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6 – Types

What are the different types of thatch?

There are three main types of thatch:

Long straw

Perhaps one of the oldest forms of thatching. The art of long straw is dying out even among modern thatchers. Traditionally this method of thatching was one of the cheapest, but to be done properly it now commands a higher premium than other methods due to the vast amount of skilled labour it requires.

The straw I use is grown especially for thatching near Framlingham in Suffolk, and is still cut with a binder and left standing in stooks in the field before being stored ready for threshing. The straw is then shaken up into a heap, or bed, and soaked down. Once soaked in the straw is pulled out of this bed and fashioned into Yealms. These yealms are what I use to thatch with.

Many long straw thatched homes can develop a build-up of layers of thatch over the course of the buildings life. It may be the case that one or more of the existing layers may be entirely stripped off before the new thatch goes on. The new thatch is attached to the roof using twisted, split hazel pegs, or spars. The spars I use come from a hazel coppice a short walk away from my home. The management and development of such woodlands was once a staple part of the thatchers craft, but is now also beginning to be lost after equally good, but cheaper imports from Europe. Tens of thousands of these spars can be used on a single re-thatch.

Some thatcher’s have started to use a plastic version of the hazel spar.  This is not a method I endorse or use.  These plastic spits will save the thatcher a lot of time and money, but in the long run will prove detrimental to your thatch.  Also, they’re plastic, and have no place in my craft.

The thatch is normally applied in vertical columns, or staulches, to the side of the ladder. Once the thatch is on, the eaves are cut and rodded. The ridge is then applied and the whole thatch is encased in thatching wire to prevent vermin damage.

Although the ridge will need replaceing every 10-15 years, the main body of long straw thatch should last between 25 and 40 years with due care and maintenance.

Combed wheat reed

This style of thatching is perhaps the most modern. A comber is fitted to the threshing machine, which cleans most of the flag off of the straw stems. The straw is normally fixed to a bottom coat with hazel spars in a similar fashion to long straw. One difference between the two styles is that the straw is dressed into place using a legget, rather than dressing by hand. The finish resembles that of a water reed roof. No rod work is fixed around the eves. Combed wheat reed is most common in the south west of the country.
The whole thatch is encased in wire netting to prevent vermin damage. Again, the ridge will need replacing every 10-15 years, but the main body may well last slightly longer than that of long straw.

Water reed

When re-thatching with water reed it is most common to strip off the remnants of the old thatch entirely. The new thatch is held onto the roof using steel rods, or sways. Steel rod has the advantage of not rotting, years ago lengths of hazel would have been used for the job. The sways run horizontally along the rafters and are held in place using spikes which are driven into the rafters. Unlike the previous two methods, the thatch is laid on in horizontal courses instead of vertical columns. A legett is used to dress the reeds into place.

A straw or sedge ridge is usually used to finish off a water reed thatch. Again the entire thatch is normally wired. Again, the ridge will need replacing every 10-15 years, but the main body of the thatch should last 40-50 years.

5 – Replacing

How will I know when my thatch needs replacing?

Large sections of moss developing can often indicate where water is slow to fall from the thatch, this can be a sign of wear and it may be the case that only small interim repair work is needed here.
If there are large gullies appearing in your thatch, this is also a sign that the roof has started to fail. If you can walk underneath the eaves and see dark patches stretching from the edge of the eave towards the building, this is indicative of water penetrating the thatch higher up.
When there is a large gap between the apex of the thatch and the wire netting, this will show how far the ridge has degraded over time. The condition and thickness of the remaining ridge and external woodwork will also show what condition your thatch is in.

If you can, each year try to take a photo of each aspect of the thatch.  This way, when you look back it may be possible to monitor things which on a day to day basis might be missed. If in any doubt however, always phone a thatcher and ask one of us to come and have a look. It may be nothing and could save a lot of time and expense further down the line.

4 – Winter

Do you carry on in the winter?

Yes, it’s not always very comfortable, and I can lose some days to bad weather. Although, sometimes winter weather is better to work in. I can always work to keep warm whereas in the summer months sometimes you can’t move without breaking into a sweat.

3 – Fire

What about fire?

Fire is an understandable risk and worry, but your thatch will probably have survived the last few hundred years unscathed. That being said, the biggest cause of thatch fires is likely due to our new, modern lifestyle. Halogen bulbs below thatch, without heat guards are an easily forgotten risk. But perhaps the growing popularity of wood burning stoves is the number one cause of thatch fires in the UK today.  Research into thatch fires is ongoing, and varies dramatically from source to source.

There are a number of easy things which can be done to prevent this increasing risk;

• Do not install a wood burner into your thatched home.
• Only burn dry, seasoned wood.
• Do not burn conifer wood, this produces a vast build-up of tar in the chimney which can then catch fire itself.
• Have a professional chimney sweep check and sweep your chimney two to three times each year, especially before the first fires in winter.
• Be sensible about the size of your fire, and never leave a fire unattended.

Heat sensors can also be installed on the outside of the chimney stack below the level of the thatch. External fireproof sprays can sometimes be used, and interior fireproof membrane or boarding can also be installed if the thatch is entirely stripped off.

Fires used in the right way are perfectly safe and enjoyable; the way your thatched home, fireplace and chimney were designed to be used.

2 – Time

How long will it take?

This will also vary depending on the size and type of thatch you have. Preparation work may take a number of weeks prior to my arrival at your home. Replacing the ridge, and repairing the thatch may only take a number of weeks, whereas completely re-thatching a property can often take a number of months. I work almost entirely on my own, there are bigger and faster companies who will complete the same work in a fraction of the time. For some customers with time constraints this may well be more suitable. But I am not however inclined to sacrifice my craft for a faster turnaround, by the time I have finished working on your thatch I will know each aspect of your thatch intimately, I will have prepared the materials by hand and will thatch your roof as if it were my own. After all, my work may well still be around long after I am gone.

1 – Cost

What will it cost me?

The most common work carried out to a thatched roof is replacing the ridge and repair work to the main body of the thatch. This is normally priced per foot of ridging work, as well as by the size of the main thatch area in need of repair.  The cost can vary tremendously depending on a number of things. The style of ridge for instance, is it flush or block cut with a pattern? Is it a sedge or straw ridge? Are there many features in the roof such as valleys, perpendicular joining ridges, windows etc.  Each ridge is priced individually on its own merits. One thing to bear in mind of course is that re-ridging and repair work to your thatch will need to be carried out every 10 – 15 years.

The re-thatching of your property will cost considerably more, often tens of thousands of pounds. Again each roof is unique, the type of thatch used as well as features in the roof will all play a part in pricing. This cost will come much less often than ridge and repair work, perhaps only once or twice in the life time of the occupier of the thatched property.

If you own a thatch, or are looking to buy a thatched property, I would advise setting aside between two and three thousand pounds each year in preparation for the upcoming thatching costs.