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Inspirational Books
 
 

Making Cob


 
 
Lower Longwood was buried under
layers of silted mud and fallen cob
and the only thing clearly discernible
was its corrugated iron roof.
 

 

 

 The little house was built on shillet—flaky rock—and had literally been carved out of the hillside.  The front of the house facing the hill had a largely complete stone wall, while the other two walls had been of cob construction on top of stone footings. 

 

 
The other wall contained a traditional open-sided linhay or shippon with two cattle stalls. 

 

 
 
 
The next task was to liberate the interior from the accumulated cob, manure, stones and multitudes of crumbling pieces of wood that turned out to be either ancient hand-carved hazel spars or flat battened wattles.
 
 

 
 
It was to take many months of careful scraping before the extent of the house was revealed. It looks deceptive but a subsequent architectural survey revealed that in fact 78% of the original building remained, excluding the roof.
 
 

 

 

 

Everything was eventually put into piles for recycling, but Joe was itching to start working with cob. The Devon Historic Buildings Trust's handbooks and Becky Bee's The Cob Builder's Handbook were useful, combined with his practical sense and robust application. He made a start on a few internal repairs to the walls and stitching in new cob to the enormous, long-vacated badger hole. He really enjoyed the experience, especially the malleability of the cob.  “The people that lived here before us would have done just what I'm doing”, he said excitedly, “they would have made running repairs using the fallen cob mass, or mixing up a new batch using clay and straw”.

 

 

 

The cob-making process itself was very simple, but it took time, strength, energy and attention to detail and was muckier than using stone, bricks or blocks. Making cob blocks was very labour-intensive but it provided for instant and gratifying progress and we decided to build up stocks before whacking them on the wall, then we could see the rapid results of our endeavours. 

 

 

Re-using old cob had major advantages, as it was nearer to hand and easier to manipulate dry.  The cob was mixed outside or inside depending on the weather. Putting a canvas down first, we would spread out the fallen cob mass that had been sitting in a large pile beside the house.  There was such a lot of it, a glorious colour, almost the ruby red of our lake field soil.

It was also interesting to come across ancient debris such as bones and china as well as old straw and hair, but hard work to break down the dry lumps, some of them hard as iron.

 

 

Making new cob was done by selecting a rich seam of clay and digging it out—a glutinous business—and it took time to transport from pit to building site, especially so I would imagine, by horse and cart along muddy rutted tracks, since clay is very heavy. This explains why these old houses often had a huge dips nearby, usually made into duckponds.

 

 

Once it was spread out and the lumps had been whacked with the back of a spade, hydrated lime was sprinkled over the top and trodden in. While Joe ran on the spot I would dunk the bucket in the water butt which I could scarcely lift above waist height to pull it clear of the side. To make 13 big blocks we would need about three large buckets of water, added slowly, starting with a pit in the centre, rather like a giant Yorkshire pud.

 

 
While he stamped around the top I would go round with a shovel and fold in the mixture. The proper consistency was reached when there was no more water lying on the surface and your wellies got stuck. Then I would start laying straw on the top.

We used our own straw, or rush or hay that Arthur cut and baled for us and this aided cohesion and stopped the bricks breaking up. I put down some paper, with the home-made frame on top, folding any sticking out straw back into the mix.

 

 

The breeze-block size blocks were stacked in lines of 12 or 13 and were ready for use in two or three weeks, but would set hard after a few days of dry weather. It was as simple as that!  The blocks were as heavy as their counterpart, breeze blocks. Depending on their dryness lime mortar would be needed during construc­tion, otherwise they could just be dampened before laying on top of the other and stamped down.

 

 

Sticky cob mass could also be put directly on to a wall and trod down by willing participants, but as the wall grew taller one had to have a head for heights.  The completed walls looked untidy with blades of straw and hay sticking out but this would all be trimmed off later.

 

 

Extract from Local Plan Review p.25 BE5 3.18

Cob Building – Many buildings within West Devon are constructed of cob raised on stone footing. Cob is composed of mixed earth, stones, and straw and varies in colour according to the local stone. The cob within the Borough forms as essential part of the character of the local area and should be preserved. This type of building typifies Devon and West Devon and should therefore be protected from loss. The use of traditional methods of repair and renovation is an important part of preserving these buildings.

Policy guidelines should exist to prevent these buildings from being damaged. When a cob building is also listed this gives a degree of protection and a means to preserve the building from damage.