Monthly Archives: January 2016

Winternship 2016: Thatching Workshop

On Saturday January 10th, in the comfortably cold winter woods of Oxford, Michigan, six workshop attendees traveled long and far, from Howell, Goodrich, and even internationally from Ontario, and all arrived to the warm welcome of Strawbale Studio’s 2016 Wintership crew: seven “Winterns” guided patiently and joyful by Deanne. It was the first of the weekend workshops in January and the topic was everything Thatching!

Motivations for learning were quite varied, but most all of us were greenhorns when it came to thatched roofs. Brian and Heather came from Howell Recreation Center to explore options to re-thatch a hut in their houses of the world exhibit. Mary came from Ontario hoping to reignite some energy to finish a small thatched roof project. Though many of us didn’t have particular projects in mind, we were enthused to learn a craft that could meet the universal need for putting a roof over one’s head.

After introductions and delicious snacks in the rocket stove warmed Red Shed, Deanne gave an overview that loosely followed these topics, at least as far as my notes go: roof function, roof designs, reed quality and selection, advantages and disadvantages to thatched roofs, and thatching tools.


The Art of Thatching!

Thatching is described as any roof made of plant materials, so this largely depends on the climate and plant availability; materials include using palm, grasses, reed, sticks, or moss. Generally, the material selected will be used for shedding away water and insulating a structure to be cool in the summer or warm in the winter. The material that is abundant in this area and used on many roofs here is called Phragmites, also known as water reed. Phragmites is invasive to this area and outgrow native plants including the cattail.

Phragmites is pervasive throughout the region, so finding it isn’t hard, but harvesting good quality reed is more of a challenge. Firstly, it is important to select reed with consistent size, shape, straightness, bright color, and compression and tensile strength. It is common to find Phragmites up to 12 feet tall, but harvesting reed that is four to six feet, small diameter, and not too gray due to drying or mold is ideal.

A reed thatched roof has many advantages. As mentioned, the materials can be harvested locally with no cost. The aesthetic appeal of a nicely thatched roof is quite becoming and it isn’t uncommon to expect to see some Hobbits scurrying about. In Michigan cold winters, the thick thatched roof provides great insulation and can last twice as long as modern roofs up to 50 years.

However, there’s always a downside; harvesting reed is quite labor intensive, taking about 30 minutes per bundle, and requiring roughly one bundle per one square-foot of the structure’s footprint. Yet, to quote Deanne directly from this day, “My goal is to connect with nature; not just to be efficient.” There’s also potential for fire hazard, but with proper sealing with cob or other materials, the thatched roof is similar to wooden shingled roofs. Harvesting also generally needs to happen in the winters, when the reed has died and the wetlands are accessibly frozen over. 

Thatching and reed collecting have a handful of common and particular tools for the trade. Some are shown in the Art of Thatching picture above.

Following the overview, Deanne did a half-scale thatching demonstration inside the red shed. Then we meandered outside to observe the Kid’s Cottage, Strawbale Studio, and a few smaller structures to review the thatched roof in completed projects.

Hands on Thatching!

We all divided up to two groups for some hands on experience. One group did some wood harvesting for materials needed for thatching. And the other group, eventually joined by both groups, did thatching on a small A-frame wood storage structure. Most of the pictures in the following slideshow collage are from the hands on thatching on the A-frame. It roughly follows a step by step guide, but this blog post is already too long to go anymore in depth! Enjoy the photos:

Sunday was slated to be a field trip to the reed field to learn harvesting reed bundles. However, an ice storm coated the reed with freezing rain, and plans changed to a  delightful indoor discussion on Canadian and United States’ politics and the state of the world. Always something to learn, everyone brings something interesting to the table!

Categories: Thatching, Winternship, Workshops

Winternship 2016: Week 1

Sunday, January 3rd

  • Kathryn, Doug, and Jacob were early arrivals and got settled into the house. An evening of mending and story sharing was thoroughly enjoyed.

Monday, January 4th – Introductions & Orientation

  • Winternship Orientation! Deanne showed us the ropes and started our tour of the grounds and buildings. Organizing four weeks with 7 people can be a challenge, but Deanne challenges us to all “FIOT”: Figure It Out Together.
  • Kathryn, Veneta, Petar and Doug joined Deanne to the bi-weekly Non-violent Communication meet up where we enjoyed cookies and learned the basics of the NVC framework for empathetic listening and expressing feelings, needs, and requests.
  • Special guest visit: Gene stopped by with the BEAUTIFUL door that he built for the Kids’ Cottage. Check out his work!

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Tuesday, January 5th

  • Deanne started the lessons with some foundations on foundations.
  • We all gathered around near the Red Shed to do a wood chopping skill share.
  • Kelly, Kathryn, and Veneta took apart the worm composting tower and separated out the compost from the straggler worms hanging at the bottom.

Wednesday, January 6th

  • We continued the tour of the greenhouse, compost piles, Kids’ Cottage, spiral compost toilet hut, Deanne’s sleeper cabin, thatched wood hut, the cob oven, and Strawbale Studio. While looking at the structures, we observed and learned about the variety of foundations in each.
  • At the Strawbale Studio we took the temperature of the compost pile constructed to heat the building. The interior of the pile produced heat of 140 +/- degrees Fahrenheit for a year, from November 2015 through November 2016 !
  • Daily events in the household include nature in many forms.
  • Reed Harvest instructions! We drove out to the reed field and learned techniques for cutting and bundling.

Thursday, January 7th – Lashing & A-frames!

  • More orientation tour, this time including the humanure compost pile, Red Shed and it’s many tools and rocket stove, and Intern Getaway cabin.
  • Today’s Lesson: Lashing. We learned the Japanese square knot for tying a post and beam together. Learned some good words like “Frapping” and it isn’t how to order your Starbucks coffee.
  • We were given a demo on how to light up a rocket stove.
  • Planning meeting for the upcoming weekend Thatching workshop. Lots to do in preparation! We salvaged a collapsed A-frame from a previous year and restored it to be a hands-on project for the workshop.

Friday, January 8th – Day Off!

  • Most of the Winterns are half-work-trade, meaning we are working 10 hours a week to offset the cost of the internship. There is always plenty of cleaning, wood chopping, and cooking to be done.
  • Some of us attended and thoroughly enjoyed a Yin Yoga class in Lake Orion.

Saturday, January 9th

Checkout this blog post on the Thatching Workshop Weekend!

Categories: Uncategorized, Winternship

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