Retrotechtacular: Clay Pipe The Hard Way

Troll YouTube long enough and chances are good that you’ll come across all kinds of videos of the “How It’s Made” genre. And buried in with the frying pans and treadmills and dental floss manufacturers, there no doubt will be deep dives on how pipe is made. Methods will vary by material, but copper, PVC, cast iron, or even concrete, what the pipe factories will all have in common is the high degree of automation they employ. With a commodity item like pipe, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from another manufacturer on features, so price is about the only way to compete. That means cutting costs to the bone, and that means getting rid of as many employees as possible.

Such was not always the case, of course, as this look at how Irish Stoneware & Fireclays Ltd. made clay pipe, drain tiles, and chimney flues back in the 1980s shows. The amount of handwork involved in making a single, simple piece of clay pipe is astonishing, as is the number of hands employed at the various tasks. The factory was located in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Ireland, near an outcropping of shale that forms the raw material for its products. Quarrying the shale and milling it into clay were among the few mechanized steps in the process; although the extrusion of the pipe itself was also mechanized, the machines required teams of workers to load and unload them.

The amount of handwork that went into the pipes once they came out of the extruder was remarkable, especially the sewer pipes. The creation of the “Armstrong junction,” a complex fitting that serves as a cleanout and inspection port for sewer lines, was fascinating to watch, especially since almost no jigs were used and no measurements were taken. It was strictly Mark I eyeball stuff, along with skill and decades of experience.

We love these documentaries that capture what are now some of the long-lost methods of making stuff. The “Hands” series was made in the 1980s by RTÉ, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, and one gets the sense that even then, long before the current wave of off-shoring and globalization had begun, they knew they were capturing the last days of dying industries. We’re glad they did.

28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Clay Pipe The Hard Way

      1. according to google rte’s first colour broadcasts started in 1968. ireland prior to european union accession was quite economically backward. the country was bankrupt when it was formed forty something years earlier.

    1. Rewatch. Notice the cars in the town at around 45 seconds in. Then reread the article. Then if your still not sure, click the YouTube link and read the description.


      1. Also, @23:15 many of the people who worked there helped build the kilns and it has become “a part of their lives” after 30 years. So if the factory started in ’51 (The marshall plan is mentioned in the beginnig) that also places it in early ’80-ies.

      1. The narrator says that some of the workers had built the kilns thirty years ago. Given that the company was founded in 1951, and the film broadcast in 1983, this means it was filmed between 1981 and 1983 (maybe a year or two earlier if the “thirty years” had been rounded up).

      1. According to either that video or the Knowles web site clay pipes for drainage were an 18th century invention. Prior to that drains were stone-lined troughs or hollowed wood.

  1. Old-fashioned and inefficient it may be, by modern standards, but those men have a *connection* to their product, and a sense of ownership and accomplishment, that’s sorely lacking in the modern workplace.

    1. That’s pretty neat. Wonder what the long term environmental impact is to clay pipes vs modern plastics are. To me, I’m to the point I’d rather have clay after the city crushed the sewer line to the street with a too heavy of a load more than once. Knowing all those little plastic bits will be in the ground for nearly all eternity. Or still finding random sharp fragments of plastic coming up to the surface in the yard after repair. Maybe I’m just foolish. Who knows.

        1. Right, but part of me would rather live with nearly natural forever stone vs something that breaks down into micro particles and creates endocrine disruptors. Six in one hand, half dozen in the other? When walking the shore line, always interesting to find weathered brick or other stone/glass works. Finding bits of plastic always ends up in trash.

          1. You’d probably love the beaches on the French riviera.

            The sand there contains loads of tiny little green, brown, and red glass fragments. Just pick up a handful of sand, and you’ll find the glass bits.

            So many bottles have been disposed of in the water there that it has a visible effect on the sand content on the shore.

    1. I would assume that clay pipes is a product that is relatively heavy and voluminous compared to their value, such that long-distance transport becomes a large part of it’s price.
      Clay piping is still made in the Netherlands, a country that is very services-oriented and with very high wages. So I assume that it is highly automated now.

  2. In the early 90’s I went on a trip to Dublin and exited a train station to see a man painting a fence. This was a huge construction privacy fence maybe 10 feet tall and its length was the surround of entire city block, which was being excavated. Having been a house painter for most of my high school and early college days I had to ask him about his approach. He had a 1 gallon cutting pail and a round sash brush and was covering that fence with paint an inch at a time with frequent trips to his truck where he had multiple 5 gallon buckets. I asked him why he didnt use a roller or sprayer for such a huge job and he said “there’s not enough work”. Being a technologist and humanist I understand and yet I don’t. That scene will never leave my consciousness, just dont know what to think about it. For the sensitive, sorry about all of the “English” measures :-)

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