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How to make a palm thatch roof

Structure of thatch roof
Structure of thatch roof

Last April while on our Belize island, I decided I wanted to create a center where guests can store their snorkel equipment. There was no central spot, and therefore this assorted gear was strewn all over the place, including the palm-shaded picnic table where the staff likes to eat their lunch!

So I decided to turn an old SUP rack into a bunch of large shelves where people can put their mask, fins, and snorkel when they are not using them.

I started out by getting MJ to build the new structure. Magdaleno Yacab is an amazing man. He’s funny, he’s sweet, he’s a fantastic kayaking, snorkeling, and surfing guide, and he can build anything you can think of. He finished the project, and then he went home for his week off.

Cahune Palm - photo by D'Asign Source Botanicals
Cahune Palm – photo by D’Asign Source Botanicals

So, Apolitico (“Pol”), Martin, and Neri said they would roof it for me. I took a ton of pictures while they were doing it, and once I had such a nice set of images, I thought maybe others would like to see how it’s done. So here’s your step by step instruction for making a palm thatch roof!

First they collect a whole bunch of nice coconut palm leaves, which are all over the island. Normally we don’t use palm leaves for our cabana roofs. The reason is that they are too short. Instead you want to use cahune palm.

Coconut Palm on our island, Long Caye at Glover's Reef in Belize
Coconut Palm on our island, Long Caye at Glover’s Reef in Belize

Those leaves are something like 18 feet long. Every fall (in fact, in about 3 weeks) we take a whole pile, literally boatloads, of leaf out to the island from the jungle to reroof some of our buildings. We are on about a four year rotation to keep our Dining Hall and cabana roofs waterproof.

Here are some images to show you the difference between the two. See what I mean? The Cahune Palm leaves are much longer. So if you are making a roof yourself, get the longest leaves that you can find.

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Newly collected coconut palm leaves

Next you have to split almost all of the leaves in half. The number you need total, and the number you need to leave unsplit depends on the size of your roof. But you only leave a tiny fraction unsplit. For the very small roof we made, I would say we left four of them unsplit.

Spliting the leaves
Splitting the leaves in half

As you split them, you keep them separated into piles of “lefts” and “rights”. Each side of a leaf is a mirror image of the other side. This difference is important, you will see why later. You don’t want to get them mixed up.

Piles of lefts, rights, and whole leaves (called "top leaf")
Piles of lefts, rights, and whole leaves (called “top leaf”)

You will need some kind of scaffolding to stand on while doing your roof. Boards are often laid between rafters. In this case it was easy because of the shelves. The structure itself has a built-in scaffolding.

Getting ready to start thatching
Getting ready to start thatching

Next they attach the cord they will use to sew the leaf onto the structure.

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Pol ties on the sewing line

These two stouter poles lean perpendicular to the leaf plane. They support the leaf temporarily while you are tying it on.

Putting support poles in place
Putting support poles in place and tying strings are ready to go

Now Neri starts handing up the leaf. You tie on six at a time, alternating left leaf, right leaf, with the V shaped channel facing up. What this does is catch every single rain drop that hits the roof. There are so many leaves, all with channels facing up, that a drop has nowhere else to go but be directed off the roof toward the edge.

Neri passes leaf in correct order to Pol and Martin
Neri passes leaf in correct order to Pol and Martin

As more and more bundles are passed up, they are tied down higher and higher up the roof structure.

Tying down the leaf
Tying down the leaf

Neri stands by to hand more leaf up when they need it.

Each row is securely tied
Each row is securely tied

When one side is done, they switch to the other side.

Finished on one side!
Finished on one side!

The second side is sewn just like the first side.

Starting the second side
Starting the second side

Six leaves make one stack, with the leaf alternating between lefts and rights.

Six leaves to a stack
Six leaves to a stack

You can see that even a small roof like this one uses a lot of leaf!

The roof is taking shape
The roof is taking shape

It’s getting closer!

Almost done!
Almost done!

As it gets toward the end, it can be harder to tie the last leaf.

Tying the final rows
Tying the final rows

Now they get on TOP of the roof.

The final steps are done from the top of the roof
The final steps are done from the top of the roof

Two small sticks are threaded through the two sides. This is what the top leaf is tied to.

Attaching sticks to tie the top leaf to
Attaching sticks to tie the top leaf to

The top leaf is whole leaf. It spans both sides. Remember to put the channels up to catch the rain water.

Handing up the top leaf
Handing up the top leaf

After tying down the top leaf, two long, thin poles are handed up. These go on either side to hold the edges of the top leaf down. If a wind catches the edge of the top leaf and bends it up, the roof will leak.

Handing up the top poles
Handing up the top poles

The top poles are tied down and it’s done!

The final tie down
The final tie down

The finished roof is a lovely thing to behold.

Inside the finished roof
Inside the finished roof

I think it’s going to be a nice addition to our sports center, don’t you?

Our new snorkel center
Our new snorkel center

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