All clays are the result of the denudation and decomposition of felspathic and siliceous rocks, and consist of the fine insoluble particles which have been carried in suspension in water and deposited in geologic basins according to their specific gravity and degree of fineness (see Clay). These deposits have been formed in all geologic epochs from the "Recent" to the "Cambrian," and they vary in hardness from the soft and plastic "alluvial" clays to the hard and rock-like shales and slates of the older formations. The alluvial and drift clays (which were alone used for brickmaking until modern times) are found near the surface, are readily worked and require little preparation, whereas the older sedimentary deposits are often difficult to work and necessitate the use of heavy machinery. These older shales, or rocky clays, may be brought into plastic condition by long weathering (i.e. by exposure to rain, frost and sun) or by crushing and grinding in water, and they then resemble ordinary alluvial clays in every respect.

The clays or earths from which burnt bricks are made may be divided into two principal types, according to chemical composition: (1) Clays or shales containing only a small percentage of carbonate of lime and consisting chiefly of hydrated aluminium silicates (the "true clay substance") with more or less sand, undecomposed grains of felspar, and oxide or carbonate of iron; these clays usually burn to a buff, salmon or red colour; (2) Clays containing a considerable percentage of carbonate of lime in addition to the substances above mentioned. These latter clay deposits are known as "marls,"[1] and may contain as much as 40% of chalk. They burn to a sulphur-yellow colour which is quite distinctive.

Brick clays of class (1) are very widely distributed, and have a more extensive geological range than the marls, which are found in connexion with chalk or limestone formations only. These ordinary brick clays vary considerably in composition, and many clays, as they are found in nature, are unsuitable for brickmaking without the addition of some other kind of clay or sand. The strongest brick clays, i.e. those possessing the greatest plasticity and tensile strength, are usually those which contain the highest percentage of the hydrated aluminium silicates, although the exact relation of plasticity to chemical composition has not yet been determined. This statement cannot be applied indiscriminately to all clays, but may be taken as fairly applicable to clays of one general type (see Clay). All clays contain more or less free silica in the form of sand, and usually a small percentage of undecomposed felspar. The most important ingredient, after the clay-substance and the sand, is oxide of iron; for the colour, and, to a less extent, the hardness and durability of the burnt bricks depend on its presence.

The amount of oxide of iron in these clays varies from about 2 to 10%, and the colour of the bricks varies accordingly from light buff to chocolate; although the colour developed by a given percentage of oxide of iron is influenced by the other substances present and also by the method of firing. A clay containing from 5 to 8% of oxide of iron will, under ordinary conditions of firing, produce a red brick; but if the clay contains 3 to 4% of alkalis, or the brick is fired too hard, the colour will be darker and more purple. The actions of the alkalis and of increased temperature are probably closely related, for in either case the clay is brought nearer to its fusion point, and ferruginous clays generally become darker in colour as they approach to fusion. Alumina acts in the opposite direction, an excess of this compound tending to make the colour lighter and brighter. It is impossible to give a typical composition for such clays, as the percentages of the different constituents vary through such wide ranges.

The clay substance may vary from 15 to 80%, the free silica or sand from 5 to 80%, the oxide of iron from 1 to 10%, the carbonates of lime and magnesia together, from 1 to 5%, and the alkalis from 1 to 4%. Organic matter is always present, and other impurities which frequently occur are the sulphates of lime and magnesia, the chlorides and nitrates of soda and potash, and iron-pyrites. The presence of organic matter gives the wet clay a greater plasticity, probably because it forms a kind of mucilage which adds a certain viscosity and adhesiveness to the natural plasticity of the clay. In some of the coal-measure shales the amount of organic matter is very considerable, and may render the clay useless for brickmaking. The other impurities, all of which, except the pyrites, are soluble in water, are undesirable, as they give rise to "scum," which produces patchy colour and pitted faces on the bricks. The commonest soluble impurity is calcium sulphate, which produces a whitish scum on the face of the brick in drying, and as the scum becomes permanently fixed in burning, such bricks are of little use except for common work.

This question of "scumming" is very important to the maker of high-class facing and moulded bricks, and where a clay containing calcium sulphate must be used, a certain percentage of barium carbonate is nowadays added to the wet clay. By this means the calcium sulphate is converted into calcium carbonate which is insoluble in water, so that it remains distributed throughout the mass of the brick instead of being deposited on the surface. The presence of magnesium salts is also very objectionable, as these generally remain in the burnt brick as magnesium sulphate, which gives rise to an efflorescence of fine white crystals after the bricks are built into position. Clays which are strong or plastic are known as "fat" clays, and they always contain a high percentage of true "clay substance," and, consequently, a low percentage of sand. Such clays take up a considerable amount of water in "tempering"; they dry slowly, shrink greatly, and so become liable to lose their shape and develop cracks in drying and firing. "Fat" clays are greatly improved by the addition of coarse sharp sand, which reduces the time of drying and the shrinkage, and makes the brick more rigid during the firing.

Coarse sand, unlike clay-substance, is practically unaffected during the drying and firing, and is a desirable if not a necessary ingredient of all brick clays. The best brick-clays feel gritty between the fingers; they should, of course, be free from pebbles, sufficiently plastic to be moulded into shape and strong enough when dry to be safely handled. All clays are greatly improved by being turned over and exposed to the weather, or by standing for some months in a wet condition. This "weathering" and "ageing" of clay is particularly important where bricks are made from tempered clay, i.e. clay in the wet or plastic state; where bricks are made from shale, in the semi-plastic condition, weathering is still of importance.

The lime clays or "marls" of class (2), which contain essentially a high percentage of chalk or limestone, are not so widely distributed as the ordinary brick-clays, and in England the natural deposits of these clays have been largely exhausted. A very fine chalk-clay, or "malm" as it was locally called, was formerly obtained from the alluvium in the vicinity of London; but the available supply of this has been used up, and at the present time an artificial "malm" is prepared by mixing an ordinary brick-clay with ground chalk. For the best London facing-bricks the clay and chalk are mixed in water. The chalk is ground on grinding-pans, and the clay is mixed with water and worked about until the mixture has the consistence of cream. The mixture of these "pulps" is run through a grating or coarse sieve on to a drying-kiln or "bed," where it is allowed to stand until stiff enough to walk on. A layer of fine ashes is then spread over the clay, and the mass is turned over and mixed by spade, and tempered by the addition of water.

In other districts, where clays containing limestone are used, the marl is mixed with water on a wash-pan and the resulting creamy fluid passed through coarse sieves on to a drying-bed. If necessary, coarse sand is added to the clay in the wash-pan, and such addition is often advisable because the washed clays are generally very fine in grain. Another method of treating these marls, when they are in the plastic condition, is to squeeze them by machinery through iron gratings, which arrest and remove the pebbles. In other cases the marl is passed through a grinding-mill having a solid bottom and heavy iron rollers, by which means the limestone pebbles are crushed sufficiently and mixed through the whole mass. The removal of limestone pebbles from the clay is of great importance, as during the firing they would be converted into quicklime, which has a tendency to shatter the brick on exposure to the weather. As before stated, these marls (which usually contain from 15 to 30% of calcium carbonate) burn to a yellow colour which is quite distinctive, although in some cases, where the percentage of limestone is very high, over 40%, the colour is grey or a very pale buff.

The action of lime in bleaching the ferric oxide and producing a yellow instead of a red brick, has not been thoroughly investigated, but it seems probable that some compound is produced, between the lime and the oxide of iron, or between these two oxides and the free silica, entirely different from that produced by oxide of iron in the absence of lime. Such marls require a harder fire than the ordinary brick-clays in order to bring about the reaction between the lime and the other ingredients. Magnesia may replace lime to some extent in such marls, but the firing temperature must be higher when magnesia is present. Marls usually contract very little, if at all, in the burning, and generally produce a strong, square brick of fine texture and good colour. When under-fired, marl bricks are very liable to disintegrate under the action of the weather, and great care must be exercised in burning them at a sufficiently high temperature.