clays, but the entry says that natural clays are most often a combination. Further description states that varve is clay that shows “visible annual layers” formed as the result of seasonal changes and that it is commonly found in former glacial lakes, which it says have very little movement. As I read about clay on this site, I was particularly interested in a unique type of clay called quick clay, which is a “marine clay indigenous to the glaciated terrains of Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland and Sweden. It is a highly sensitive clay, prone to liquefaction, which has been involved in several deadly landslides.”

In any event, I answered my initial question…how is clay created in nature? I am satisfied with what I learned and if I want to investigate further, I have several avenues….

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Draped and folded porcelain

I’m thinking of making some draped or folded porcelain vessels to replace slipcast flower pots. All but one of my African violets are in the wrong kind of pot. They need two-piece nesting vessels, the outer one glazed, the inner one unglazed. Water is poured into the outer bowl and the moisture leaches through the porous middle pot to the plant roots. I want the vessels to have a somewhat constrained, yet haphazard feel…to combine sculpture with function. I looked at some pieces by artists that are shown online. Some of the techniques used wouldn’t be appropriate for my purposes, but I’d like to use a folded, paddled form, something similar to the piece shown above. An elegant vessel by Mary Rogers, it is called Folded Porcelain Bowl. From Derbyshire, England, Rogers’ work is incredible and I’d like to feature her at some point. Some of her pieces have a marine biological feel, which also appeals to me. Next, I found Carol Barclay, a Rochester, New York artist who drapes porcelain. Drape molds are available commercially at this U.S. art supply store, but you could make your own with plaster, too. Here’s a link for rectangular wooden drape molds from Tucker’s Pottery Supplies online store in Ontario, Canada. Barclay’s “Gathering Bowl” is quite nice. I think I like hers best as sculptural forms only because I can then concentrate on the draping. Finally, some folded porcelain vessels that have a more clean-edged, modern appeal. By Danish designer Karin Blach Nielsen, these delicate pieces called “Snack Bowls” are made from molds made of folded paper. I like the asymmetry. Blech Nielsen creates dinner sets and one-off pieces of porcelain and stoneware. Here’s a link to a serving dish with a filigree pattern.

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