DIY

How to Hand-Split Shingles and Shingle a House

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Reroofing the Gott cabin is a job for the entire family
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1. First,split a shingle block into eight more or less equal sections, using a froe and hardwood mallet.
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2. Split away the darker colored (unusually) heartwood from the point of each wedge of wood.
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3. You'll also need to split off the bark and the sapwood beneath it.
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4. Once the block has been split a few times, you'll need to support it in a shingle break.
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5. The final splits call for a delicate touch with the froe to prevent uneven splitting.
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7. The intricate shingling pattern provides good insurance against leaks.
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6. A large chisel can be used to "dress up" any ragged edges and prepare the shingle for use.
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A traditional shingle break.
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Shingle nailing base and shingle placement.

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.

Whatever variety you decide to use, the tree should be
free-of knots, true of trunk, straight-grained (as opposed
to twisted) and at least 24 inches in diameter. After felling the
tree, saw the trunk into round sections (shingle blocks)
19 inches long, being careful to cut straight across rather than
at angles. Roll or haul the blocks to the work area and
stand them on end for splitting. (Yes, you rive shingles
from green wood.)

Tools of the Shingle Maker’s Trade

You’ll need only a few inexpensive hand tools to get
splitting: a froe (a short-handled cleaving tool), a
hardwood mallet or club (for driving the froe), a metal
splitting wedge (or two), a sledgehammer (for driving the
wedge) and a rule. Dividers are handy but not essential.

You’ll also need a shingle break, which is a jig
used to hold shakes during the final few splits. A
traditional shingle break can be made from a 6 foot to 7 foot
section of 4 inch- to 5 inch-diameter forked tree, with the forks
accounting for about 3/4 of the overall length. (Peter says
red maple and dogwood often have perfect forks for this
purpose.) Use two poles 5 feet to 6 feet long to support the split
end of the fork, and rest the butt on a block of wood about
19 inches high. On the ground directly beneath the V of the fork,
place a 12 inch-square wood block to support the bottoms of the
shingle bolts. (If you have trouble with the fork spreading
during splits, Peter recommends binding the forked ends
together with light chain.)

Peter prefers this traditional-type break for making the
intermediate splits, and uses a lumber-scrap break for the
final, precise split. This second break is nothing more
than a short length of large-diameter log that sup ports a
frame of scrap lumber (an extra 19 inch-long shingle block is
ideal). You can make it in just a few minutes, and here’s
how:

Stand a hardwood shingle block upright, and nail a couple
of 2 by 6s (or 2 by 4s, 2 by 8s, etc.)–cut long enough
to reach from the ground to about 16″ above the top of the
log–upright and parallel on either side of the block
so that they stick up like horns. Now nail a length of 1 by
6 (or 1 by 4, 1 by 8, etc.) from the front edge of one of the
uprights to the rear of the other, with the bottom
edge of the 1 by 6 positioned parallel to and about 3 inches above
the top of the support log. Finally, nail a second 1 by 6
horizontally to the front edges of the two uprights so that
its bottom is 3/4 inch above the top edge of the lower 1 by 6.

With the shingle break constructed and your tools and
materials assembled (see the accompanying sidebar for
details), examine the end grain of the first shingle block
to be split. That large dark area at the center is the
heartwood, and the lighter layer just under the bark is the
sapwood. Everything in between is shingle meat.

Before splitting, mark each shingle block into
pie-slice-shaped segments measuring 3-1/2 inches wide at the
outside edge, taking the measurements just inside the inner
ring of sapwood. Most of your blocks will already have a
small split in the center; trace it out to the edge (along
the radial lines), and make your first mark here. Next,
step off with 3-1/2 inch marks in both directions until the
marks meet (more or less) on the opposite side of the
block. Finally, go back and darken every fourth mark.

Now you’re ready to split, halving the block along the
marks you’ve just made, beginning with the darker lines.
The overall idea here is that each split will divide the
wood in half equally, helping assure that the splits will
run true.

To make the initial split, start the blade of the froe into
the wood with a few solid blows from your mallet, then
apply lateral pressure on the handle to widen the split.
(If necessary, remove the froe and use a sledge and wedges
to finish the split.) Next–again following the
guidelines nearest to the center of each
section–split the halves equally so that you have 4
more or less equal pie-shaped wedges.

Still following your marks, go on to split each
quarter-round block in half so that you have 8 sections.
Now, following the curvature of the wood’s annual growth
rings, use wedge and sledge to split a few inches of
heartwood (which is often twisted or knotty) from the point
of each triangular section– then use froe and mallet
to split the blunted wedges in half again.

After splitting off as many 3-1/2 inch-wide wedges as each
section of log will provide, carefully split each wedge
into two 1-3/4 inch slices. Now get rid of the bark and
rot-prone sapwood by splitting it off with the same tools
you employed for removing the heartwood tips; split in from
both ends and then chop off what’s left in the middle.

Here’s where the going calls for precision. Move over to
the shingle break, stand a 1-3/4 inch-wide shake on end and
wedge it into the apex of the reclining V formed by the two
1 by 6s. Now carefully center the froe and begin
the split with a gentle tap from your mallet. With the froe
embedded blade-deep in the wood, pull the shake out of the
V, wedge it flat between the upper and lower horizontal 1 by
6s and apply downward pressure on the handle to finish the
split.

If one of these final splits tries to “run out” to one side
or the other rather than going straight down the center,
turn the shake so that its thickest side is to the bottom,
apply downward pressure on the handle of the froe (and thus
on the shake) and the split should turn back toward center.
(You may have to rotate a problem shake several times to
keep the split running straight.)

Repeat this procedure until you have a pile of shingles
each measuring approximately 7/16 inches on the thick
edge and tapering evenly to about 3/16 inches on the thin edge.
If some of your shingles have irregularities, such as high
spots on one face or the other, they can be dressed up a
bit with a draw knife or a hewing hatchet (which, like a
broadax, is beveled only on one side). Ragged edges can be
smoothed with a hewing hatchet or a slick (a very large
chisel–3 feet or so overall–designed for working logs).

Tie the finished shingles in neat, tight bundles of 20,
stacked with thin and thick edges alternating to prevent
warping. (These bundles of 20 make for quick counting and
are light enough to tote up a ladder to the roof.) It’s
best to install fresh shingles soon after riving them,
while they’re still green and pliable. But if you must
store yours for some time, tie the bundles tightly to
prevent warping.

Between Rafters and Shingles

Many frontier-America log cabins were roofed with very
large hand-split shingles attached to purlins or lath, in
many cases simply weighted down rather than nailed. Since
the lath strips were spaced several inches (and purlins up
to 3 feet) apart, a couple of overlapping layers of wood
shingles provided the only covering for most of the roof–no solid wood decking, no vapor barrier and no insulation.

While some larger early American log homes had crawlspace
attics, most frontier cabins depended on sleeping lofts to
provide a thermal buffer against both the sun’s heat in
summer and the cold of winter. This arrangement provided a
fairly comfortable interior temperature on the ground
floor, but turned the loft into an ice chest in winter and
a sauna in summer.

While strongly tradition-oriented, Peter Gott doesn’t
recommend being that traditional (except, perhaps,
for outbuildings). Rather, he suggests the following
roofing arrangement:

No matter what type of outer roofing material you plan to
use (wood, asphalt, fiberglass, metal, etc.), start by
nailing a strong decking–such as kiln-dried, V-joint,
tongue-and-groove pine boards or exterior-grade
plywood–over the rafters. (Note: Traditional rafters
are straight, peeled poles, at least 4 inches to 6 inches in diameter,
with their top sides flattened so that dimension lumber can
be nailed to them. When such poles aren’t available, Peter
uses 4 inch by 6 inch or larger sawn timbers.)

Over the decking, tack down a layer of 30 inch pound roofing
felt. Next, stand a row of vertical 2 by 6s-one positioned
directly above each rafter-on edge and toenail them through
the decking and into the rafters, filling the spaces
between the 2 by 6s to within an inch of the top with
fiberglass batting or urethane foam insulation. (That inch
of space above the insulation–in combination with
screen vents at the bottom of the roof and, if possible, at
the ridge–will allow for air circulation and prevent
condensation.) The top layer can be either plywood
sheathing (best under asphalt shingles), 1 by 6 boards (best
under metal roofing) or 1 by 3 lath strips (for wood
shingles).

Up on the Roof, Down on Your Knees

Peter begins each shingling job by nailing a 1 by 6 strip of
bevel siding (thick edge down) along the eave (bottom edge
of the roof to set the proper angle for the first row of
shingles. He then nails a 1foot -wide strip of aluminum
flashing atop the bevel siding so that it overhangs the
eave by 3/4 inches, bending the resulting 3/4 inch metal lip down to
form a “drip edge” that prevents water from being sucked up
under the sheathing through the wicking action of the wood.

The first row (along the eave) gets 2 thicknesses of
shingles. The bottom layer is cut down to 2/3 length, with
a layer of full-length shingles nailed directly on top-with
the joints in the 2 layers staggered to prevent leaks-to
provide a full overlap that extends 1-1/2 inches to 2 inches below the
aluminum drip edge. Using a chalk line to keep the rows
straight, Peter begins a new row of shingles every 6 inches up
the roof. Given the 19″ average length of the shakes, this
provides a triple overlap for maximum protection against
leaks, should a shingle split.

Working from either gable end of the roof, Peter lays the
first shingle in each row with its thick edge facing out.
The remaining shakes in the row are usually alternated thick
edges together, then thin edges together–leaving a
gap of 1/8 inches to 1/4 inches between shingles. Each shingle overlaps
the row below by about 1/3, so that no 2 joints line up in
3 successive layers. Rule: Each new shingle should cover
the shingle below by at least 1-1/2 inches, and the one below
that by at least 1/2 inch.

To secure the roof, Peter uses two 6penny galvanized nails
in each shingle, placing the nails about 3/4 inch in from each
edge and 7-1/2 inch or so up from the butt (aligned to
penetrate the underlying lath strips); this way, the
nailheads will be covered by the next row of shingles.

Peter weatherproofs the ridge with an underlying strip of
20 inch-wide aluminum flashing, folding the flashing over the
ridge and securing it under the final couple of rows of
shingles on each side of the ridge. And while many builders
trim the top row of shingles level with the ridge and then
cap the roof with a decorative row of horizontal shingles,
Peter prefers the traditional Appalachian “feathered
ridge,” wherein the top 2 rows of shingles on the windward
side of the roof jut up several inches above the ridge to
act as a crude but effective flashing.

Does the End justify the Effort?

Hand-splitting wood shingles is quite the rustic and
romantic project, and when a master craftsman such as Peter
Gott does it, riving looks like child’s play. But let’s be
reasonable. By the time a novice cuts, limbs, sections and
hauls in a large tree for shingle stock, cobbles together a
shake break, then splits a few thousand shingles . . . is
it really worth all the sweat and smashed fingernails just
to save a few bucks?

From a purely economic viewpoint–unless you’re up
against a financial wall and have rain pouring in through
holes in your roof–the answer is probably no. But
there’s more to doing for yourself than simple economics.
What does make riving your own shingles worth the
effort is the rush of pride you’ll get–for years to
come–every time you lift your gaze to your rooftop
handiwork.

Editor’s Note: We’ve prepared a 60-plus construction
manual detailing Peter Gott’s Appalachian log-building
methods. To order this essential handbook, see this issue, page
113.


Shingle Splitting Step-By-Step

Splitting, or “riving,” shingles isn’t as difficult as you
might imagine. Master craftsman Peter Gott can hand-split
them from red oak as fast as his wife, Polly, can nail them
in place. Of course, you won’t pick up that kind of speed
without a good bit of practice. The instructions provided
in the image gallery (see the shingle diagrams in the image gallery) should get you started.