Saint Francis in the Redwood Episcopal Church
66 East Commercial, Willits, Mendocino County, California
(707) 459-3066

The Straw Bale Building Process

The Bales Arrive

The day comes that two semi-trailers full of straw arrive.

San Hedrin Students and the Bales

It is already pushing November so we have to get the bales into the ends of the church for protection from rain, which can come at any day in the coastal mountains. These students from San Hedrin High up the street helped the men folk in the congregation to store the small mountain of bales.

Storing the Bales1

Both ends of the church were packed to the rafters with straw bales by the time we were finished. I am in the back in the blue shirt. This is rice straw from the Sacramento Valley - the best straw for building. This is because it has a high silica content that gives it a little more strength but more importantly makes it more resistant to rotting or molding. We bought bales that are highly compressed and of standardized size for easy construction.

Storing the bales2

These bales weighed over 100 pounds each! Everyone built muscles this day. Parisioner Dick Perrone is handing off a bale to be stacked.

Sam Decides

Sam Sencercia, our straw boss, is figuring out how to stack the bales most efficiently. The bales sit on the 4x4s and the gravel between them is additional protection from moisture. The bales will be stacked against the vertical 1x2s, and when the wall is finished, 1x2s will be added on the inside wall as well. Strings are then laced through each bale and tied to the 1x2s to securely hold them in place. The wrapped zig-zaggy thing on the left is anti-earthquake metal stiffening, since the Mayacama fault runs right through the middle of town not far away.

Z-Bar 1

In the early days of straw bale construction people would drive metal rebar through the bales to hold them together. Then someone realized that metal condenses moisture - very bad for straw! That is why wood 1x2s now hold them together. Even the anti-earthquare metal stiffening must be wrapped with insulating foam to protect the straw. Here Charles Senter explains to Greg Schindel that every square inch of metal must be insulated.

Z-Bar 2

Greg being very careful that the metal is fully covered. It probably took the efforts of eight people over 40 hours of work to get these metal brackets properly insulated!

The Straw Bale Builders

Here are our experts. All young and quite talented. All had already built or helped build a number of straw bale houses, and all but one lived in a straw houe they built. Building a church of this size was a much larger challenge. Having five "straw bosses" for our straw bale raising weekend allowed us to run five crews, and also allowed them to give each other support when technical issues came up. The weekend went extremely well.


Before we even started our "straw bosses" gave us an orientation. There are some important dos and don'ts. While building straw bale walls is much safer than conventional wood construction, there are electric chain saws operating, and while straw bales are quite fireproof, loose straw is very flammable. We were above all encouraged to have a good time.

Bale Raising Meeting

To put the staw bale walls up we had a Bale Raising weekend where about 50 people in the area showed up to help. Here they are setting up the various work crews. Aside from stacking the bales, there was a crew dedicated to shaping the bales. Generally 90% of the bales are simply put into place, but our church needed about 90% of the bales to be cut and shaped to fit. Despite this, they were surprised and delighted by the progress - we almost finished all the walls!

Paint Bales for Cutting

The weekend's progress was all the more amazing because nearly every bale had to be shaped and custom fitted into the walls. This often required complex measuring and then painting each bale with areas that had to be cut away with a chain saw.

Cutting Bales

Cutting bales with chainsaws. Generally one wears protective masks because of the dust, but this was actually the day before when they were experimenting with the best techniques.

Place Bales 1

Placing the bales in the wall. Note how snugly they are being placed against the 1x4s. There are nails sticking up from the footing to help keep the bales in place. The couple are Gabe Madrigal, the number two staw boss, and his wife Holly, who sits on the City Council and was working hard this day. They also live in a straw bale house they built.

The Saint Francis in the Redwoods Congregation

Gabe and Sam placing the second row of bales. Any gaps or holes between the bales will be stuffed later.

Baling Scene 1

A typical working scene for the weekend. Michael Hackelman in the foreground is working full time to keep the chain saws running. There must be a better way to cut straw! Sometimes the chainsaws would almost immediately clog. Running a chain saw for a half hour without clogging was considered a feat! Another City Councilman Ron Ornstein cutting bales in the middle. A parisioner on the left, Ann Maxwell, worked all day cutting hundreds of lengths of twine to bind each bale into place.

Baling Scene 2

Another working scene. In the center in white is our head acolyte, Ben Malugani, re-sizing bales to fit into the walls. The bales in the foreground are stacked about as high as they can go!

Baling Scene 3

Malaki Schindel takes a break from construction to provide music to work by, traditional for a straw bale party. You can just see John Thorslev in the background stringing bales to the outside 1x2s for later tying off when the inside 1x2s are built.

The Saint Francis in the Redwoods Congregation

Baled straw is quite fire resistant but loose straw is quite a fire threat, as well as a source of irritating dust. Another full time job was bagging up loose straw, performed by two of our parishioners Claudia Smith-Hill and Marlene Brown. We ended up with over 40 huge bags of loose straw which the community garden was most grateful for.


I love this picture, one of my favorites. xxx, a teenager from the next town Ukiah, worked hard all weekend. Here she is stringing twine through the bales and around the 1x2s. Saint Francis is cheering her on!

Levelling the Bales

Here Gabe is making sure the walls are plumb (level). The use of the oversized baseball bat will become clearer in the next picture. Note that the inside 1x2s are in place and you can just see some of the red twine ends dangling loose waiting to tie the bales securely in place.

Hammering the Bales

Colin xxx is another master straw bale builder who came to our rescue to help finish the walls (while in the process of finishing his own straw bale house!). Here he is hammering the bales into a smooth and level wall. Note the level in the foreground, it is a two-step process. While all of this is happening the regular crew that is building the rest of the church is still making progress. It is a tall church and they get a lot of use out of the blue high-lifter.

Stitching the Bales

As careful as everyone tried to be to thread twine through each straw bale, there were lots of places where this didn't happen. No problem! This huge needle wielded by xxx threads twine where it is missing. The needle actually has two eyes, one for each end of the twine, and you can just see that it is already looped around the outside 1x2.

Stuff Walls

For various reasons there would be holes or crevices in the straw bale walls. Often the space between bales would have gaps. Filling those gaps was another job that we parisioners performed to save money. The process is pretty low tech - you would find a short stick that was around 1"x1" and use it to push handfuls of hay into the gaps. Here I am stuffing hay into the gaps while Greg Schindel is securing the bales. He is doing this the "traditional way" twisting a nail around the twine, which takes up any slack, thus binding the bales to the 1x2 wood. He then drives the nail into the bale to secure it.

Tie off the Bales

Hammering a nail into straw did not seem all that secure, and often led to hammered fingers because the straw is so flexible and tight that the hammer would bounce off the nail to the side, and periodically onto your fingers. We tried other ways to better secure the nail. Dick Perrone found the best solution, and the easiest. Once twisted tight around the twine, rather than hammering the nail into the bale, you could tap it until it was wedged between the straw bale and the 1x2, i.e., parallel to the face of the wall but recessed behind the 1x2.

Wiring chicken wire to the face of the bales

Gabe is wiring chicken wire to the face of the bales. First, this further tightens the bales into a solid mass. Second, it provides a strong mesh for the plaster to attach to.

Cinching the wire tight

Sam in cinching the chicken wire really tight against the bales. Any looseness could lead to peeling or cracking sometime in the future. Strawbale building is a surprisingly painstaking process when done right.

Inside wall ready for plastering

A good picture of the wall ready for plastering. Note that the niche is slightly protruding at the bottom to give it a strong plaster lip.

Outside wall ready for plastering

Here is a section of outside wall ready to go.

Detail of wall plastering

Detail of the wall part way through the plastering process. This is the first of two coats of plaster and note that it does not have to be all that thick. The chicken wire has been stapled to the wood slats. The silver thing in the middle is a Z-Bar, wrapped in insulation to keep any condensation away from the bales. They were put in the building corners as seismic bracing.

Spraying plaster on the walls

A workman sprays the plaster on the walls. It is a cement/lime mixture. This was controversial among the straw bale crew. They really wanted to hand trowel a natural mud plaster that breathes very well, but is water-soluble and is soft and flakey. Since we are right on the corner downtown we didn't feel this could hold up. There is also continuing maintenance with a mud finish while the cement/lime finish should be essentially maintenance free

Troweling the finish 1

You can see here two stages of troweling following the spraying on of the plaster. Actually there usually was three stages of troweling. Again this is the first coat that will be rough finished

Closer look at troweling the finish

A closer look at the rough troweling process.

Tie off the Bales

This is what the wall looked like after the first rough coat.

Tarping the roof

Other Thoughts: How did we keep the straw dry well into December, after several rainstroms? Tarps. All the outside walls are fully tarped, not only to protect the straw, but also to make life easier for everyone working through the Winter. The whole roof for the center portion of the church was terribly late in coming, and so the center roof was covered with poly tarps as well until two weeks ago. It has caused a lot of anxiety over the weather but fortunately all the rain that came in the interim had no wind attached. But I must say those tarps were beautiful! So translucent and slightly rippling in in the wind. Lovely while it lasted.

There were also tarps from the roof eaves down to the ground, tapering away from the walls. This protected the workers quite well from rain, wind and sun and allowed them to work throughout the rainy season.


About Alternative Building

About Saint Francis in the Redwoods Episcopal Church

About Bill and Betsy Bruneau



Bill and Betsy Bruneau
18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490-9626 USA
Copyright 2008, William Bruneau