A Brick by Any Other Name

Few building materials match the warmth, strength and design flexibility of brick. As a siding, it withstands nature’s worst with ease—not to mention a wayward baseball. Indoors it can be used to add texture to a wall, safety to a fireplace surround or durability to a mudroom floor. Bricks have always been made with clay though today the word might just as well describe a rectangular lump of concrete. Though they may have similar shapes and colors, the differences between the two are vast.

A big factor in choosing a brick is the color. And that is directly linked to the manufacturing process. Clay bricks start as a mixture of natural clay and shale that is hardened in a 2,000-degree oven. Their colors range from warm reds to dark browns and tend to fade less in the sun. Dull, gray concrete requires adding pigment during the process where a slurry is mixed and poured into molds to air cure. While that allows the concrete to take on a range of colors from tan to pastel, that pigment can fade over time. When it comes to that deep red color most associated with brick (like the old streets of Boston or historic homes in Virginia), think clay. Between both materials, a manufacturer can off er about 100 different colors through natural or applied pigments and glaze topcoats.

Reo Tallini, from Wyandanch-based Island Block & Masonry Supply, sells both, though he’s seen a declining interest in cement-based bricks. He said that most concrete bricks should look good for at least 20 years before reverting back to their base, light gray color. Tallini said concrete brick with elaborate pigments run about $1.50 per brick, whereas a clay brick is between $.60 to $1.25. Tallini said clay remains the product of choice for its aesthetics on high-end homes while the market share concrete brick enjoyed has been eroded by the popularity of cement based veneer stone.

As evidenced by the buildings and walkways in older cities, clay bricks may chip from time to time but can last for generations. Concrete bricks, while also very durable, have a surface that can erode when installed as a driveway or walkway and tends to look more worn. While both are used to build everything from walls to patios and are shaped into the familiar rectangular block, the manufacturing tolerances for cement making are tighter, resulting in faster and easier installation. That consistency helped with the rise in popularity in the DIY market. For the first time homeowners could install a walkway or patio without mortar in a few hours and achieve very good results. But reaction to that uniformity has recently sparked renewed interest in the opposite direction. Clay bricks from demolished buildings and roads are being pursued within the salvage market because they instantly add a story to any project.