Thatching Tools & Equipment
T hatchers create a great deal of of their tools and equipment themselves; often with the help of a friendly blacksmith. This gives an enormous variation, to the few implements they need. Most of the tools unique to the craft are described below…
As ever with the craft, there are no fixed names for any of these products. In fact there seems to be more names than thatchers!
The most important item any thatcher can possess, is a skilful pair of hands; combined with a good eye, to judge a straight line or the correct curve. The only maintenance needed, is constant practice. Gloves can protect hands, but the craft is often practised without them. Some thatchers make up a type of leather mitten, to protect the palm; most don’t… A part of the body, that always needs protecting are the knees. A good pair of knee pads are essential. The rungs of a ladder can play havoc, and housemaid’s knee is extremely painful.
The main means of accessing the day’s work is also important. This being the thatcher’s ladder. Modern, mass produced ladders of aluminium now suffice; but this was not always the case. In the not so distant past, most thatching was carried out from a thirty foot (9m) long Pole Ladder. These were produced especially for the craft… Often splayed at the bottom, for extra stability. Many of the old images found on this site, show these monsters. Made simply, from a tree reduced to the right diameter and sawn, or even better split, straight down the middle… Creating two identical sides and giving great strength. Useful to know, if you were perched on the highest rung…
With these, the thatcher could reach the top of most jobs, in one go. These long giants are still to be found, gently mouldering away, on farms all over Britain. As they were used extensively, when thatching corn and hay ricks.
In 1709, the ‘Commons Warden’ of Shaftesbury, in Dorset; was instructed to purchase two pole ladders. ‘For use of the corporation in case of fire’… These were to be of thirty four rungs each. So the long pole ladder, goes back a long way.
Most thatchers possess a long ladder, now usually a more mundane metal affair. These ladders have the huge advantage of being weather proof. Which is useful in an outdoor trade. As health and safety laws are extended, the days of the big ladder are probably numbered; scaffolding being increasingly required.
But what to do if the long ladder doesn’t reach… Another smaller one could be tied to the top. Or better still, use the advantage that thatch has, over every other roofing material. A thatched roof is not solid; the thatcher can stick things into it and stand on them! Over time, thatchers have developed some clever devices, to make full use of this fact.
The names of the most common type, known as Hanging Ladders or Hangers, describes them well… These are short ladders, with metal spikes at the top, that stick in the thatched roof. Giving the thatcher extra reach. Another adaptation, often found in the West Country, is called a Biddle or Thatcher’s Horse. This has the metal spikes, fixed to a piece of wood; to which another section is suspended below… Allowing the thatcher to kneel on the top and stand in the bottom. The spikes on both types are around 15 inches (370mm) long. Usually blacksmith made.
An advantage of these inventions, is that the thatcher can move across the roof; as well as up or down it. This is useful when ridging a thatch roof. As a good length can be completed, without constantly moving the main ladder… On thatched roofs, with difficult access from the ground, they can be a boon. An intrepid thatcher can even climb over the ridge, and work on the far side of the roof. If they have enough hangers or biddles…
Having got onto the roof, thatchers then need to keep their materials alongside them…. The yoke will suffice for the long straw thatcher. (As seen in the Long Straw page) But bundles of water and wheat reed need to be kept safe, until needed. Here a Cradle, Knave or Groom comes in handy. As ever, there are many designs…
Typically, a piece of wood around 18 inches (450mm) long, has a stick bent to fit into a hole at either end. A couple of long metal thatching crooks, or a forked stick, is then fixed at right angles, to the side with the bent stick. These will hook over roof battens, if a single layer of thatch is being laid. Metal spikes, as used on a hanger, are fixed, if the cradle is used to on a multilayered thatch…
Standard thatching is put on in layers, the edges of which need to be held in place temporarily. The loose edge is often held by a Reeding Pin… These are smaller versions of the thatcher’s needle. Some thatchers use one, to hold back each and every layer, as it is formed. Others, just on the layer they are working on. Using a spar or long thatching crook to keep the edges of completed courses secure.
The most common type of pin is about 18 inches (450mm) long, with a short cross piece at the top. Usually with one side bent over, to hold down a temporary sway, while work is in progress. The other end has a clean point, to drive into the roof and not drag any material in with it. Now the product of the local blacksmith; these were once made out of wood; when metal was too expensive or scarce…
The left photo shows a simple reeding pin; holding a partially completed course of combed wheat reed. The thatcher here has used twisted spars, to fix down the ends of each completed course. The image above, shows a wooden reeding pin from the Guernsey Folk Museum… Perhaps used during the Second World War. A time of great scarcity, on the Channel Islands. Whether of metal or wood, most reeding pins have a hole in the end. Allowing them to double up, as short thatching needles. ( A tool described in the page on fixing single layered thatch.)
Probably the most distinctive item, in the thatchers tool kit, is the hand tool, used to drive reed thatching into place. Being made by the thatcher, it comes in many shapes and sizes… As to names, there are a few… Biddle makes an appearance again, which can cause some confusion and laughter; when thatchers from differing areas work together. A West Country term, which perhaps describes the tool best of all is Bat… The underarm stroke, of a tennis player, is similar to the way this tool is used. But the most common name, used over much of Britain, is Legget; and is the one I’ll carry on with…
Every thatcher has a favourite design, but the basics are the same. The face of the tool is usually about 10 inches long by 8 inches wide (250mm x 180mm). This is crafted to catch the reed ends; either by groves or raised shapes. The handle is often set at an angle, and is longer in the east, than in the west of Britain. The left image shows a variety, used in the north of Britain, it has no separate handle. Really looking like a bat, used in some obscure sport…
Leggets are mostly made of wood. But use with water reed will wear this material away quite quickly. Some metalwork, can be fixed to the legget’s face, to slow this process down. This can take several forms. Pieces of metal curtain track, are used to create groves. Or thin sections of copper pipe, are stapled into place. And an old favourite; horseshoe nails with their heads flattened, are driven in lines, across the legget’s face. Some cast metal faces are also produced. But these can be heavy to use.
When it comes to awkward sections of roof, for example around windows and valleys, the reed thatcher often needs a smaller tool, to drive in the thatch. These are usually scaled down versions of the standard legget. A design imported from Holland is also used… A conical tapering shape with holes drilled in the face, known as a Dutchman.
A basic Legget design. The angled handle keep the hands clear of the roof surface. Notches in the handle, marking 15 and 18 inches (375mm and 450mm) of length, act as a measure; when setting an eaves out, over a wall or gable end. On the right the grooved wooden face of a combed wheat reed legget. And the metal edged, water reed version. With horseshoe nail heads to do the driving..
Variation… The 1930’s Devon thatcher shown opposite, has the grooves on his legget set at an angle. The tool is known as a bat hereabouts, whether the groves are straight or angled. The theory behind having angled groves is that the thatcher can drive the coatwork into place, whilst looking over the work from above; helping to keep a better shape. Instead of having to be level with the new work, with a straight grooved tool. The thatcher is in the process of knocking in the spars, holding the last course of thatch, with the edge of his bat.
The oldest image of a thatching tool is of a legget… Found buried, in a manorial court roll, from Crowle in northern Lincolnshire. Written for the year 1364. It is easily identified, as a splendid, if tiny sketch; of a water reed legget.
Crowle image courtesy of Lincolnshire Archives (copyright holders)
Another variation c 1925… Mr Oldfield from Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, with a long handled version of a legget. These appear to be confined to the Eastern counties of England.
A legget, is not required by the long straw thatcher. Who carefully lays the thatch, but does not drive it into position. The tool long straw thatchers use, to tidy the face of their work is, as ever, very simple… The Side Rake, is basically a length a wood, about 4 ft. (1.2m) long; just under half of which, is a shaped handle. The rake section, is usually made from nails driven through from the top. The name sums up it’s use, as the thatcher rakes the roof clear of waste, from their side… Getting a good two handed purchase, from the long handle.
The Side Rake… As with the legget, the handle is designed to keep the hands clear of the roof. But with this tool, it is always one of long straw.
1923 ,raking… As ever with the craft, there are always exceptions. This Staffordshire thatcher, made use of the base of a wooden hay rake; when thatching Izzak Walton’s Cottage… Photo; courtesy Izaak Walton’s Cottage Museum.
Edged metal hooks and knives, unique to the trade; have to be skilfully crafted and are never plentiful… Not surprisingly, the most difficult hook to obtain, is the most complicated to make.
Coatwork in combed wheat reed, is often trimmed with a Shearing Hook. And flush type ridges, in the same material, also receive a shearing down, with this useful tool. At first glance it looks like a large reaping hook. But on closer inspection, it can be seen that the blade gradually turns to a steeper angle, as it moves away from the handle. This enables the thatcher to shave a thin layer off the face of the coatwork, by pulling the hook downwards and towards themselves: in a slightly circular motion.
On the right, the curved blade of the shearing hook in action, in West Somerset, around 1920. This being used in conjunction with a legget, to finish or ‘dress’ the coatwork. The thatcher here is standing on a Biddle…
The Eaves Hook or Easing Hook, trims what it’s name suggests. This is very similar to a reaping hook. In fact many are used, for the purpose of cutting the eaves, of wheat thatch… But a true eaves hook is less curved than it’s reaping cousin. A shearhook can also be used, to trim the eaves. If turned upside down and used with a pulling action… Today, many thatchers use a good pair of garden shears, to the same effect.
An edged implement that can be made, if not at home, then a least in the local forge; is the Long Eaves Knife… Many of these are fashioned, by straightening a scythe blade, at the handle end; and fixing it to a straight handle about 3 feet (900mm) long. This tool is used exclusively, in long straw thatching, to trim the gable ends. There is also a shorter version of this tool, not unsurprisingly called the Short Eaves Knife… These are useful, for both trimming long straw eaves and the over sailing tops of water reed; as the top of the roof is approached.
As can be imagined, all these hooks and knives, are kept in a frighteningly sharp state; with some good quality whetstones.