Old Carolina Brick: A Marriage Between Craftsmanship and Mechanization
Last week I made a visit out to the Old Carolina Brick Co. in Salisbury, NC. As a mason, it’s always enjoyable to discuss the finer points of brick with likeminded folk. The company is run by two brothers, David and Scott Frame, who graciously gave up their time to talk shop with me and give a full tour of their facilities. Old Carolina is a unique outfit, not just in terms of their product, but in terms of how they approach their work.
There is always the temptation to operate on two different extremes. In one camp, you’ve got folks who demand that every process become automated. Cutting costs at every turn and maximizing profit at whatever cost. In the other camp, the purist camp, those folks want to continually retreat from innovation, desiring to do everything by hand no matter how inefficient and out of touch their processes are. Few people indeed are at all willing to try and strike a balance between those extremes. It was quite refreshing for me to visit the Old Carolina Brick Company because right away I was keenly aware of their commitment to striking such a balance. They hand make all of their brick, but they haven’t lost sight of the fact that they have a competitive business to run. In their facilities they use modern technologies to serve the craftsman, not subvert him.
A continuously running conveyer belt carries away freshly molded brick to be stacked and staged for its run through the firing kiln. Cart load after cart load of brick make their way through the long tunnel kiln that fires brick 24/7. These processes are excellent areas to implement mechanization because the quality is not lowered whether it’s moved by hand or machine. Old Carolina is not a group of purist brick makers, but they are proper brick makers not just owners of a brick extruding machine. On the main floor, moving with practiced ease, a group of workers line lumps of clay with a fine sand before throwing them into an awaiting mold tray. Rolling and throwing the clay by hand allows for the formation of natural air pockets within the brick. Not only do those pockets give the brick their distinctive old world look, but they also serve as a means of guarding against destructive freeze-thaw cycles. Off in a side wing of the plant, another group of workers are crafting various types of custom brick. Hundreds of handmade molds line a wall, an impressive body of work in and of itself. Not enough people will properly appreciate the amount of embodied energy represented in those molds. Not nearly enough people will value both the form-maker and the forklift. Thankfully, Old Carolina embraces both.