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Inside the plant at York Handmade Brick

A new manufacturing line is boosting efficiency and flexibility at York Handmade. What is the process – and how does that still count as handmade?

The state-of-the-art De Boer production line was commissioned earlier this year.
The state-of-the-art De Boer production line was commissioned earlier this year.

What: York Handmade Brick
Where: York, England

Handmade is a term usually attributed to objects that are distinctive, crafted with care and made ‘not by machine’ according to dictionary definitions.

That view is challenged by York Handmade Brick. It has invested £1.5 million in machinery capable of creating bricks that live up to the company’s name and handmade heritage. The manufacturing line, commissioned in March, is the result of three years of planning – and collaboration with Dutch company De Boer Machines – to match machinery to the Yorkshire-based independent’s products, ways of working and business expectations.

As has happened for centuries, bricks are still pressed in moulds, but rather than a maker’s hand a mechanical press mimics human muscle to provide the pressure. This approach and end product are very different to the extrusion process of volume brick manufacture.

Ask chairman David Armitage why the company made the investment and he says forthrightly: ‘We had no choice’. Recruiting and retaining hand throwers has been a constant challenge, with their training inevitably resulting in high levels of waste, both in sub-standard bricks and the energy used to make them. The new manufacturing line is both more efficient and flexible than the manpower and machinery it replaces. Armitage continues: ‘It allows us to make a product at the right price, while still putting the same care into our bricks. That means we can look after the people here and maintain the success of a family company in North Yorkshire.’

Much effort has gone into tuning the machinery to get the right product types and quality, says managing director Guy, a second generation Armitage. By adjusting the line’s moulds, presses and other elements, the company can now make around 36 different bricks, across three ranges: the flat stock, available in large format, the standard handmade-style product and a new water struck range. ‘As the market evolves, we’ll be able to expand that,’ he says. 

The line is proving its worth on major projects like the latest phase of Manchester’s Circle Square, where the company is supplying 600,000 extra-long, water struck bricks. Guy explains how, saying, ‘We couldn’t make water struck bricks before and we would have struggled with that size, so that’s an indication of the flexibility we now have.’

The new manufacturing line is both more efficient and flexible than the manpower and machinery it replaces

York Handmade’s production methods use mechanical processes to emulate manual ones.
York Handmade’s production methods use mechanical processes to emulate manual ones.

The lacustrine clay that the business relies on is quarried close to its rural base in Alne. David highlights its durability, but says: ‘The most important factor is its colour and the flexibility it gives us to produce variety, particularly in size. Not all clay is suitable for making long bricks because it can crack’. 

While aesthetics are key to brick choice, sustainability and ethics are also growing concerns for specifiers in the face of the influx of non-EU imports made to shoddy standards and working practices. The company has signed up to the Brick Development Association’s voluntary Brick Quality Charter, which identifies responsibly sourced products, and is working to reduce energy use. ‘Our first step is to conserve what we use more carefully, taking heat from the kiln and using it for the drier,’ explains David. ‘We have to be conscious of our obligations.’

For Armitage senior, the new production line is the latest phase in the evolution of a company with a 36-year track record, which he says is ‘relatively young for a brickmaker’. He has been in the industry longer than that, first with the family firm and then buying the company that became York Handmade. He steered the business away from clay pipe manufacture towards the more specialized, premium product of handmade bricks; today the company has around 22 employees and an annual output of roughly 3 million bricks, many destined for high profile projects like last year’s Stirling Prize winner. The latest investment more than safeguards that legacy. ‘We’ve built for the future,’ says David.  

Produced by RIBAJ in collaboration with York Handmade Brick

 

1 Monitoring additives

Clay is combined with water, sand and powdered additives to give the required brick colours and textures. Colour additives include manganese to give black tones and haematite for purple shading. Additive amounts are carefully monitored, being fed via a screw augur for precise control. Sand is also measured by a laser which triggers a conveyor to add more when levels are low. This enhances production efficiency, as the line does not have to be paused for restocking with raw materials. All ingredients are combined in a mixer above the production line.

 

2 Throwing the clay

The clay mix is pushed through hoppers into brick moulds directly below, with sand fed in afterwards. The line is capable of throwing up to 12 strokes – sets of seven bricks – a minute, producing 84 bricks in total. The throwing process uses twice as much clay as is required for the brick, but the surplus is simply pressed out and then transferred back by conveyor to the mixer for reuse, meaning there is no waste. The company is able to adapt the way the machinery works, even altering the speed at which the clay is pressed into the moulds.

 

3 The presses

Different presses give the brick ranges their distinctive finishes, with the line’s special press – the Hubert head – able to simulate the pressing action of a hand-maker. Sand is generally used to prevent bricks from sticking to the moulds when they are turned out, but water struck bricks’ ‘reclaimed’ look is achieved through the use of water, rather than sand, at this stage. To prevent these from sticking, they are formed in special moulds – supplied by the production line’s maker De Boer – which have a movable base.

 

4 Moulds and trays

A mould actually comprises seven ‘pockets’, each pocket housing one brick. There are 36 moulds in the machine’s full mould circuit, so space to form 252 bricks in all. De Boers’ machinery is usually based on filling pockets in pairs – so working with even numbers of pockets – but York Handmade’s crating and drying processes work with sets of seven pockets, so the machinery has been adjusted to enable that. The company can change the presses and moulds to produce different ranges in as little as an hour, again giving manufacturing flexibility.

 

5 Central control

The production line is overseen by a single operator, with one or two forklift operators, who manages its processes from a central control screen. The screen is on an upper level where the whole line is visible. Like the production line, the controls are created to meet the needs of the brick maker – intuitive to use and giving a wealth of information, including running totals of production. If the machinery requires attention – for example, a motor is running too fast – De Boer can control it remotely from its Netherlands headquarters.

 

6 Crated for drying

Once the bricks are turned out, moulds are cleaned by high pressure water jet and blown with sand, ready for refilling. Lasers on the production line ensure the moulds and the trays they sit on are aligned and level, and stop the production line if not. Bricks are crated and transported by forklift to the kiln for drying. The production line works an eight-hour day, from 6.45am to 3.30pm. It is capable of manufacturing 40,000 bricks a day but is initially running at a rate of 10 strokes a minute, giving an output of around 30,000 bricks a day.

 

This visit was supported by York Handmade

 

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