By Rosemary Thomas
Mark Welte, Director of Information Systems at Summit Brick, began, “The last few years have been a challenge. …We’ve been through tough times in the past, but this is the one time where the entire country has taken such a big hit. For the last three years, we’ve been running about half the year. There were only 113 home building permits in Pueblo county last year compared to 2000 in 2006-2007 – such a drastic drop. And, it’s like that all across the country.”
He continued, “We still do a lot with custom homes. In reality, it’s cheaper than some other materials. There is a misconception that brick homes are expensive.”
At this point, Ken Williams (see related article) came in and mentioned the problems with graffiti on brick in Pueblo. Welte said, “We’ve had a lot of issues in the historical areas. They’ll tag material that simply can’t be cleaned. We can’t use the heavy-duty cleaners like we can on new construction because the old bricks just can’t take it. We work with the city to try to restore the old buildings.”
“Clay mining is very simple,” Welte continued, “We mine clay from Calhan, Canon City, Beulah, even from right here in Pueblo [13th and Hudson]. There’s about 11 different mines that we pull out of and those different clays allow us to make all the colors that we produce. We can make a really white brick that other plants in the country can’t make. We pick different types of clay, different colors of clay, clays with different properties. We blend them together and then once it’s blended together, we can control the temperatures that it fires at and this determines the color.”
“We were lucky to work with the city on the new police building. That color was formulated specifically for the judicial building. We wish other local building projects would use our locally manufactured brick.”
Mark Jesik, plant manager, showed us around. We started at the beginning, on the east side of the yard, where we saw numerous piles of dry clay. Jesik said, “We have about 25 different clay piles. We have different recipes, and Charlie goes out in a front-end loader and takes a scoop of this and a scoop of that and then it goes through the grinding room where the clay is ground to a powder and then mixed really well. He’s been here 30 years and he’s been on the loader for about 19; he’s our mixer.”
Then, into the “pug” where the bricks are made. The clay powder and water are mixed and then pushed out – called extrusion – through one of a selection of dies, forming a long slug which is then cut into bricks. All along the way, extraneous clay is returned to the stream, leaving little to no waste.
The cut bricks are stacked onto small railway-style carts and are moved to the holding room, then through two different dryers. Jesik pointed out, “The dryers are kept at 400 degrees. From there they move to the 300-foot long, continuous push kiln. The bricks move at a rate of 1.2 inches per minute and it takes about 2 days to go through the dryer and another 2 days to go through the kiln. Then they cool down, which takes another two days, and then they are packaged and shipped.” An interesting note: the heat from the cooling bricks is pumped into the drying room which both cools the bricks and heats the dryers.
We walked by a man who was doing very careful hand work, brick by brick. “Here are some bricks we are donating to the Bessemer society – bricks with nameplates. Each brick is individually worked so that the brass nameplate will fit into a little depression,” Jesik explained, “He’s got to carve out all of the little depressions.”
Then, we made it to the end of the line where Jesik introduced us to “the hardest working guys here. They’ll sort and stack over 100,000 bricks per day.”
As we left the factory and made our way back to the office, Jesik stopped to point out some of the vast variety of custom brick jobs. “This is a unique plant, there are very few in the country that do all that we do. We are kind of a custom shop. It’s a small operation,” Jesik said, “We do about 25 million [per year] when we are running full steam, and there are brick plants who are doing 300-400 million per year, so when you look at that, we are a little tiny plant.”