Architecturally Speaking ---- Surrey Wattle and Daub

(first published in DBRG News July 2007

Two main types of wattle and daub are found in Surrey. The first has wattles woven in and out of the uprights while the second has tied or nailed horizontals on one side only of the uprights. In both cases the uprights or "staves" were fitted into holes in the soffit of the top member of the frame and a V-shaped groove in the top of the lower member¹. Both the stave holes and the groove will be set towards the best or "upper" face of the frame so that when daubed the infill is flush with the timbers².

With woven wattles the end stave holes will be set tight against the edges of the panel. If this were not so the ends of the horizontals would stick out from the rest of the panel. Staves tend to be riven and be polygonal in section with pointed edges. Stave holes are either chiselled or, more commonly, made by chiselling out the wood between two holes drilled at centres of less than five centimetres³ It would be almost impossible to make drilled stave holes once a frame had been formed so they must have been part of the work of the original carpenter. The horizontals tend to be whole or halved coppice stems between 20 and 25mm in diameter. It is normally assumed that most are of hazel. Occasionally riven lath-like horizontals are used.

Tied or nailed panels have the end staves set clear of the side timbers by about five centimetres, perhaps to facilitate tying. Staves tend to be rectangular and stave holes to be of the drilled type and may even be finished as small square ended mortices.
Just about any durable fibrous material can be used to tie horizontals to the staves. Suggested materials include brambles, thin hazel stems and old man's beard. Where no method of tying can be seen then nailing should be suspected4. Nailing seems to have been particularly favoured to fill the triangular panels in roof trusses. With both tied and nailed forms the horizontals may be riven laths or half round coppice timbers. Occasionally a second set of vertical laths are tied to the first set perhaps to even up thickness before the application of the daub.

So how does this help with interpretation? It is likely that the large panel of earlier medieval houses are woven, but in the later period the choice seems to be that of the carpenter. No obvious pattern emerges in terms of geographical location or later periods, although analysis of the dendro-dated examples has yet to be undertaken. The original carpenter will have formed stave holes in just one fashion but by looking closely it should be possible to identify those that relate to alterations (probably shallow chiselled ones). This can be surprisingly useful.

Martin Higgins
I Exceptions occur where staves rise to or from a diagonal brace or principal rafter when they may be set in a hole at the square end and nailed to the sloping member.
2 Some smoke bays are daubed flush to the fire face, presumably to remove ledges where sparks could rest.
3 Single drill holes as described by Paula Sunshine are rare, but not unknown, in Surrey.
4 David Martin advises that in East Sussex nailing is common and tied examples very rare.

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©DBRG 17th January 2008