How to Hand-Split Shingles and Shingle a House

How to hand-split shingles and shingle a house, including tools, traditional shingle break and illustrated guide, nailing base and shingle placement.

| May/June 1987

Hand-split "shakes" are unmatched for beauty when you shingle a house. 

How to Hand-Split Shingles and Shingle a House

Near as Peter Gott can recollect, he's split some 15,000 shingles over the past quarter of a century. Appalachia's master hewn-log craftsman used the most recent batch of 4,300 in the fall of '85 to replace the original 23-year-old cedar shingle roofs on the Gott family cabin and outbuildings in Cowbell Holler, which is just a piece off Tater Gap Road in the Smoky Mountain foothills of western North Carolina.

And as Peter proved to me—among the least crafty of wood craftsmen—anyone who owns a few inexpensive hand tools and a good measure of patience can learn to split (or rive, to use the appropriate lingo) beautiful wood shingles to shingle a house.

When calculating the number of shingles required for a roofing job, Gott figures 400 standard-sized shingles (3-1/2 inch to 9 inch wide by 19 inches long) per square (100 square feet) of roof to be covered. While a novice would have to hustle to rive even a few dozen usable shingles in a day, Peter can turn out several hundred in the same period of time.(See the shingle diagrams and step-by-step shingling in the image gallery.)

Here's how it's done:

First you need a tree—or maybe several trees, depending on the number of shingles required and the diameter of the tree. If you live in or near the eastern hardwood forests, just about any variety of oak will suffice-, Peter uses red oak because it's both plentiful and easy to split (though less durable than white oak). Out west, most varieties of pine and some firs are suitable for shingles, but these softwoods should be treated with a low-toxicity, non-flammable wood preservative to forestall rotting.

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