The Not-so-lowly Brick

 

Back on April 1, I had an inspiring visit with Eric Jensen at the Elgin Butler Company showroom in north Austin. Butler Brick is an old Austin company established in 1873, about the same time as Gracy Title Company from a previous post. Eric is the Trikeenan Tile and McIntyre Tile representative for the company, both lines of “artisanally-made” tile that belong to Elgin Butler now.

Below is a snapshot of the museum wall at the Elgin Butler Company showroom. The Butler home was built on the soil that now hosts the Zachary Scott Theater in Austin, and the clay quarry was excavated in what is now Zilker Park. If you ride or walk along the trail on the north shore of Ladybird Lake past the Texas Rowing Center, you will see an old brick support for one side of a pulley system that carried clay from the quarry on the south side of the Colorado River to the north side, where the original Butler Brick factory was.

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Do you know the difference in construction of traditional modular brick and thin, facing brick? Yeah, I didn’t, either.

This is a face-glazed modular brick, sized 2 1/4″ x 7 5/8″ on a side:

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The holes lower the weight. This brick is manufactured like pasta being extruded, then cut into brick-size. The glaze gets sprayed on and fired after each brick is hardened, checked for proper specs and sanded smooth. Bonus? The glaze is graffiti-proof.

Here are variations of bricks:

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In the back is the large structural brick. You could really build a wall out of a bunch of these things! And in the front,  thin bricks made by scoring the glazed structural brick and breaking off opposing faces. These can be applied to the surface of a wall that is constructed of a material less expensive than the brick.

Now a question for you: what happens to the ‘insides’ of the brick that has been shorn of its glazed faces? It is broken up and used in the clay for making more bricks. Not much waste here.

Eric said that the market for bricks has changed rapidly- even high-end buildings are expected to be demolished in a relatively short period. So, thin brick, rather than structural brick, meets the needs of the architects and contractors who are working for the owners/investors.

Now, let’s get excited about the artisanal tiles showcased at the Elgin Butler showroom. E.B. owns McIntyre Tile, a small factory in the wine country of California. It also owns Trikeenan, located in Hornell, NY, next to Alfred University, home of extremely highly-trained ceramics graduates.

Tile glazes are gauged on their smoothness and consistency of color from 1, which looks the same in every single batch, to 5, which can sport quite different hues and textures in the same kiln batch. Trikeenan is known for its hand-dipped, “rangy” mineral colors. The kilns are not uniform in temperature throughout, so the glaze processes differently, depending on where tiles were stacked inside the kiln.

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The Trikeenan tiles above all came from the very same batch! The slight irregularity in size and shape is especially highly-prized.

Below, you can enjoy more fun with those irregular, handmade-looking, artisan tiles:

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Shhhhh…. here’s a secret: when the tiles are formed, they are smooth. They have to be impressed with a roller to create those dings and scratches.

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McIntyre tiles are being made for high end designs, too, and they are extremely hard, durable tile for indoors or out. Here is a line of “Sears and Roebuck house” colors, made for restoring these particular historical treasures, or for emulating the feel of that Arts and Crafts period.

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Here’s my brick and tile informant, Eric Jensen himself, pointing out more showroom products.

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Every time I venture into the Elgin Butler showrooms, I want to take, at the very least, a sample of EVERYTHING home with me. I run my fingers across everything because it is all so luscious.

On this trip I was introduced, for the first time, to the office guru: John Russell (Russ) Butler, great-grandson of the founder of the company. Russ no longer owns the company; it was sold by the Butler family to Matthew Galvez about 10 years ago; but Russ retains office and employment as the “how-to” guy for all the builders and architects on the other end of the phone connection.

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He majored in Chemical Engineering in college, with a minor in Ceramics, and worked for Gladding, McBean, maker of terra cotta sewer pipe. In the pre-Sputnik, pre-Atlas rocket era, Russ Butler worked on ceramic nosecones for rockets.

Apparently, I will be able to slip into a group tour of the brick plant one day, so I’ll report back to you. If you have any questions, you can go visit the Elgin Butler showroom yourself, or ask me here and I’ll find you an answer. I hope you feel inspired to find a way to enjoy more classy brick and tile in your life.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Not-so-lowly Brick

  1. Thank you to Lynn Bridge for her passionate interest in ceramics and our three companies.
    We welcome all, architects, designers, and specifiers to contact us to learn how to use our products in projects if all kinds.

    Like

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