|Historic area of significance||UK wide|
|Area currently practised||UK wide (but concentrated in areas with remaining viable coppice and a high concentration of thatched properties such as Hampshire, Sussex, Wiltshire, Dorset etc.)|
|Origin in the UK||Modern thatched buildings date from the 13th Century but there is evidence of thatch being used since the Bronze Age.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1-5 full-time spar makers
(Based on a survey carried out by the NSMT in March 2023)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||21-50 part-time spar makers
(Based on a survey carried out by the NSMT in March 2023)
|Current no. of trainees||Not known
All thatching apprentices will learn to make spars for their own use, but will not necessarily go on to make spars.
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Thatching and coppicing are two heritage crafts that have ancient origins and have become interdependent. Wooden spars cut from coppiced hazel are used to fix thatch to existing coat-work, creating multiple layers of thatch. Spars are pointed on both ends and twisted to form a ‘staple’ that is driven into the thatch to secure it in place. Liggers are split hazel rods of various lengths which are used to hold the outer layer of thatch down near the top and often laid in a decorative pattern.
All thatchers will know how to make their own spars but most will source hazel spars from a local coppice worker. Traditionally spars are one of a range of cleft coppice products, including hurdles, fencing and charcoal, which are produced by coppice workers in order to make a viable income.
In the 1990s the remaining spar makers were almost all older and retired or semi-retired and making spars at a low price as a supplementary income. As a result of this thatchers did not expect to pay more, or weren’t prepared to pay more, and younger makers were consequently not interested in taking up the craft. As spar makers retired, supply became less reliable and the gap was filled by more reliable imports that at the time were approximately the same price. Many thatchers started relying on these pre-twisted spars and some who have started thatching since may not have used or even twisted fresh English spars.
This decline in the market for UK produced spars in addition to a decreasing demand for hazel hurdles has led to a decline in the amount of hazel coppice in active rotation. Neglected coppice will not produce hazel of a quality suitable for making spars and it takes a number of rotations to restore a coppice. Many are now being restored for their biodiversity value but this is a slow process and cannot readily respond to the current demand for spars.
During the Covid pandemic in 2019-20, the supply of spars from Poland dramatically declined and thatchers are now looking to UK coppiced hazel for spars again. This has led to an increase in the price of spars and demand is outstripping supply.
Steel rods and wire ties are now often used in place of spars and liggers. In some cases plastic spars are also used, but these are not considered as adequate replacements for natural fixings.
A survey carried out but the National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT) in 2023 found that the average use of spars per thatcher is around 40,000 a year. There are currently around 800 thatchers and so the NSMT have put a conservative estimate of around 25-30 million spars a year needed to maintain a sustainable supply.
Hazel is grown and harvested on a 7 year rotation to produce a sustainable crop of straight poles which are used to make the twisted spars and liggers that secure the thatch.
Spar gadds (hazel sticks cut to length for spar making) are split into multiple spars using a billhook and pointed on both ends.
Speed and accuracy are the key to successful spar making and a full time skilled spar maker can make 1000 spars a day.
There are various regional styles of thatch but most long-straw or reed thatched roofs in the UK will use spars.
Highland thatch also uses hazel for spars and other fixings.
- Ligger making – Split hazel or willow rods used to form a decorative pattern on ridges and around the edge of long straw roofs.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Supply of raw materials: Decline in the demand for spars due to imports led to a decline in the active management of coppiced woodland. Hazel spars and liggers are often replaced by steel, wire or plastic fixings.
- Decline in skills: Competition from imported spars led to a rapid decline in the number of spar makers in the UK.
- Market issues: Whilst demand is increasing, there may not be a sufficient supply of good quality coppiced hazel to meet demand.
- Training issues: There is a lack of training for coppice workers to make spars.
- Market issues: Established relationships between thatchers and coppice workers have been broken and some thatchers are not able to secure a reliable supply.
- Small business issues: It is difficult to make a viable income solely from making spars.
- National Society of Master Thatchers
- National Coppice Federation
- Thatch Advice Centre
Craftspeople currently known
- Chris Cowell, New Forest Coppice Products
- Ivan Parsons
- Charlie Potter
The Coppice Products Database gives a list of coppice workers who make spars.
There are currently no formal training opportunities to learn spar making.
Apprenticeships and on-the-job training
The National Society of Master Thatchers offer a Thatching apprenticeship scheme which is supported by a mentoring scheme. Apprentices are employed by an experienced NSMT member and will be trained to have the skills and knowledge required to become competent in their craft, including spar making.
Chris Cowell, New Forest Coppice Products offers short courses in spar making.
- Marjorie Sanders and Roger Angold, Thatches and Thatching: A Handbook for Owners, Thatchers and Conservators, Crowood Press 2012.