Getting the Job Done.. Thatchers and their Quotes


Residence in a thatched property of more than a decade or so; will inevitably lead to the employment of a thatcher. But how do you choose one and who are these people anyway…

Whether young and keen or old and wise, thatchers mainly have one thing in common; they really want to practice their craft. The job is just too difficult, uncomfortable and dirty, to attract anyone, who is not in their own way dedicated to their profession… There has to be an easier way of making a living, than swaying at the top of a ladder, in a gale; trying to keep a sheet on a half completed thatch. And having your hands stick to a metal ladder, on a cold and frosty morning, takes a little dedication… All this in the most dangerous section (roofing), of the most risky industry (construction), in Britain…

zzzzz thatcher c1920



thatched barn

Dedication… Apart from a pride in their work, a head for heights is also useful for any thatcher. This was one of the biggest roofs I ever worked on; over 100 squares of thatch; and one of the highest…



Opposite is a traditional view of the craft, but the reality in around 1920, was hard work in all weathers… as it is now.

To outsiders we may seem a strange crew… Thatchers are the only people I know, who will quote against one another time after time; yet lend each other material to finish a job. It’s not uncommon for one thatcher to work for another, on a large contract and for them to have both quoted for the work. This may sound suspiciously like some form of price fixing, but who do you ask to help you out? Not being that numerous, thatchers tend to know each other well and having a lot in common, they generally get on with each other. Or have vendettas, that go down through the generations…

The establishment of Master Thatcher’s Associations at county level, in the late nineteen forties, helped bring the craft together. Although a great number of thatchers have never been members, it has ended the isolation that many in the trade felt years ago. Most of the country is covered, by either single or multiple county associations. There is also a national association, with individual members. The primary aim of these bodies is the maintenance of high working and professional standards. These are no cosy clubs. Occasionally there are some very tense meetings, when members are ejected; for failing to uphold decent standards… All associations have some form of vetting procedure, before members are admitted. Admittance shows the approval of other thatchers for one’s work; which means a great deal. Although the members of each association, are mostly quite independent of each other, they will help each other out in an emergency. And a wreath is often sent from the association; at the very end of a thatcher’s career… However the term ‘Master Thatcher’ has no meaning in law; as with most trades, anyone can call themselves what they like…

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Sticking together… Suntanned members of the Dorset Master Thatcher’s Association, celebrate 40 years of cooperation. Along with a couple of the founding members, from 1947… The year when most county associations were formed.

The size of thatching businesses vary. Most still consist of a skilled thatcher, working alone or with a trainee or labourer. If a large contract is carried out, then it’s normal practice to employ some extra skilled help; some thatchers specialise in mainly doing this sub contract work. The larger a firm grows, the more difficult it becomes for the thatcher to actually get on the roof and thatch; as more and more time is taken up, in estimating and running the various contracts. Some thatchers are happy enough with this situation, especially as they get older and the outside elements hold less of an appeal… Others like to keep their feet firmly on the ladder.

No one is sure how many thatchers there are in Britain. Estimates vary, but suggest around eight hundred to a thousand practitioners of the craft. That works out, at around fifty to sixty roofs per thatcher… There are always many more young people wanting to become thatchers, than available apprenticeships; possibly leading to some unfair exploitation. The danger for the apprentice is that there can be an awful lot of labouring and not much training… If a thatcher is working alone, then every minute spent teaching is time and money lost. The only way the trainee can compensate for this, is to speed up the job by some labouring and then being allowed to closely watch the thatcher. The advantage here is that any teaching will be on a one to one basis. This may not be the case with a bigger firm.

Another problem for the apprentice, with a larger business; is that they may miss out working on small jobs in cereal straw thatch and miss learning the skills of repairwork; as the firm goes from one large water reed job to another. It took me an awfully long time, to find a thatcher to teach me the craft; eighty miles from home…

thatching secrets

Not all saints… What caused these playing cards to be thatched in, near the eaves of a roof, I can’t say. But someone, in around 1820, thought it wise to secrete them away… And smoking whilst thatching, has always been frowned upon. So the best way, is to bury the evidence, for later thatchers to find.

More than cigarette packets are found in roofs. An odd assortment of items , from old tools to used fish and chip papers were lost or hidden away, and of course every thatcher dreams of finding the hidden hoard of some long dead miser. For some that dream has come true…

‘Treasure Trove… An inquisition was taken on Monday at Woburn, Bucks, respecting a quantity of money believed to have been found in the thatch of an obscure cottage, at Northern Woods, by a thatcher named Higgins. About sixty years ago, an old man lived there, was in the habit of hiding his gold in trees and various places near his premises. Higgins repaired the thatch in May, and just afterwards he became suddenly rich, and displayed a great number of guineas of ancient date. Altogether, the circumstances warranted the jury in giving a verdict that Higgins had found 700 guineas and upwards, and had taken no means to give information thereof in behalf of the king. He has absconded… The offence of concealment, formerly capital, is now only a misdemeanour’… From the Monmouthshire Merlin; 27th June 1829

I wonder if Mr Higgins ever returned to Buckinghamshire, or lived off, what for him, would have taken three decades to earn…

Finding and choosing a thatcher…

When looking for a quote, the thatchowner in an area with a lot of thatch will hopefully be spoilt for choice. But if the thatched property is a rarity in the locality, then it’s probable that thatchers are to… Either way, the owner will want to employ the person who will give them the best job at a reasonable price. If the present thatch seems to have been done well, then the previous thatcher is an obvious choice; but with a new home, the buyer may not know who that was. The former owner may well do or the new neighbours may be of help. Any neighbours who live in thatched properties are a good source of advice. With the added bonus, of happily telling you of any problems they might of had with their thatcher!

A recent purchaser could also ask their surveyor or the selling estate agent for some names. Local councils also have a list of craftsmen; but for legal reasons, they will not recommend individuals. These lists are a good source of information…

The internet and some directories carry adverts from thatchers and of more importance, adverts from local thatcher’s associations; whose secretary should send you a list of members. When dealing with a member of a master thatcher’s association, you should be able to be confident, that their work has been vetted and in any dispute the association can arbitrate. When looking at adverts it’s as well to remember, that some of the best thatchers don’t advertise at all; because they don’t need to…

Before accepting any quote for major work, it is as well to see that the roof timbers are in a reasonable state. Most thatchers will look in the roof space, if asked; but the owner should remember, that thatchers are not qualified surveyors and they may feel the need to employ one. Thatch is quite forgiving and does not require a perfect roof structure; most old cottages have anything but that… Thus most thatchers are quite capable of completing minor timbering repairs.

Having found someone to visit and discuss the roof; the next step is to agree on what work, if any, is required. (Hopefully the earlier page on maintaining a thatch, will have given a guide.) The problem for the owner is that the thatcher may suggest more work than is necessary. So if possible, it’s best to get a second or third opinion… When the amount of work is decided, the next step is to obtain a quote or estimate. They are not the same; a quotation is a fixed price, an estimate is not fixed, but is not expected to vary by a great amount. Most thatchers will give a quote or estimate, for free… Please don’t abuse the system and go for more than about three prices. I’ve been one of nine before now; wasting everyone’s time.

It is important to ensure that all the quotes from each thatcher are for exactly the same work. It’s rather pointless having an estimate, for say a long straw roof with a simple flush ridge, from one thatcher and a quote for a water reed roof, with an ornamental ridge, from another.

If only a section of the roof is being rethatched, it is vital to see that a specific area is mentioned, not some vague description. ‘30 feet, (9 metres) from the north west gable end’; is a lot clearer than ‘part of the rear elevation‘. This is where problems can occur; when the thatcher and the owner have two differing ideas, of what work is involved… The owner should check that what is quoted for is exactly what they want. The same applies to the ridge. The thatcher’s idea, of say an ornamental ridge, might be quite different to what the owner has in mind. (A good image of what is required will help; this site has scores to choose from!)

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Sectional thatch… If possible, it can be more economic, to have all parts of a building thatched at the same time. If all the owners are agreeable, and need the work done.

All things being equal, the prices quoted by various thatchers should be very similar. A very low quote could mean the thatcher is short of work, or is very keen to do the job. But they may have not have measured the roof properly, or simply underestimated the work involved… This could mean they start, but are reluctant to finish the job; as they realise their mistake and perhaps go off to pastures new… So beware of very low quotes. One of the best pieces of advice, I was given, when I started my own business was to: ‘give a decent price. You’ll be happy and do a good job, and the customer will be happy with work well done.’

If your chosen price is submitted by a thatcher who is unknown to you; it’s a good idea to ask them for some references and do go and see the work they mention. If possible contact the recommended customer and perhaps ask the following questions…

Were the thatcher’s working methods acceptable? e.g. Did they turn up every working day, weather permitting. Or was to job left, partly completed.
Did they clean up regularly?
Were both the roof and materials adequately protected from the weather?
If a large thatching firm was involved; who actually turned up to do the job? The same thatchers every day; or lots of different ones, at different times? It is good working practice, to have the same people on the roof, from start to finish.
Was the job done in a reasonable time?
Were they happy with it?
Did they enjoy having the thatchers around? This last question isn’t really necessary, but it’s nice when it happens…

Once happy with the thatcher; it’s time to read between the lines of their quote. The following section should hopefully help. It’s best to be picky, thatching works can cost thousands of pounds!

Some thatchers provide estimates, with a host of small print on the back; most don’t… Either way, the basis of a fair contract has to be… That the thatcher is willing and able to carry out a good job, in a reasonable time. And that the customer has the means to pay for the work, in a reasonable time.

It won’t be mentioned on the quote but make sure that the thatcher is adequately insured, for public liability. This is for damage the thatcher may cause, to the property or the owner. If sub contactors are used, everyone on site will need to be covered against accidents or negligence; to themselves, each other, the owner and the property.

Asimplified quote could well go like this…



To. Erect suitable scaffolding.
Supply all thatching materials and fix a suitable coat of thatch.
Finish with a sound ridge.
Cover roof with wire netting and fix chimney fillets.
Strip existing roof as necessary, dispose of resulting rubbish and leave the site in a tidy state.
All the above for £xxx plus VAT…
Payment to be in stages, as agreed…

What all this can mean is explained below….



To. Erect suitable scaffolding…
thatch stratton cornwallTo comply with health and safety legislation, adequate scaffolding should be erected for major works to the roof; most thatchers employ contractors to do this. It is a good idea to check, that any damage that may be caused by them, is covered by the thatchers quote. Damage can occur, especially when any tiled extensions are scaffolded; tiles break easily… Also, nearby overhead electricity cables may need to be sheathed to render them safe, before any metal scaffolding is put up. A service that is rarely free.

Electricity cables can dominate a thatch roof… Even many conservation areas, are plagued by them… Here, at Stratton in Cornwall, the thatcher has made the best of a bad situation…


To. Supply all thatching materials, and fix a suitable coat of thatch…
If the area is large enough, the thatcher may wish to store the new thatch on site. It should always be sheeted against the weather. A supply of water may also be required to wet the thatch, if long straw or combed wheat reed are being used. What constitutes a good coat of thatch is discussed in the Beginners Guide and the Technical section.

To. Finish with a sound ridge…
As mentioned, the exact type of ridging should be agreed beforehand. Preferably with an illustration of what is required. What constitutes a good ridge is discussed in the Technical section.

To. Cover roof with wire netting and fix chimney fillets.
Some of the virtues of wire netting have already been discussed; the owner should check to see if any is to be fixed. All types of ridge and most cereal straw thatching, will benefit from a covering. It is normal practice to also fix, either a mortar fillet or lead flashing around any chimneys. Lead flashing lasts longer but can be left stranded, as the roof sinks away over the years. Mortar can crack away but can follow the ridge line up and down; as it is replaced over time. With either material, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient width, to any fillet or flashing; especially under the chimney. This is often a weak point in the thatch and can be helped, by a decent cover of mortar or lead. Six inches (150mm) is a good minimum width, for a fillet or flashing; under any chimney. The width, on the sides of the stack is less important.

To. Strip existing roof as necessary, dispose of resulting rubbish and leave the site in a tidy state…
6gBefore any work takes place, it is always a good idea to remove any valuable garden plants, from an area at least ten feet (3m) away from the working area… Because if you are having an existing roof rethatched, then some stripping off of the old thatch will be required. It is important to realise that there will be an awful lot of rubbish created by this and throughout the job. It’s good working practice to remove this litter as soon as possible, whilst dry. It should not be allowed to build up and cause a fire hazard. On the other hand, the owner cannot expect every piece of litter to be removed every day. At the end of the job a through tidy up should take place; but some evidence will remain, even on the best cleared sites.

Disposing of rubbish is a major problem for a thatcher. It’s mostly burnt, hence the need to remove it dry. It also composts well, if there’s space… It may be in the quote that the owner has to find a suitable site for disposal. Local farmers will usually oblige. If the owner can remove the litter themselves, the thatcher will usually be more than happy to negotiate. But remember, there’s always more old thatch than first imagined…

Now the sordid issue of money…



Plus VAT…
An unpleasant sting, at the tail end of most thatching quotes. At present over most of Britain, all rethatching, by businesses registered for the tax, is subject to vat at the standard rate. New buildings are exempt from the tax…

Of course not all thatchers charge the tax. If their annual turnover falls below the legal limit; they are free of the burden. The negative side to this comes, if they are quoting for zero rated work (e.g. new work.). Then they cannot claim the tax back, on their costs and materials. A thatcher working entirely alone can usually stay below the turnover threshold; but if their business grows even slightly; they and their customers are caught in the tax net…

Payment to be in stages as agreed…
On most thatching work it is normal to pay in stages, as the work progresses. The thatcher should mention in their quote when payment is expected. The owner should beware of paying any money before work commences; a large delivery of thatching materials onto the site, being an exception. At the end of the work, the owner should expect to pay the balance within, say one or two weeks…

Enough of modern quotations, the slider below shows some thatcher’s bills and accounts dating from 1705. Much is recognisable today, except the amounts charged!!!