Brick-Makers

Text + Photos Ian Chodikoff

With the Esplanade arts centre complete, Medicine Hat is enjoying the latest generation of brick buildings to grace its downtown. From the nearby courthouse, city hall and municipal public library, each generation of the “Hat’s” building era has brought with it some surprisingly good architecture. Brick, one of the most basic of building materials, seems intrinsically related to the history of Medicine Hat, possibly the result of the I-XL brick plant located just outside the city.

The history of I-XL’s relationship to this part of Alberta dates back to 1883, when James Hargrave partnered with Herb Sissons to build a brickworks in nearby Redcliff, known as the Redcliff Pressed Brick Company. At the time, the clay was mined underground and then eventually fed into mechanical brick presses and set by hand into the mechanical down-draft kilns before being sent off to builders who were keeping pace with a rapidly populating Western Canada. By 1913, the company had already switched to the extrusion process and began making wire-cut bricks and hollow building tiles. With the formation of a parent company known as I-XL Industries Ltd. in 1912, the “I-XL” mantra–meaning “I excel”–became an early 20th-century mission statement which was eventually stamped into the frog of every pressed brick from 1921 onwards. In 1929, the company purchased the Medicine Hat Brick & Tile, established in 1886, which remains Canada’s oldest continuously operating industrial site in Alberta. Through surviving various economic cycles, I-XL eventually added automatic handling equipment and tunnel kilns by 1953. In 1968, the company name was changed to I-XL Industries. When touring the plant today, it is amazing to see how the process of making bricks is still very much a craft, where sand, clay and pigment react with heat, water and various chemical additives to make the enormous variety of both special and ordinary bricks piling up outside in the yard. And yet, despite significant automation in the manufacturing process, 80-year-old presses still operate alongside the latest in automation technology.

Operating a brick factory demands a lot of resources. Because of the area’s rich deposits of natural gas, the prosperous city of Medicine Hat is also known as the “Gas City.” This explains why until recently, I-XL owned its own gas fields, which allowed it to literally tap into a source of abundant and inexpensive fuel to keep its 80-odd-metre-long kilns running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Efficient railway connections running through the city have also helped the plant ship its products all over North America and Asia. In 2003, further modernization occurred. The labour-intensive process of setting the dry-pressed bricks onto the kiln cars which would then roll through the tunnel kilns was facilitated by the addition of a Japanese robotic system run on German software. With an annual capacity of 36 million bricks a year, I-XL continues to operate at full capacity but the plant has a hard time keeping its staff, as the well-paying and thriving oil and natural gas industry is constantly drawing skilled labour away from the business of bricks.

Today, I-XL has diversified its products to include a variety of special shapes and colours. The smooth and clean aesthetic of the dry-pressed brick is one of the notable products made at the plant, in addition to the production of historic red pressed brick. I-XL has always maintained a conservative business ethos that could in part be attributed to the fact that the company has continued to remain a family business.

The brick-making process begins with the procurement of the clay. I-XL still draws a range of clays from the Redcliff and Elkwater areas of Cypress Hills, as well as the Eastend area of Saskatchewan. The clay, as well as “grog” (recycled fired brick) are pre-mixed to attain the various properties and colouring that the plant supplies. This pre-mixed clay is then filtered through heated vibrating screens and stored in bins to make either an extruded or dry-pressed brick. The clays are then combined in a ribbon mixer with chemical additives and sent to the pug mill (for extruded bricks) or the horizontal mixer (for pressed bricks).

The pug mill is a device with rotating knives that combines the clay with water to temper the mixture before sending it through a vacuum chamber to remove any excess air. The brick then travels through an augur to form a brick column to be extruded through a die. At this stage, the brick-makers add various textures, powders, sands and engobes (liquid clays) to make the desired brick. From here, the bricks are ready to be cut into slugs, or desired lengths. The slugs then move on to a setting machine where they are cut into standard brick sizes and mechanically placed on the kiln car.

For dry-pressed brick, a mechanical plunger presses the bricks with pressures up to 800 tonnes. The clays are fed into a mould box, and with a single compression of the plunger, a brick is formed and Japanese robots will then move the bricks onto the kiln cars using an optimized pattern designed for the size and nature of the brick. The optimization pattern also allows the heat from the burners to penetrate into the centre of the loaded kiln car.

Kilns operate continuously, but the manufacturing of the brick is done only five days a week. Therefore, special holding rooms were designed to keep the bricks in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. When the bricks do pass through the kilns, the firing of the bricks takes around two days. Each kiln is roughly 82 metres long, with temperatures reaching 1,100C. The temperature and firing time depends on the clay, colour and strength of the desired brick.

Just before the bricks leave the plant, there is the essential stage where they are blended and sorted. As the colour and appearance of each batch of brick varies, if this process is not properly done, there will be a noticeable variation in the bricks when they are laid at the construction site. Before the bricks are finally shrink-wrapped and shipped, there are further alterations that can be made to the bricks which include rumbling, rock-facing, sawing, grinding and hand-blending.

Being a longstanding company operating in a city of around 50,000 people, I-XL continues to contribute to the life of Medicine Hat. One of their recent contributions lies adjacent to the Esplanade–the Ewart Duggan House (1887). In 2002, the Sissons bought the house and gave it to the City of Medicine Hat so that they could renovate the building to use as a small museum, art gallery, and theatre. Duggan House is also reputed to be the oldest brick house in Alberta. For the Esplanade, I-XL donated the brick that was to be used–further tying their company’s history to the history of the “Hat,” but the history continues–the site of the Esplanade was the site of Herb and Lisa Sissons’ former home. As Medicine Hat thrives off revenues from natural gas, it also continues to benefit from new buildings that bring the community together.

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