Thatching – a novel way of making thatch

Thatching – a novel way of making thatch

There are few areas in Britain that do not have any buildings with thatched roofs.  It is almost everyone’s dream to live in a thatched cottage, and yet as railway modellers we tend to shy away from making any buildings with roofs of thatch.  This is understandable when we consider how easy it is to create an effective slate or tiled roof, using either proprietary products or card and paper, compared to making a realistic looking thatch.

Having decided to create a farm scene on my layout, The Glendon Valley Tramway, I wanted to include a traditional thatched barn as part of this cameo.  Obviously, to make the most effective thatch means using materials such as plumber’s hemp and creating a roof in the manner that a thatcher would; bundling up sheaves of hemp (in lieu of straw), bonding them to the roof structure and trimming.  When painted the finished effect can be most convincing, as many of the thatched buildings at Pendon illustrate.  However, I was looking to produce a convincing thatch that was quick and easy to create, and with limited skills and time I considered other materials, settling in the end to use ordinary bathroom towelling.  Inexpensive, readily available, quick and easy to use, it does make a very presentable thatch.  As you can judge from the photographs of my experiments using towelling (Photo 1), and the finished barn, with a little imagination it is most convincing.


It is important when using towelling to use a white or cream towel, preferably an old one, but if using new wash a couple of times to remove the finishing agents used by the manufacturers.

With the basic structure of the building prepared, in this case the carcass is of card (Photo 2), I would normally tackle the walls first, completing these before tackling the roof.  However, in this instance it is better to create the sub-structure for the thatch, glue the towelling to the sub-structure and then paint it before any other work is done on the building.  The reason for this operation being carried out first is that there is the likelihood of marking the walls with modelling clay or paint.

The first job is to cover the card roof with ‘DAS’ white modelling clay.  This air-hardening material is readily available from stationers and craft shops.  The modelling clay is used to create a ‘thick’ sub-structure for the thatch, being applied up to 10mm thick in places.  It will also be shaped to give the traditional rounded shape associated with thatched roofs.  It is well worth looking at some local thatched buildings just to get a ‘feel’ of what the end product should look like.  Alternatively, Jacqueline Fearns’ book, ‘Thatch and Thatching’ (A Shire Book, ISBN 0-7478-0588-1) is an excellent introduction to thatching.

Thatching - By John Mileson

Working on a small area of the roof at a time, take a lump of ‘DAS’ from the packet and knead it by hand into a flattened piece between 5 and 10mm thick.  It is important to remember that ‘DAS’ must be bonded to the card with neat PVA adhesive.  Brush a generous layer of PVA onto the roof where the ‘DAS’ is to be bonded and press the clay firmly onto the roof (Photo 3).  Keep adding ‘patches’ of clay until one side of the roof is covered.  Then, with water dampened fingers, small modelling trowel or spatula, blend the clay into the required thickness and shape.  Don’t worry about the lumps hanging over the edges.  In fact it is desirable this should happen, as when trimmed will give the thickness and radius to the edges of the thatch.  To trim these edges, dip a knife or trowel into water and simply cut or carve the edge to shape.  It is a good idea to have a photograph of some thatch in front of you to help you to determine the shape the thatch should be (Photo 4).  If a mistake is made, simply patch it with more clay and re-cut to suit.

The clay will start to dry as soon as it is removed from the packet, but will remain workable at this thickness for some considerable time.  In fact, it will probably take a couple of days to dry out.  If, when dry, cracks have appeared, don’t worry, as these can be filled with ‘DAS’.  The finished surface should be relatively smooth to take the towelling thatch, but will benefit from a certain amount of waviness to give a realistic appearance.  When complete, leave to dry.

The next step is not important, but is desirable insomuch as any minor mistakes in the thatching will not be so obvious.  I suggest that both the ‘DAS’ and the card walls be painted at the same time with a dilute mix of brown and grey watercolour paint (Photo 5).  There is no need to be fussy about the finish, but it will ensure that no glaring white is obvious when the towelling has been stuck on.  The next job is to apply the thatch.

As you will no doubt appreciate, towelling does have a ‘pile’.  This is created by the small loops of cotton tending to lie in one prevailing direction.  The pile should, as far as possible, lie down the roof.  When the towel is eventually painted it will help to lay these loops down in the right direction.

Cut a piece of towelling sufficiently large to cover the whole roof in one piece, leaving plenty of overhang, but avoid it being too unwieldy to use (Photo 6).  Lay the towel over the roof and see how it fits.  When eventually glued down it will be possible to stretch it over undulations, etc.  The process of fitting the towel around chimneys or roof gables, etc., is rather like wallpapering around a light switch or similar and you will need to cut the fabric to ensure a neat fit.  If you make a mistake at this or any subsequent stage, simply remove, throw away and start again.

Brush PVA adhesive on one side of the roof at a time.  The coat should be fairly thin, too thick and it will penetrate the fibres and come through the towelling.  Smooth the towelling over the surface and fold under the edges, trimming with sharp scissors where necessary (Photo 7).  Repeat this procedure on the second and subsequent sides of the roof, and when satisfied, leave to dry.

Observation of thatched buildings reveals most thatch over a couple of years old has turned from a mellow golden colour, to what can only be described as ‘dirty brown’.  I have used two basic Humbrol enamel colours, Nos. 98 and 93, the former being the predominant colour.  Starting at one end of the roof, and using a fairly coarse artist’s brush, (I use a flat ½” brush) scrub the towelling with white spirit, not too much, just enough to dampen the material.  Using the same brush, dip it into the white spirit, then into one of the Humbrol tins, and scrub this into the dampened surface.  Start with the lighter No. 93 paint and follow on directly with No. 98.  This will give a fairly dark blotchy brown (Photo 8).  Don’t overdo it.  By scrubbing it into the towelling it will ensure the colour permeates through all the material, but remember not to soak it.  When satisfied with the colour, allow to dry overnight.  The following day, brush the pile of the towel with an old toothbrush or nailbrush to lift any fibres stuck down with paint.  Finally, brush the towelling in the downward direction thus finishing the thatch.

 More modern thatches often have a decorated ridge.  However, old thatch did not, and as we are endeavouring to portray old thatch, the ridge will remain plain.

 Liggers (made from coppiced hazel) are used in real life to secure the ridge straw and are depicted on the model by gluing lengths of coarse thread onto the painted towelling.  The thread, between 1/2mm and 1mm thick should be dipped into the enamel paint and allowed to dry.  It is then dipped into PVA, the surplus removed between finger and thumb, and then placed onto the thatch in the appropriate position, being pressed down using a small screwdriver or similar until semi-dry (Photo 9).  Don’t worry if some of the PVA goes onto the thatch, as when dry it will be invisible.  Once this is done, the thatching is complete (Photo 10).  Your chosen building can then be completed.

 It sounds a long-winded job but, in fact, the total labour time for the whole process is probably less than three hours!

 John Mileson

October 2012


This article first appeared in ‘Narrow Lines’, the magazine of the 7mm Narrow Gauge Association

Tags: , ,