Friday, 4 September 2015


Broadly speaking the main types of bundles are tapered, short and long. The tapered ones go to form  the corners.
So when you head up the ladder with your first bundle of thatch, hoping to actually start, cut the string and have a massive heap of reed all blowing in the wind, it feels impossible.
To have an actual thatcher here for the first week was a godsend. We used 8mm mild steel rod for the sways, to hold the thatch down. These were secured with a special stainless steel wire fixing, using a thatchers screwdriver bit extension, you prod down through the thickness of reed and screw the wires onto your batten, then while depressing the sway with your knee, you twist the wires nice and tight.
Dressing the reed into position must take several years to master, it seemed easier while my tutor was around, during the time he was away, It was seriously difficult.
Another tricky part was getting the thatch to be an even thickness. You have to hold a ladder on edge, flush with the surface of the reed and assess if it is parallel with the roof line.

Here's a picture of me as the roof nears completion.

You only see the last inch or so of any reed, once on the roof, even though they are six feet long.

Monday, 8 June 2015

My mind turned to the thatch to clad the roof. Our AGA repair man (the aga khan) put me into contact with a reed cutter on the Norfolk coast, I went to meet him and his colleague at the old roman site at Branodunum near Brancaster. A deal was struck for 1200 bundles, about half from this site and the rest from near the windmill at Cley next the Sea. I was picking bits of flag (reed head) out of the van for ages afterwards.

Then I also needed some sedge for the ridge, after a bit of research I tracked down the right fellow on the Broads, here is a picture of him.

I took it all home and wondered how on earth I was going to deal with these new straw stacks! This was worrying, even though I knew my father had thatched a house many years before. I went to meet and phoned local(ish) thatchers who were not at all keen to share their skills and empower me. Luckily I did track down the right man in the end. He was very reassuring and told me “don’t worry every bundle of reed has its appropriate position on the roof, all you have to do is work out where”.       

Here’s a picture of some of it in the shed.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Eyebrow making

So we retained every piece of original Elm rafter we could, re-jigging some of their positions. One rear corner of the wall plate and a principal rafter needed new timber splicing in, due to a leak in the old corrugated tin.
Also my mind turned to planning the 'eye brow' window. A curved glue-lam beam was required with a rebate to accept the window frame. Strong enough to carry the roof, so four thicknesses of 25mm engineering ply was glued together and machined out in the workshop.
last time we made this type of element was in a marquee on St Margaret's bay for the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Good Bones of Elm and Oak

All the timber used to construct the Barn was originally Elm -  the rafters, floor joists and the floorboards. The entire upstairs floor had to be replaced as it was beyond repair. I salvaged and stored anything that was half-decent for future use on the barn.

On close examination of the existing Elm wood used in the barn, it's noticeable that the saw marks are not parallel and are unevenly spaced, indicating that it wasn't sawn on a machine but was done using a two-man pit saw. This clip shows how it might have been done:

One of the amazing features of such an old roof is that the principal rafters were all sawn tapered. From a modern approach this would be very complicated. But, looking at it through the eyes of the 17th Century woodworker, since the tree itself is tapered, treating it this way would be the obvious solution, requiring less work and making less waste.

It always strikes me how the barn's builders accepted the natural 'waney edge' features of the timber, meaning that in some places the beams were far from square. There really wasn't the modern demand for uniformity.

I would have loved to use like-for-like everywhere, but since the disaster of Dutch Elm disease decimated the species in the UK this wasn't possible. In the end I had to compromise and use what was locally available, which was English Oak. It is durable, readily available and a recognised suitable timber for old roofs. So, I selected an oak tree from a site about 10 miles away; a friend and I transported it to a sawmill where it was sawn to my specifications. Now the roof was stripped, the wood was on its way, and I was ready to start construction!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Back again...

Right, I’ve decided it’s long past the time when I need to get to grips with this blog and tell you what I’ve been up to during the time that this blog has been silent.

The truth is that, in between my joinery work for customers, I’ve been building and restoring my home. I’m lucky enough to have a 17th Century barn which I’m converting to a habitable house, and at the very outset I made the decision to take my time and do the job sensitively, in keeping with my values of craftsmanship and environmental awareness. This has meant that although progress has sometimes been slow and frustrating, the end result is shaping up to be quite special.

I’m going to use this blog over the coming weeks and months to tell the story of the barn’s evolution into a habitable home. It’s been quite a rollercoaster, and I’ve learned a lot about old buildings, repurposing materials, and investing in the future. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about my struggles and successes.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Barn becomes Stable

When I started work on the barn, the first priority was to underpin the structure. There were various problems, including the split above the front door you can see on my previous post. Other issues included the fact that the internal wall had broken into three pieces and a central section had collapsed.

To put things right, I dug out section by section (by hand) under the walls, introducing a damp-proof course and re-bar ring. A side-effect of this process was the creation of a hill outside the door which became a feature for a while. I repaired the internal wall using traditional lime-based materials and reusing the original flint and carrstone from the collapsed sections, in keeping with the barn's character. The quoins in the barn are monastic stone, and I was very happy to be able to replace the missing pieces from another barn which had been situated only 200m away but had been demolished years ago.

Once the building was stable, the most urgent task was to sort out the roof, which was clad in tarred, corrugated tin. The tar, over many years, had dripped down the walls. I stripped off the tin, to reveal the  pit-sawn elm roof. I was thrilled to notice Roman numerals numbering the rafters.