- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

A banner photograph of the twin World Trade Center towers swung ghostlike and defiant from the ceiling of the National Building Museum on Saturday, while far below stood thatcher Colin McGhee

of Crozet, Va., dutifully plying his centuries-old trade.

The occasion was the institution's daylong Festival of the Building Arts, a hands-on exhibition of building crafts sponsored by Associated General Contractors of America, which museum officials decided should proceed in tribute to those who had built the twin towers symbols of mankind's most advanced engineering skills and to those who died from last Tuesday's devastating attacks.

Mr. McGhee, a native of Scotland, is a low-tech man in a high-tech era. His materials, being mainly reed and straw, are far different from those associated with the computer age. But the skills required involve a similar degree of hand and eye coordination and a great deal more physical agility. Forget modem, laptop, hard disk and other words synonymous with 20th century electronic wizardry. Instead, think leggett, ligger, spar, spar hook and sway.

These are just some of the solid Anglo-Saxon words that apprentice thatchers learn as they master a craft that Mr. McGhee says is practiced full time in this country by only perhaps five persons at most. He calls himself "North America's Master Thatcher," a title that comes from being a member of England's prestigious East Anglia Master Thatchers Association, an honorary society limited to 30 accomplished professionals.

Mr. McGhee, 41, earned his credentials the hard way. Having decided on the career at age 7 after a visit to poet Robert Burn's cottage in Ayreshire, Scotland, he began a five-year apprenticeship mandatory in the United Kingdom before a thatcher is licensed to work alone. He had his first U.S. commission from a Warrenton, Va., woman who had written to the Master Thatchers Association asking who might be available. Subsequent commissions have come mainly from East Coast residents, including one to cover six buildings on the 1,000-acre Charlottesville estate of Patricia Kluge, former wife of Metromedia millionaire John Kluge.

"You can find thatch on every continent except Antarctica, using materials indigenous to the area. What can't be eaten from the leftover grain can be used as a building material," he told onlookers at the museum. "Only techniques had to be changed here from those used in Europe because of climate differences on this side."

The more humid climate here requires that outer layers of thatch be less tight on the surface, so they can breathe and dry out more easily, he explained.

• • •

Thatch itself consists either of straw, which comes from a dried cereal grain such as rye or wheat, or of reeds grown in marshy areas and found almost everywhere in the world except in high mountain areas. Mr. McGhee prefers what he calls Norfolk reed because it is more durable and requires less preparation to use as thatch. Reed, being hollow, is more able to deflect water than straw, he says. Conditions for growing and harvesting reed are ideal in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States, he says, but he has been unable to get the quantities he needs on a consistent basis. Most of his materials are imported from countries such as Hungary and Estonia, where labor is cheaper.

The basic techniques of thatching are simple, although resulting patterns can appear quite complex. They require a 45-degree pitched roof so water can run off it easily and bundles of 6-foot-long reed 12 inches thick put down in layers, working from the outer edge to the rooftop or ridge line, which he claims is "the only part to ever feel the effect of the elements."

"The leggett is how you dress the reed into position," he explains as youngsters, some barely 3 feet tall, pound away at the frazzled edge of the miniature roof model Mr. McGhee had set up on the museum floor. A leggett is a paddlelike device with round metal ring indents that catch the dried stalks and push them into place. The wood leggett on display at Saturday's festival was hand-made, one side of which was covered with beaten beer bottle caps.

A spar hook is an 8-inch, slightly curved, knife kept in the back pocket for easy access, since it is used almost constantly in handling the bundles. The leggett and spar hook are the most common tools, equivalent to having a fork and knife at dinner.

Thatch is attached in bundles, laid out methodically, and affixed with horizontal strips called sways, which are made of wood preferably hazel or maple or quarter-inch steel. A metal billhook, which resembles an outsized bent nail, cuts each tied bundle after it is laid out on the course known as the coatwork. The thatcher forms what is called a valley, with the bottoms of the reeds facing down, away from the valley, to ensure that water can be shed more easily. Liggers are rods of split hazel or maple used on the outside surfaces of ridges and sometimes on eaves and gables. Spars are split hazel or maple rods 30 inches long that are pointed at each end and twisted in the center used to fix the liggers.

"You work up from the bottom until you get to the top," Mr. McGhee says, showing the repetitive motions required. "The covering ridge at the top is done last. Different countries use different materials for the ridge."

• • •

"You kids ever seen a thatched roof?" he asks a young Cub Scout who seems fascinated by the scene, as if it were a geography book come to life. "Know what it is made of?"

A child answered, "hay." He gets corrected, being told that hay is a less durable dried grass used mainly to feed animals. Only in Africa, Mr. McGhee says, is hay used as thatching material because the climate generally is not as humid.

"Maybe I can attract some apprentices," he says only half in jest, pausing to talk with parents about the earliest examples of thatching in America. "Probably the first settlers in 1607 used Norfolk reed in Jamestown, Va., when they came. Then they moved inland and used trees," he told them.

The adults also asked about safety precautions with thatch: the danger of fire and pests and the general longevity of materials.

Reed thatch is more durable than many more common roofing materials, Mr. McGhee told them. "A well-built roof can easily last 60 years, although I have worked on some as old as 100 years." He checks his completed projects every two years or so in case they need repairs.

Fire isn't the problem most people imagine, Mr. McGhee says, citing an incident last spring when lightning struck the wood part of a finished roof, causing thatch to smolder. "It smoldered for three hours before the fire trucks came, and the fire chief said that with any other roof, the buildings would be gone," he says proudly. A coating of fire retardant is recommended as a preventive.

"Thatch is very tight, like building a bale of hay," he notes. "It's too thick for animals to nest in."


For most of September, Mr. McGhee has been commuting between his home outside Charlottesville to work on a large residential project in upstate New York where he has had several commissions since establishing his business on these shores a decade ago. He employs two other persons regularly but has hired as many as five helpers on occasion.

His Web site (www.thatching.com) gives a history of thatching, as well as a vocabulary explaining the terms of his profession and some of the tools and techniques involved. The site also advertises thatched gazebos and "Thatched Tudor Dog Kennels the ultimate kennel for the dog that has everything." He also is co-author of a book called "Rustic Birdhouses and Feeders."

"Thatching is not just for the birds," he writes in the book's introductory chapter, pointing out why mainly wealthy Americans these days are commissioning a thatched cottage, shed, barn or house. He says its popularity is "part of the general trend toward using more natural building materials."

Sentiment, and nostalgia, play a part as well. He recently made $4,000 in 21/2 days putting a thatched roof on a garden shed in Baltimore for a client whom he describes as "someone who had lived in England 20 years ago who had got some spare money somewhere."

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