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Wooden roof shingles were lightweight, made with simple tools, and easily installed. Wooden shingle roofs were prevalent in the Colonies, while in Central and Southern Europe at the same time, thatch, slate and tile were the prevalent roofing materials. In Scandinavia wooden shingle roofs used to be the most common roofing material and in use up to the 1950s in the countryside.
Distinctive roofing patterns exist in various regions of North America that were settled by the English, Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavians. These patterns and features include the size, shape and exposure length of shingles, special treatments such as swept valleys, combed ridges, and decorative butt end or long side-lapped beveled handsplit shingles. Such features impart a special character to each building.
Modern wooden shingles, both sawn and split, continue to be made, but they differ from the historic ones. Modern commercially available shakes are generally thicker than the historic handsplit counterpart and are usually left "undressed" with a rough, corrugated surface. The rough-surface shake is often considered to be more "rustic" and "historic", but in fact this is a modern fashion.
History of shinglesEdit
Because trees were plentiful from the earliest days of settlement of North America, the use of wood for all aspects of construction is not surprising.
Historically, wooden shingles were usually thin (3/8"–3/4"), relatively narrow (3"–8"), of varying length (14"–36"), and almost always smooth. The traditional method for making wooden shingles in the 17th and 18th centuries was to handsplit them from log sections known as bolts. These bolts were quartered or split into wedges. A mallet and froe (or ax) were used to split or rive out thin planks of wood along the grain. If a tapered shingle was desired, the bolt was flipped after each successive strike with the froe and mallet. The wood species varied according to available local woods, but only the heartwood, or inner section, of the log was usually used. The softer sapwood generally was not used because it deteriorated quickly. Because handsplit shingles were somewhat irregular along the split surface, it was necessary to dress or plane the shingles on a shavinghorse with a draw-knife or draw-shave to make them fit evenly on the roof. This reworking was necessary to provide a tight-fitting roof over typically open shingle lath or sheathing boards. Dressing, or smoothing of shingles, was almost universal, no matter what wood was used or in what part of the country the building was located, except in those cases where a temporary or very utilitarian roof was needed.
Shingle fabrication was revolutionized in the early 19th century by steam-powered saw mills. Shingle mills made possible the production of uniform shingles in mass quantities. The sawn shingle of uniform taper and smooth surface eliminated the need to hand dress. The supply of wooden shingles was therefore no longer limited by local factors. These changes coincided with (and in turn increased) the popularity of architectural styles such as Carpenter Gothic and Queen Anne that used shingles to great effect.
Handsplit shingles continued to be used in many places well after the introduction of machine sawn shingles. There were, of course, other popular roofing materials, and some regions rich in slate had fewer examples of wooden shingle roofs. Some western "boom" towns used sheet metal because it was light and easily shipped. Slate, terneplate, and clay tile were used on ornate buildings and in cities that limited the use of flammable wooden shingles. Wooden shingles, however, were never abandoned. Even in the 20th century, architectural styles such as the Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival used wooden shingles.
Nearly all the houses and buildings in colonial Chiloé were built with wood, and roof shingles were extensively employed in Chilota architecture. Roof shingles of Fitzroya came to be used as money and called "Real de Alerce".
Much text in this article is from The Repair and Replacement of Historic Wooden Shingle Roofs, by Sharon C. Park, AIA, which is in the public domain (U.S. government publication)
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