What Are Thatched Roofs Made Of?

Thatched roofs, often made from water reed, are a fascinating blend of tradition, craftsmanship, and sustainable living. Once a hallmark of rural English homes, thatching, despite its ancient roots, has found renewed interest among homeowners seeking sustainable, unique, and efficient roofing solutions. A variety of materials are used, we take a look.

Materials Used in Thatching

thatched roof cottage

Thatched roofs are primarily made from water reed, combed wheat reed and long strawand historically the choice would have been strongly influenced by what was locally available.

Historically too such as heather has been used. This though was a difficult material to us. As well as needing to be carefully harvested and it also had to be laid perfectly to ensure a watertight roof was created. It also had to be replaced every 20 years.

An example of a now restored heather thatched roof house is Causeway House in Northumberland. This was acquired by the The Landmark Trust in 1988, a charity that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost.

Looking in more detail at the materials most commonly used for thatched roofs:

  • Water Reed (Often Known as Norfolk Reed or Continental Water Reed):
    • Origin: Mainly found in marshy areas and riverbanks.
    • Durability: Known for its robustness, water reed can last up to 60 years under optimal conditions, on average though it will last around 25-30 years.
    • Harvesting: It’s essential that reeds are harvested in winter when they are dormant, to ensure they are at their most robust.
  • Combed Wheat Reed, Wheat Straw or Devon Reed:
    • Origin: Cultivated across the UK
    • Durability: Lasts between 15 to 30 years, on average around 20 years
    • Harvesting: Best harvested after the seed has matured, ensuring the straw retains its integrity.
  • Long Straw:
    • Origin: Also a traditional material, but prepared differently from wheat straw.
    • Durability: Lasts for about 10 to 25 years, on average around 15 years.
    • Harvesting: Like wheat straw, it’s harvested once the seeds have matured.

Each material lends a distinct aesthetic and functional advantage to the roofing. For example, whilst water reed offers a sleek, tight, and organised appearance, straw imparts a fluffy, rustic, and traditional look.

Source and Availability of Materials

thatchers replacing thatched roof

For the majority of people needing to undertake work on their thatched roof, whether that be replacing a thatched roof or undertaking some maintenance, it’s likely you’ll have a thatcher helping you.

They are the experts and will advise what materials are best to use for your roof and also will undertake their sourcing.

As background though, here’s a look at where the different materials come from.

Water reed

Basically anywhere that there’s a nice reed bed near a river, water reed can be harvested. As they grow in different locations, the reeds will be a bit different in terms of length, diameter, and how much they taper and all these little differences can affect how they’re used on a roof.

Continental Water Reed can come from a variety of places like Austria, China, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, or Ukraine.

Norfolk Reed, as the name suggests comes from Norfolk in the UK, and it’s specially harvested for use in and around the area. However, the cost of producing it and the limited amount available can affect its price and how easy it is to get hold of.

The Norfolk Reed Cutters Association is an association of members, who cut the reed in the marshes along the North Norfolk Coast from Weybourne to Holme.

Fundamentally in the UK we can’t produce enough water reed to meet everyone’s needs, so that’s why sometimes the reeds are bought in from Europe and beyond.

Combed Wheat Reed and Long Straw

Special varieties of wheat eg Maris Huntsman, Aquila are grown specifically for production into thatching straw. 

Thatching straw is now grown by a few specialists in the UK, there are also a few thatchers who grow their own straw. 

The National Thatching Straw Growers Association was formed by a small group of growers of thatching straw.

It’s aims being to provide a forum for growers all over the country to share experience and innovation, to have a united voice to speak up for and promote our industry and products, and to be a focus for research and development.

Cost Analysis of Materials For Thatched Roofs

thatched roof with weeds growing from ridge

The cost of thatching materials is a critical factor to consider when planning a thatching project. Different materials come with varying price tags, and the choice may significantly affect the overall cost of the project.

Of course it’s important to recognise that there are other factors that influence the cost of a thatched roof. For more details see our article ‘Are Thatched Roofs Expensive to Replace?

In relation to the materials used for thatched roofs, here’s a table summarising the current cost range per square metre.

Do note though that these prices are subject to change, for example, water reed is mainly imported and costs have risen significantly recently, hit by the war in Ukraine and rising transport costs.

Thatch MaterialCost Range (£ per square metre)
Straw£20 – £50
Water Reed£60 – £100
Combed Wheat Reed£40 – £70
Long Straw£30 – £60
Imported ThatchVaries widely

Getting the Right Advice for Thatched Roof Projects

When it comes to making changes to an existing thatched roof or planning a new one, it’s really important to get advice from the experts. For example the Master Thatchers Association can help.

If the building you’re working on is a listed one, you’ll also need to talk to the conservation officer at your local council. They can help make sure any changes you make will keep with the building’s historic look and follow the rules for listed buildings.

Getting advice from those who know thatch well is the key to making sure your project goes smoothly. Their knowledge can help you choose the right materials and design, ensuring your thatched roof looks good and lasts a long time.

Also, ensuring you understand the insurance implications is vital.

Thatch insurance is distinct from standard home insurance due to the unique risks of thatched roofs. For more information on this take a look at our article ‘How to Buy Thatch Insurance‘.