Thatching Materials

Water reed roof with a sedge ridge

Water Reed (Phragmites Autralis)

Often referred to as Norfolk reed, this is one of the most popular materials available. Traditionally, Norfolk, with its large commercial reed beds, provided most of the water reed used for thatching in the UK. However, with greater demand water reed is now available from many countries Worldwide. With its clean, angular lines it has always been the material of choice for more formal buildings and lifespans of fifty years or more are not uncommon.

Usually laid in horizontal layers (setts) fixed directly to the woodwork, it also allows for fire retardant membrane or boarding to be used underneath.

Combed Wheat Reed

Essentially wheat straw which has been processed to have a more reed like appearance. Usually laid vertically (cants) and fixed with hazel spars to an existing layer of thatch. Combed wheat reed roofs have a softer, more rounded appearance than water reed but do require a layer of wire netting to protect against bird damage. I use triticale, a wheat/rye cross, grown in Hampshire, which is of a consistently high quality. The photo shows wheat grown near my barn being harvested for thatching.

Cutting of thatching straw at Barnham, West Sussex
Long straw roof for Sussex Heritage Trust

Long Straw

This is still wheat straw but which has gone through a simpler threshing process than the combed wheat reed. The straw will then need extra preparation by the thatcher before it can be used.

This is now only commonly found on specific buildings which have the highest level of listed building control. At one time long straw would have been the most common thatching material but now it is increasingly rare. It has a very rounded, ‘poured on’, almost shaggy appearance and, like combed wheat reed, will require a layer of protective wire netting.

Sedge (Cladium Mariscus)

Having the longest life-span, and with its characteristic tweed like appearance, sedge may justifiably be called the ‘King’ of ridging materials. Commercially grown now only in North Norfolk, sedge has been used in Sussex for at least 100 years. I consider myself fortunate to help maintain this tradition.

Sedge re ridge
complete rethatch in water reed

Hazel Spars (Corylus Avellana)

Hazel has long been used in thatching because its balance between ease of use and longevity makes it superior to its rival willow. British coppiced woodlands are under serious commercial pressure but I am still able to obtain good quality hazel from Hampshire. Hazel spars can be twisted to form staples to attach combed wheat reed or long straw to the roof. They are also used to produce the decorative pattern along the many different types of ridges, for example, flush-cut or block-cut.