I often joke that we live in a house made of ‘cow poo’…. OK, so that’s not strictly true but wattle and daub does often incorporate soiled animal bedding which may contain dung – (why use the expensive, good stuff – especially when it has already been well trod down?)….
Wattle and daub has been used for thousands of years, pretty much ever since man started building shelters. It is one of the most common infills for timber framed buildings….
Daub refers to the clay mixture, which is made by treading the materials beneath the feet…. (Crumbs!! Weren’t grapes crushed this way once when making wine? I do hope they washed their feet first!)…. The clay is combined with water (or perhaps animal urine in days long gone by) and straw, or other vegetation matter. Daub is still made in very much the same way today as it was centuries ago…. Thank goodness for wellies….
The wattle is the mesh of small timbers (usually hazel but sometimes oak laths are used), which are woven or tied between a supporting framework of larger timbers or ‘staves’. The wood used needs to be in its green state and so is put to use almost as soon as it is ‘coppiced’….
Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management which goes back to Neolithic times. Once common, copses would of been found throughout the countryside – however, with the advent of modern day materials, the practice went into decline in the middle of the last century. Nowadays, it is beginning to be revived due to its sustainability. Coppicing involves cutting down young trees, such as hazel, willow or sweet chestnut, to almost ground level. These broad leaf trees will then send shoots up from the stump again, thus regenerating themselves….
These shoots are then harvested periodically – anywhere between five to thirty years, depending on the size of the required poles. A part from providing the timber for wattle, coppice product useage is varied; anything from smaller items, such as pea/bean sticks, charcoal, firewood, baskets, tool/broom handles to larger products – furniture, fencing and even ships planking….
Once the timber framework and wattle has been constructed, the daub is applied to the panels on both sides, (usually simultaneously, often two people working together, on opposite sides). The daub is formed into balls called ‘cats’, which are then carefully pushed between the gaps of the wattle and surrounding frame, then building it up until the surfaces are covered.
Mis-shapen, bowing walls are associated with wattle and daub constructions, so often this adds to the ‘charm’ but the daub can be surprisingly pliable. Some grander homes would have had decorative panels where the clay had been moulded into attractive patterns.
Examples of No.3’s wattle and daub – still awaiting restoration work….
Once the daub has completely dried out, if it is not the intention to plaster it, the normal practice is to limewash it. This should generally be repeated every Spring, as limewash acts as a disinfectant due to its caustic properties, helping to prevent rot. It is not applied purely for asthetic reasons but helps with preservation too….
Timber framed buildings because of their very nature, are subject to a certain amount of movement. Wattle and daub is very good at accomodating this, although the odd gap or crack will appear, it is not difficult to remedy this, (another reason for regular lime washing, as this helps to fill in any minor cracks). If well maintained, a wattle and daub panel can last for centuries. Although it is porous and absorbs water in wet conditions, daub effectively acts like blotting paper. Moisture is dispersed and quickly evaporates keeping the building relatively dry. Sometimes, to protect from the elements, outside walls may be tile hung or clad with weather boards….
Internal walls are often plastered, usually using the lath and plaster technique. Laths (generally oak) are long, thin strips of green wood. These are nailed flat to the wall or ceiling, ready for the plaster to be applied. The plaster would usually be made from lime and sand, then animal hair (such as horse) added for reinforcement….
The lime for mortar and plaster is obtained by extracting limestone from a quarry and processing it in a lime kiln, where it is heated to form a powder substance called Quick Lime (Calcium Oxide). Sometimes, when lime was not available, they would have used oyster shells instead, as when heated they produce a very similar material….
It is important when doing repair work to buildings constructed with wattle and daub, to use traditional materials. Daub may have shrinkage as it dries, this is perfectly normal, gaps may occur; similarly, as green timbers season, this too may cause gaps. This can easily be remedied by filling in with lime mortar. When larger areas of daub have failed, with careful preparation they can be repaired or replaced with new daub. Timbers can be prone to rot or insect attack, especially woodworm. Staves can be replaced and if necessary, stainless steel meshing can be used to strengthen weak areas of wattle. Each case needs to be assessed and treated individually, sometimes specialist help may be required….
What is necessary, is to consider the nature of the fabric of older buildings, due to the fact the material needs to ‘breathe’. Modern day cements, renders and impermeable paints are unsympathetic to this and their useage can cause a building to decay. Rain water will soak into cracks and soon rot timbers and soak into daub. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to use flexible, porous materials such as limeplaster and limewash on wattle and daub….
With a little love and care (and the right treatment when a problem does arise)….there are very few reasons as to why these old buildings, that have stood for so many centuries, shouldn’t stand for many more….