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Thatch roofing materials: A guide

Thatch roofing has been in existence in the UK for centuries and continues to make an attractive addition to our towns and villages, particularly in areas with high numbers of historical or listed properties.

But the materials used to create these picturesque roofs are not all one and the same. In fact, they can differ according to geographical location, the type of property and personal choice.

There are many types of thatch roof material, but the three main types are:

  • Water reed
  • Combed wheat reed
  • Longstraw

Each material has its own distinctive properties, in addition to different preparation methods and availability of supply. 

Because of this, let’s take a closer look at these three key thatch roof materials to uncover their advantages and disadvantages.

Water reed thatch roof material

Water reed is also commonly known as Norfolk reed or continental water reed, which gives you a little clue about where it can be supplied from.

Water reed grows in river areas or wetland, which is why Norfolk is a particularly well-known provider of the thatch material. However, to meet demand, it is also commonly imported from countries such as Austria, Poland and Ukraine. 

After being cut, water reed is divided into different grades: fine, medium and coarse.

Fine reed is typically used for gables and hipped ends and tends to be shorter and more tapered. Medium reed is – unsurprisingly – of medium-length with a little bit of tapering, which makes it ideal for parts of the roof which don’t require any changes of angle. The final grade (coarse) tends to be thicker at the bottom than the top and may not necessarily be straight. 

Advantages of water reed

Water reed is held to be the most durable of thatching materials with a lifespan of up to 40+ years in a thatched roof. This can make it a very appealing thatch material to property owners as it means that the time between roof replacements can be extended.

However, it is important to remember that the longevity of any thatched roof, including those made of water reed, is dependent on the quality of the materials supplied, local weather conditions, the craftsmanship of the thatcher and the pitch of the roof. Just because you buy water reed doesn’t mean that your roof will last for 40 or more years.

Disadvantages of water reed

Unlike straw-based thatch material, water reed is heavy. This means that it may not be suitable for delicate, historical properties. It is also possible that property owners may be restricted from switching to this thatch material if their home is listed. Some localities insist on a ‘like-for-like’ replacement, which means that if a property has historically had wheat reed or longstraw thatching, it cannot be changed for another material.

Supply of water reed has also been more difficult in recent years. Its supply from abroad was significantly affected by the pandemic, which led to container shortages and labour issues in the supplying countries. This supply is likely to be damaged further by the war in Ukraine, which was a key supplier of the thatch material.

This has affected the cost of water reed, which was already one of the more expensive thatching materials. This could make it an increasingly costly thatch roof material in years to come.

Water reeds can also lack flexibility. Different grades of reeds must be used for different sections of the roof to fit its angles, which means a good supply of all three grades is important.

Combed wheat reed for thatch roofing

Combed wheat reed is also often known as Devon reed. This is because it is particularly common in the south-west, in areas such as Devon and Dorset.

Combed wheat reed was traditionally a by-product of the cereal industry. The wheat is cut and then put through a thresher, which removes the grains. These reeds are then ‘combed’ by a comber, which removes any short or broken pieces along with weeds and leaves. 

Advantages of wheat reed

Wheat reed is more versatile than water reed as it is more flexible. This makes it ideal for trickier areas such as the ridging. It is also hard-wearing, which makes it a very useful thatching material with a lifespan of around 25 to 35 years.

It also tends to be more affordable than water reed.

Disadvantages of wheat reed

Wheat reed has been affected by poor harvests in the last few years, which have driven up the price. It must also be supplied as a thatching-specific product as it is no longer an easily available by-product of regular harvests. 

This is because modern wheat used for food has been cultivated to be shorter with lots more grain. Thatching requires a longer stem. Big producers of this thatch material have begun to leave the market, which is making supply more difficult.

Longstraw for thatch roofing

Longstraw has a shaggier appearance when compared to water reed and combed wheat reed. 

It is produced in a very similar way to wheat reed, but after being cut and threshed it is then soaked in water until it becomes pliable. It is then ‘drawn’ from the water and bundled.

Advantages of longstraw

Of the three main types of thatch material, longstraw tends to be the cheapest. As a light and flexible material, it is also very good for delicate historical properties. 

Disadvantages of longstraw

Like wheat reed, longstraw must be specifically grown for the thatching industry. Its supply has also been affected by the departure of large producers in recent years, which has again had an inflationary impact upon the price. 

With production tight, there is no surplus or buffer available if there is a bad harvest, which can affect the quality as well as the price.

Protect your thatch with the right insurance

No matter what type of thatch material you choose, you need to make sure that you have the right insurance in place to protect your thatched home if the worst should happen. 

To discuss your needs, get in touch with our experienced John Albion Insurance team on 01603 788050.

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