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.

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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!

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Categories: Thatching, Winternship, Workshops

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