Fixing Multilayered Thatch; Spars, Broaches & Cabers
Where a roof is to be recoated and the old layers of thatch are retained as a base; then thatching crooks, wire and sways are mostly dispensed with. A much more organic type of fixing now comes into play; the wooden thatching spar, a fixing that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Made of split and twisted, hazel or willow, this common fixing has more names than any other thatching material or tool… Broach, Pric, Spear, Scollop, Scob, Sparrow, Spit, Sparrod, and Spelk are just some of the names, that describe this most useful item. There are so many names, because this fixing is both ancient and widespread. Thatchers, in all areas where suitable wood grows, use them. Broach is the name, used widely in the East of England, but Spar is now the most common term employed throughout Britain. So to keep things simple, it’s the one I’ll continue with…
Apart from fixing a new layer of thatch to an old one, thatching spars are also used on the outside of the roof; on the ridge and around the edges of long straw work. Here the spars are used in conjunction, with longer slightly thicker, split wooden Rods, Wands or Liggers. Also, work repairing thatch often uses this type of fixing.
To produce suitable hazel wood for sparmaking, an existing plant is cut close to the ground in winter; the spring should see several shoots emerge and grow. After a period of seven to ten years, straight stems of a good length and suitable diameter will be ready to harvest. This regular coppicing produces large hazel stumps, known as Stools. These can consist of dozens of shoots and may be hundreds of years old. Most hazel wood, used for sparmaking, comes from ‘ancient woodland’, this being woodland that dates from before 1600. It has been said that a managed coppice supports a wider cross section of wildlife, than any other habitat. So the production of spars and other woodland products, such as hurdles; actively promotes the health of one of our most precious landscapes.
The other wood, employed in the production of spars, is willow. Much less of this is used than hazel; due to more localized growing areas. Pollarded willow trees, that have been cut around five to six feet (1.6 /1.9m) from the ground; produce new shoots, in the same way as hazel. But the growth rate is much faster. The trees can be harvested every three or four years.
The trees are pollarded in this way, to stop grazing cattle eating the new shoots. Many of these trees can be seen lining the sides of drainage channels and ditches; in low lying areas throughout the country.
Like water reed beds, both hazel and willow have to be cut regularly, or the stems grow too big. This overstood wood needs removing, to start the process again; an unrewarding and time consuming process.
Most thatchers do not make all, or any, of their own spars. And thus the production of these infinitely renewable fixings, has given rise to the craft of sparmaking. The sparmaker, on average, can produce around a hundred an hour; enough for a morning’s work, for a thatcher recoating a roof. So overall, one sparmaker can keep several thatchers working.
In the past, the amount of spars required was much greater than now; as thousands were used on the farm; in thatching ricks and stacks. Many of these were made by the farm workers, in their spare time. This helped supplement some poor wages. If a group got together, around a fire made from the off cuts and chippings, that result from the process; then it could be a social occasion as well… These rick spars, could be up to 4 feet (1.2m) long.
Wood, cut when the trees lie dormant in the winter; is said to give a longer lasting spar. If possible, sparmakers prefer to stop cutting in early spring, before the new leaves are ‘bigger than a mouse’s ear’. Being a natural product, the diameter of the sticks will vary. Useful sized wood is from ‘the size of your little finger to the width of your wrist.’ The sticks, when cut to length, are known as Gadds. Most spars are between 2¼ and 2½ feet (680/750mm) long. The gadds are cut slightly longer, to allow for some wastage. The actual process, of spitting or Riving the gadds and then pointing the spars, varies from maker to maker.
Splitting and pointing… These two Dorset sparmakers are breaking up the process of manufacture. Often a single sparmaker will complete the whole process in one operation, as detailed below…
‘With a bill hook in one hand and a leather glove …on the other, she was making spars, such as are used by thatchers, with great rapidity. She wore a leather apron for this purpose,… On her left hand lay a bundle of the straight, smooth hazel rods called spar gads, the raw material of her manufacture; on her right a heap of chips and ends the refuse… in front a pile of the finished articles. To produce them she took up each gad, looked critically at it from end to end, cut it to length, split it into four, and sharpened each of the quarters with dexterous blows, which brought it to a triangular point precisely resembling that of a bayonet’.
This is ‘Marty South’ at work; another character of Thomas Hardy’s, this time from The Woodlanders. Although published in 1887 the description is still very relevant all these years later. And again shows the major role women once had, in both agriculture and the thatching trade. (His Tess of Durberville fame appears in the harvesting and wheat reed pages.)
Later, it is revealed that Marty can make 1500 spars; in ‘a day and half the night’, for which she received ‘eighteen pence a thousand’. That’s seven and a half of our pence. You sometimes come across very small sized Spar Hooks; the correct name for the hook in Hardy’s description; used perhaps by women, or even children. Most spar hooks resemble miniature bill hooks; with a blade between 6 and 10 inches (150 to 250 mms) in length. Usually with the name of some long forgotten foundry, still showing on the blade…
The critical look that Marty gave each gadd was to determine how many spars could be made from it. The smallest diameter gives a single spar, going up to a dozen or so, for the wrist sized pieces. The average gadd yields around four to six. The first split is made across the centre and cleaves the gadd in two. Depending on the size these halves are then split, from the centre into either two or more spars; like dividing up half a pie. As the sparmaker Tom Cross, from Ibberton in Dorset, demonstated in 1927…
Ideally the stick has a straight grain and splits easily, giving a constant width to the spar. But more often than not, the split needs to be brought back into line. This is done by the sparmaker applying pressure, to the back edge of the horizontal hook. A downward pressure makes the split go towards the middle of the gadd. Upward pressure will have the opposite effect. This sounds difficult and it is, to begin with. But controlling the splitting gadd is the key skill of the sparmaker. A point at each end is added, with three expert blows. Either as the spar is made or later in a separate process.
Once made, the spars are bundled up, normally into two hundreds. Spars are always sold by the thousand. For far more than Marty’s pittance; but they always seem cheap, when the amount of work producing them is taken into account. Whatever the price, the thatcher needs a lot. 250 is the average, to fix the various thatching materials that cover the square of 100 sq ft (27 per sq metre). The number used on a ridge, depends on its complexity. A simple flush type may use only 25 in a foot run (80 per metre). But an ornamental block ridge, could use between 35 and 50 (120/160 per metre).
Liggers are a little thicker than spars, with chisel shaped ends; and are usually around 5 ft. (1.5m) in length. Most ridges consist of two or three liggers, running horizontally along each side of the ridge. So dozens can be used, both on the ridge and to edge long straw roofs.
Not long ago, thatchers could choose to have either straight or, for an extra charge, spars that were already twisted. These were useful in the summer, as they did not need to be soaked in water, as straight ones do, if they have dried out. These ready twisted spars were always in bundles of one hundred. Points inward, fifty one way fifty the other.
Liggers or Spars… Both are made with a Spar Hook. The upper hook’s wide handle allowed a long gone sparmaker, with bad arthritis in their hands, to carry on working…
Like splitting them, it takes practice to twist a spar correctly. With the spar held firmly in the middle with both hands, the thatcher in a single motion, twists with the strongest hand; and wraps the spar over the other hand, creating a twist wide enough to fit over a ligger or bond. This gives the ‘single twist’, used by most thatchers. They now have a springy pointed hairpin; that opens slightly after fixing, making them hard to remove. There is a variation, the ‘double twist’; where the centre of the twist is pushed out in a second motion. This gives a flatter twist, useful for ridging; as it wraps more neatly around a ligger. The ideal twist will not break too many of the spar’s sinewy fibres, as this will lessen its strength, at its most important point.
A modern development has been the moulded plastic spar, perhaps useful when fixing thatch coatwork; but far too unsightly for use on the ridge… These do not have the ‘spring’ of a freshly twisted wooden spar; that allows it to expand slightly after fixing. Giving some extra grip.
Crooks and Cabers…
In areas where hazel and willow are scarce, another type of fixing has developed. This is mostly found in Northern Scotland, and was used in parts of Wales. With this method, small branches are cut just below a fork and then shaped, with a long and a short side. The long side, often around 15 inches (375mm) in length, is then pointed. This is driven into the thatch, in the same fashion as a spar. The short end then holds down a sway or a heavier version of a ligger. In Scotland, these are often called Cabers and the forked branch a Crook; not to be confused with the metal variety. This fixing technique is known as Crooks and Cabers. The crook needs no twisting; so any type of tree, bush or shrub will provide the raw material; making clever use, of some historically scarce resources.
Crooks and Cabers… On the Isle of Skye. The bottom edge of the thatch, on this fisherman’s cottage has been reinforced with some robust crooks; holding down a caber. An unusual method of fixing, on this treeless island… Especially around a century ago, when this image was taken…
Where the wind caused problems for a thatch, and sufficient wood could be found, even bigger timbers were once used, to hold the roof covering in position. Again, this occurred mostly in parts of Scotland.
Two methods seem to have been used. One once found mainly in South West Scotland; consisted of a frame of largish timbers being placed over the whole elevation of thatch. Covering the roof, with what could termed a Caber Frame. The other method consisted of laying wooden poles up against any vulnerable spot; then fixing them at the eaves. This gave great strength, as the bottom section of pole simply digs into the ground, if put under an upwards pressure. These Leaning Cabers were used over a large area of Highland Scotland and in some exposed Lowland districts. Both methods seem to have fallen into disuse, along with many of the buildings they were once used on…