Report on Turf Building Course in Iceland

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2-9 June 2019

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pure bred Icelandic sheepdog learning to stalk

Thanks to:-

  • All the staff at the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum and all the various sites that showed us around during our visit. Especial thanks to Bryndis Zoega who looked after us brilliantly from airport arrival to departure in Iceland and Helgi Sigurdsson for his good humour and instruction in the art of turf construction.
  • Libby Urquhart & Seona Anderson at Archnetwork for developing and running the visit.
  • The funders of the project Erasmus+ programme
  • Our employers; Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (LLTNP), National Trust for Scotland (NTS), the John Muir Trust (JMT), Retool Architecture, Dubheadarts

The eight participants selected to report individually on aspects of the course, their impressions on Iceland and what the will take back to their various organisations in Scotland. These follow in alphabetical order:-

  1. Duncan Ainslie, HES, Estates Technical Officer, Conservation
  2. Stacie Allan, HES, Architectural Technician, Central East District, Conservation
  3. Emily Bryce, NTS, Operations Manager Glen Coe & Glenfinnan
  4. Andrew McAvoy, Retool Architecture, Director and Principal Architect
  5. Sandy Maxwell, JMT, Volunteer Work Parties Co-ordinator
  6. Alistair Norris , LLTNP Architect
  7. Brigitte Postma, Dubhead Arts
  8. William Reid, HES, Work Manager, M.C.U.
  9. Duncan Ainslie, HES Estates Technical Officer, Conservation

Icelandic Turf Building – Tools and their uses.

In the conservation of buildings it is generally accepted that maintaining traditional skills is an essential part of delivering appropriate repairs. When repairing a stone wall for example, a newly indented stone fresh from a modern saw will stand out like a sore thumb, a new stone that has had its surface tooled by hand will blend in with the whole for a much sweeter appearance. The skills in their own right are also an essential part of intangible heritage worth preserving. What is sometimes forgotten though is that for traditional trades to be carried out in a truly traditional way they rely on the correct tools being available. This is felt in the UK – at present a number of tool making crafts feature on the Heritage Crafts Association ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’. This is not an issue unique to the UK. It became apparent that sourcing replacement parts for the Icelandic turf building tools, the turf scythe in particular, was a challenge.

Figure 1: Digging spade (left) and undercutting spade (right) as used on the course.

Working with turf buildings in Iceland we used several tools – some of which were instantly familiar, and some which were less so. This report records the tools used, both in their appearance and construction and briefly in their use.

Digging Spade


The spade used at Tyrfingsstadir was a modern Fiskars ‘Classic’ digging spade, with a dished blade and pointed cutting edge – clearly not quite the traditional option. In use this curved blade did raise some questions as it would leave a slightly scalloped edge along the turf blocks being dug.

In Building with Turf, by Sigríður Sigurðóttir (and kindly provided by the museum), they do feature an image of a more traditional digging spade on p.8. A predominantly timber construction with a small seemingly flat blade and a slightly curved cutting edge. The spade pictured also has an interesting feature in the form a wooden ‘ledge’ on one side to allow space for a foot to drive the blade into the soil. It also be interesting to know how well the flat blade would have coped under the stress of levering out soil without the added strength that the dished blades provided to the modern spades we used. People would have often had forges on their properties so regular repair and blade replacement might have been possible. The Glambær farm certainly featured a smithy, ‘all farms formerly had their own smithy, which was necessary for sharpening scythes, to make horse shoes and other farm equipment and utensils’ according to the guide.

Figure 2: Using the digging spade to dress the face of the laid Klambra


As with many of the tools used in the course the digging spade was a versatile tool used in various stages. It was used with the undercutting spade (see below) when cutting out the various varieties of turf block. The spade was also used to trim the blocks when laying them to ensure a good fit, and to dress the blocks once they had been laid to give the wall face a flat and true surface.

Undercutting Spade

Figure 3: The undercutting spade being used alongside a digging spade to cut out Klambra


The undercutting spade was a less familiar type of spade with a wide, flat, triangular shaped blade fixed on a long metal shaft before transitioning into a wooden handle about a third of a way up. The one we used featured a non-traditional plastic handle. There is one pictured alongside the digging spade in Building with Turf but the handle, while possibly a metal version rather than plastic, is of a similar D-shape pattern.


The caption in Building with Turf explains that ‘the undercutting spade was used to cut strips of grass sod and kringlutorf (“circular shaped sod turf”). It was also used to dig peat and to smooth off the hayfield by slicing off the tops of pufur (“tussocks”) caused by frost heaving.

When at Tyrfingsstadir the principal use of the undercutting spade for us was to cut the underside of the turf blocks, having already cut the four vertical sides with the digging spade. Once all faces of the block were cut it could then be removed from the ground. Due to the thin metal shaft of this tool it was used only in the one cutting direction, driven by resting the handle against the thigh and using core strength rather than using your arms, as any attempt to lever the turf blocks with the undercutting spade could have caused the shaft to bend.

Figure 4: The ljar or ‘turf scythe’. General view (left) and being used to cut square torfa into two strengur

Ljár or Torfljár “turf scythe”


The turf scythe that we used was referred to as a ‘ljar’ or ‘torfljár’. Building with Turf notes two variants – the einskeri (“one cutter”) and tviskeri (“two cutter”). The einskeri is a longer version, sometimes used by two people, which can cut out certain strips of turf in one cut. The shorter tviskeri was what we used.

The handle, called a skammort “short stock”, is a curved piece of wood allowing a hand hold to either side of the blade. The best handles are said to use a tree root where the natural curve of the root would match that of the handle for a strong single piece construction.

The scythe are sharpened along the length of the blade on one side only, the left. The blade joins the handle with a ‘cranked’ arrangement, with two near right angles, and the tang passes through the handle and has an eyelet allowing it to be fix it in place with a wedge or similar. There were two varieties of blade used, one was curved along the length of the blade with a straight edge, while the other had a flat blade but with a crescent shaped curve to the cutting edge. One had a single piece blade, while the others had a sharp blade riveted onto a metal back. One of the scythes featured a blade made by Tyzack and Son (a Sheffield tool maker), while Helgi mentioned that the blade of another was of Scottish origin. When the blades needed replacing on the riveted blades the rivets could be ground off (working from the side of the now expired blade) and a new blade attached – though as yet Helgi hasn’t found a source for new blades.

I asked if the backs of the riveted blades were a softer steel but Helgi explained that was not the case due to the strain that gets put on these cranked angles where the blade meets the handle. I also asked about the single edged nature – were there any for cutting the opposite direction, or even double edged varieties? It sounds like there were occasionally left and right handed ljár, but none with a double edge – though Helgi did like the idea of it and thought there would be situations where the versatility of a double edge would come in useful.


The main use of the ljár was for cutting the strengur and torfa (“strip” and “turf”). The strengur was cut with one vertical cut and was then met with a low angled cut, sharply tapering out towards each end while the torfa was two low angled cuts that met in the middle.

The ljár was also used, like the digging spade, for trimming the strips, turfs and blocks when they were being laid to ensure everything fit together tightly and neatly.

Figure 5: Using the ljár to cut out strengur (left) and to clean up laid klambra (right)



This final tool was not used as extensively in the process and was more just a general aid in moving and levelling the soil but is perhaps worth noting for completeness. Whilst not a typical hoe it seems like it would fit into that family of tools. It was not named in either the course or the literature. The blade of the hoe was curved both along the cutting edge and in the shape of the blade itself.


There’s little to be said for the use of this tool, its purpose being to help break up and distribute the soil that was being packed into the core of the turf walls.

Figure 6: The type of hoe used on the course

2. Stacie Allan, HES, Architectural Technician, Central East District, Conservation

Stacie has prepared a power point presentation on turf building at Tyrfingsstadir – sent separately

3. Emily Bryce, NTS, Operations Manager Glen Coe & Glenfinnan

Emily is preparing a power point comparing the course with the planned restoration of two turf houses at Glen Coe – to follow next week

4. Andrew McAvoy, Retool Architecture, Director and Principal Architect

Andy is preparing a video sketch diary of the week and will forward it next week>

5. Sandy Maxwell, John Muir Trust Volunteer Work Parties Co-ordinator

I work for a wildland conservation charity organising and running work parties of volunteers on our own ten properties around Scotland as well as those of several partners such as the community owned estates of the Knoydart Foundation, Assynt Foundation and North & West Harris Trusts.

The John Muir Trusts principal interest is in the wild land but this crosses over with the architectural heritage of structures found on it and increasingly with the operation of wild land access points as wildlife tourism increases. On most of the properties that I work on the most prevalent building material currently present is stone often in drystone construction. This course has opened my eyes up to the potential of using turf as a building material as well as its historical importance in Scottish buildings and structures such as boundary dykes and fortifications.

Turf building offers many advantages for my work parties:-

  • Materials used are readily found on or close to most sites
  • Finished appearance sits readily in to the landscape
  • Tools needed are simple and many already used in other activities such as path work
  • Activity is very labour intensive so suited to utilising volunteer groups

Prior to this course I would have doubted the durability of turf structures but after seeing a turf wall in the Reykjavik Settlement exhibition dating back to 900 and the state of the turf buildings such as the farmhouse at Glaumbaer built in the 1800’s I have to say that my eyes have been opened! Another revaluation was the effectiveness of the combined use of stone and turf strips such as strengur or torfa. I will consider using some of the techniques we learnt in Iceland in path work for revetments and possibly even in areas of light use pitching.

C:\Users\User\Desktop\iceland turf\DCIM\100_FUJI\DSCF0601.JPG However easy Helgi make it seem I realise that there is a tremendous level of experience needed behind turf building especially in the choice of areas/conditions to excavate turf from and the design of the structure being built. I will experiment with interested volunteers but greatly look forward to the opportunity of involvement with the turf building restoration planned for Glencoe and appreciate the links made by this course with other potential turf builders in Scotland.

Helgi teaches us how to cut turf

It is unlikely the John Muir Trust would embark on a project such as the NTS Glencoe reconstruction but I can see an immediate possibility of using turf walls at some of our access points. Several years ago I built with volunteers a drystone bin shelter for the car park on our Sandwood estate. This involved bringing several tons of stone on to site from a redundant building and considerable pre planning. At the Gaumbaer Old Turf Farm site I saw a similar construction from turf. I intend too try making similar walls for interpretation panels, bin shelters and other landscaping on our own properties. C:\Users\User\Desktop\Scan_20190612.jpg

Bin shelter at drystone Sandwood estate, Scotland

C:\Users\User\Desktop\Scan_20190612 (2).jpg C:\Users\User\Desktop\22 nov 2017\My Documents\Personal\DSCF0527.jpg Beyond the formal content of this week with turf I found that the exchange of experiences and ideas both with the other participants and our Icelandic hosts was very useful. One example was the perceived problems around the increase in camper van tourism. The John Muir Trust is affected in particular on our estates close to the North Coast 500 route as well as on Skye. I also run regular work parties on the popular destination of Harris. As we had representatives from NTS and LLT NP in the group we could have an informal debate on how the impact of campervans can be managed. My own impression from sharing the driving around Iceland was that they are far behind the number of campervans that we currently have in Scotland. However they have experienced the problems such as chemical toilet disposal and are taking a proactive response in providing advice on driving etiquette at entry points such as hire companies and in every tourist information point we visited I saw a comprehensive leaflet by the Icelandic Environment Agency on Camper lavatory disposal listing over 75 sites spread across the country.

Bin shelter at Gaumbaer, Iceland

5 Alistair Norris , LLTNP Architect

Turf house History

First settlement

The permanent settlement of Iceland began in the Viking age around the 9th century. The first settlements are believed to have been in the Reykjavik area. Archaeological remains and references in the sagas suggest that Austurvöllur gardens area in the city centre may have been the original.

Excavation of an early long house in this area has revealed that the building was substantially constructed in turf with inclusion of stone in the foundation and a basic timber frame to support at least the centre of the roof.


Due to the inherent difficulties in moving large amounts of heavy materials with only human or animal power it was common to use materials found locally to settlement areas. This resulted in the development of Iceland’s very own turf, stone and timber vernacular architecture.

An additional limiting feature was the type of stone available. While in contemporary Europe soft sedimentary stone was beginning to be carved into regular blocks and the romans has developed limestone concrete a millennium before the geology of Iceland provides largely igneous rock. A type of stone not so well favoured for its workability in construction.

As with many forms of vernacular architecture it is likely that this style of construction was developed as a necessity of living in the cold and relatively resource poor environment of Iceland.

Turf was the primary component of most buildings in Iceland from the settlement days to at least the 19th century. Good construction turf comes from boggy areas and as such most settlements and laterally farms required a sustainable supply of this. The material once dried is both structural, relatively insulating and self-healing to a degree.

Timber was initially available from trees in some parts of Iceland, however over the centuries this very limited resource was depleted and the primary supply was thus driftwood from neighbouring landmasses. There was for a time competition for rights to claim driftwood from beaches around Iceland.


The first buildings in Iceland were turf Longhouses (Skáli) similar to contemporary structures in Scandinavia or the British isles. These were long (15-30m) slightly oblong structures generally with an entrance slightly to the right of the centre and a porch structure of some sort on the inside. These longhouses were sometime connect to each other or had annexes and other rooms attached.

Over the centuries these structures grew more complex and trade allowed for a larger amount of imported timber to be used in construction. As a result the recognisable style of the passage farmhouse (gangabær) came about. This generally involved a series of rooms from the formal living space at the front to the main living quarters at the back. These interim rooms were generally stores and kitchens or smoke rooms for the preservation of meat.

On farms which could afford it timber end gables were presented on some external walls to display wealth, this had something of a distinctive ‘comb’ aesthetic which many might now recognise at sites such as Glaumbær.

End of Turf building.

From the late 19th and early 20th century turf building ceased to be the main form of construction in Iceland surpassed first by timber construction and soon after by the widespread use of modern concrete. This form of construction is now only used to maintain historic structures and in demonstration projects to keep the knowledge of these construction techniques alive.


Guðmunder St. Sigurðarson et al. ‘Reading the Landscape’

8 Billy Reid – Historic Environment Scotland – Works Manager.

Re-building a turf barn at Tyrfingsstaðir farm


Tyrfingsstaðir turf farm in Iceland, dates back to before 1300 and was inhabited until 1969. The turf buildings consist of the main dwelling and several out buildings such as animal enclosures storage buildings and barns.

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These buildings follow a familiar style of earth buildings where by they have a stone base course with earthen walls and a roof. This can be referred to as the buildings boots, braces and hat.

The building that we were working on was a turf built barn. We started by excavating the site to the original level of the old barn. The barn is set into the hillside I suspect this is due to a lack of rainfal in the area so there is not much of a problem with moisture rising from the ground or through the walls.


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The next step is to build a stone and turf base course. The stones in this case are used to prevent abrasion from use or animals to the soft inner turf walls.


Here you can see a strip of turf or Strengur. These are triangular in shape with the thickest part of the Strengur is placed to the face or front of the stone and used in between the courses of stone and help to bind the stones together.


Then strips of Torfa a double Strengur are laid to the thin part or tail of the Strengur on the inside of the wall from front to back. These are built overlapping each other which strengthens the wall and bonds it together. Once the stone base course is built to the required height the clamping blocks or Klambra can be built on top.


The Klambra is then built in courses with the green side all following the same direction. The course above is laid in the opposite direction and spreads the downwards and lateral forces clamping the blocks together. The Klambra is trimmed to give a flat face to the finished wall.

Unusually there are no Strengur or strips of turf used in between the clamped blocks and were only used in between the stone on the base of the structure.


The tops of the Klambra are then trimmed using a turf scythe. This process is carried out so that the top of course is level making it better for building the next course and also has the benefit of being aesthetically pleasing.

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In this sequence you can see the blocks of turf being cut for Klambra or clamped blocks. This was the main cut used for the re-build of the barn.

The Klambra is now ready for building.

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The timber slats for the roof are then dressed with turf which can be either Torfa or Snidda a diamond shaped block. These are built in an over lapping fashion which again creates a bond between the turfs.

Snidda rooves are much thicker and support the growth of vegetation when the bog plants die and are replaced with plants that are better suited to a dryer growing medium. C:\Users\902279\Desktop\Iceland\Photos\20190603_153351.jpg

The round inside of the barn required the Klambra to be cut with enough of an angle so that they can be firmly pushed together with no gaps, these gaps would create weak areas in the wall which could lead to collapse or failure of the structure.

Once the walls are built to the required height we are then ready for the timber frame for the roof.


The timber used is minimal and often consists of only a few load bearing posts, as traditionally speaking wood was a scarce commodity and is still collected as drift wood and dressed and split as required.

The added bonus of using drift wood from the sea is that it has a high salt content which acts as a natural preservative and helps stop the wood from rotting.

Turf is a versatile building material with excellent insulation qualities.

These are the basics of building an Icelandic turf structure.

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