Oast cowl types: The story behind the styles

Oast houses have played a huge roll in shaping the history of Kent and Sussex and they have become a symbol of the counties they inhabit. These much-loved buildings are a familiar sight throughout the countryside, their iconic bright white sails rising up across the landscape.

But these beguiling buildings are more than just a pretty façade. For centuries, Kent’s famous beer industry depended on oast houses (read our article on how oast houses used to work) and as many great things in life, their cowls came in different size and shapes!

So… Are there different types of oast cowls?

While there was certainly no standard blueprint for an oast design, they mostly fall into two categories – the circle kiln and the square kiln. Even within these two basic oast cowl designs, there was a huge degree of artistic license used by builders – meaning that each oast house has its own truly unique design. Some oasts, like Great Dixter in East Sussex, ditched the rulebook entirely, combining both square and circle designs.

Square Kilns

The very first oasts were simply barns with a kiln added to them. Unsurprisingly these rudimentary attempts at an oast house were far from safe and the substantial fire risk of these soon led to the introduction of a purpose-built, external kiln.

These square kilns were the all-original oast design. The first ones measured about 15 feet across, but as oast houses grew in popularity, they also increased in size.

Square oast houses by Dude and Arnette

While roundel oasts eventually found favour in Sussex and Kent, the square design would remain a firm favourite of hop growers in Hampshire, Herefordshire and Worcester.

In the mid-20th century onwards, the square design shot to popularity again as a surge of innovations in oast designs took hold (likely encouraged by the 1850s abolition of brick tax). Farmers realised it was easier to install a roller in the square kilns, which meant that the delicate hops could be removed to the cooling room without workers trampling on them. The popular mod-con of motorised fans were also better suited to the square design.

Nowadays, square kilns provide the perfect shell for conversions – no round furniture required in these ones. In terms of construction, the square kiln oasts consist of four sides with ridges or hips going to each corner of the kiln. The straight edge design of these means that only square tiles are needed, not tapered ones, potentially making any oast cowl repairs a bit more straightforward.

Circle Kilns

The iconic round kiln is probably the most recognisable oast cowl type in Kent, and in fact, the majority of the oasts still in existence today are the circle kilns. It was originally thought that the round kilns would be more efficient at heat distribution and more cost-effective.

Round oast houses by Dude and Arnette

When it comes to restoration, the circle kilns pose some different challenges to that of the square kiln. The circular shape means that tapered tiles are needed to swing the square tiles around the structure and a lathe is used to hang the tiles on.

Whether you have a square kiln or a circular one, we can assist with all types of oast cowl repairs and maintenance. Have a look at all the ways in which we can help you.