Behind every manufactured product in our lives there are factories where automation, skill, precision and careful planning come together to make the things we want and need. Some of these factories make items that are high-tech and fashionable — like phones and cars and computers. Other factories make things that are just as important, but simpler. The Brampton Brick plant is a case in point. This neat, tidy, high-tech facility near the outskirts of Brampton, Ont. is the largest clay brick plant in all of North America. I knew this fact before I went for a tour last month, but there were lots of other things that surprised me while I was there.
Ziggy Pabla is general manager of the clay brick side of Brampton Brick, and he led me through the plant. He’s spent the last 42 years with the company, and he helped create the vast improvements in efficiency that have happened over the last four decades. The manufacturing lines Ziggy showed me produce 800,000 bricks per day with a working crew of just 14 people per 12-hour shift, including maintenance and relief staff. Total output is five million bricks per worker per year.
You’d think that clay for making bricks would look like the hard, slippery soil you might dig from your garden, but that’s not the case. At least not the stuff that goes into this factory. All the clay starts out as shale rock taken from a quarry about 15km from the plant. There’s red shale and white shale that gets ground into powder and mixed at a ratio of 80 per cent red to 20 per cent white. The chemistry of this mix is checked three times to ensure the clay behaves exactly as it should later in the brick-making process. Enough shale is mined and processed to make 300 million bricks per year, yet deposits in the province are still large enough to keep the Brampton Brick plant supplied for hundreds of years.
If you’ve seen those kids’ toys made to extrude play dough into different shapes, you’ll have a sense of how bricks are made. When the moisture content of the ground shale is raised to 11 per cent, it turns into something like stiff modelling clay. This gets squeezed through dies that make one, long continuous brick. This extrusion even has the characteristic holes in the middle that you see on some modern bricks. It’s not until these bricks get fired that they become rock hard. Until then the continuous extrusions can still be coloured and shaped. These extrusions are cut to eight feet long before they travel to another part of the plant to be sliced precisely to brick size all at once by a series of high-tension wires.
Firing is the process of heating clay bricks hot enough to make a chemical change happen in the material, making the bricks impervious enough to be weatherproof, even in our harsh Canadian winters. Unfired bricks spend time in a heated drying room to remove all moisture before entering a natural gas-fired kiln. Temperatures are slowly raised to 1,100 C around huge rail cars of bricks in the kiln and held there for hours before cooling. All the waste heat from the kilns is channelled back to warm the drying rooms.
Machines pick up finished bricks, load them on pallets, then forklifts move them outdoors. The first time human hands will touch any of them is when a mason picks it up and places it on a wall.
There’s a lot I don’t have room to tell you about here, so I put together a video of my tour. Check it out at BaileyLineRoad.com/brampton-brick-tour. I think you’ll find it interesting.
Steve Maxwell is a syndicated home improvement and woodworking columnist who has shared his DIY tips, how-to videos and product reviews since 1988.