How to Make Hand-Split Wooden Shingles (Shakes)

Making wooden shingles or "shakes" yourself is easy to do if you have the right tools and the right materials.

| November/December 1973

024 hand split shingles 1 froe and mallet

The tools and materials you'll need include a froe, a mallet, and a bolt of straight grain wood.


Ever admire an old house covered with weathered shakes...those long shingles old-timers used to split from logs? Well, if you're reasonably good with tools, you can make the same kind of roofing for your own buildings.

Turning out handmade wooden shingles isn't difficult in itself...the hard part is finding the right material. Shingles are cut from blocks of wood (shake bolts) split out of a whole trunk of cedar, sugar pine, redwood, fir, or other straight-grained timber. Not all trees that look straight from the outside prove to be so when they're opened up, however, and you may have to test two- to three-foot chunks sawed off a number of trees before you find a trunk that splits out well. Obviously, you should limit this potentially wasteful search to timber that is already down or dead.

When my wife and I need shingle material, we go around to areas that have just been logged and ask the crews if we can clean up a little of the mess they've left. Usually the answer is "yes." Alternatively, a permit to cut wood in a national forest will buy you all the bolts you need for $3.00-$4.00.

The tools needed to get shingle bolts out of a whole tree are a chain saw (or a two-man crosscut saw), two or three wedges, a small sledgehammer, and an axe. After you've cut off a 24"-36" drum of timber, you stand it on end, tap a straight line across the diameter with wedge and hammer and split the chunk in half. Then split off a narrow triangular section from one of the halves and remove the heartwood so that the remaining piece—measured at right angles to the rings—matches the width you want your shingles to be .

Finally, try slicing the sample hunk into shingle. If the wood is unsuitable, you'll have to go on to another log...but if you're lucky, the test bolt will split into smooth shingles 1/4"-5/8" thick. In that case, go ahead and divide the section into shingle . [The Foxfire Book has an excellent sequence of photographs showing this operation. —MOTHER EARTH NEWS.] The tree you found should give you enough material to cover a good-sized roof. (To be more exact, 20 feet of good straight timber will yield about 20 "squares" of shingles ...a square being enough to cover an area of 100 square feet when the slabs are properly laid.)

The tools you'll need to split the shingle from the bolts include a froe (metal wedge 8"-12" long, with an "eye" in one end to hold a handle) and a wooden mallet (made of hardwood, with a knot for strength). Froes can sometimes be found in secondhand stores...I wouldn't pay more than about $8.00. Or ask almost any older farmer. Very likely he has one of these outmoded tools lying around and will lend or give it to you.

billy thomas
2/21/2013 12:20:32 PM

Does the wood need to be seasoned before splitting the shakes, or can it be done while green?

james reynolds
10/19/2011 8:34:54 PM

one other thing to consider...wooden shingles can sometimes mold or get mildew on them. The way to slow this process or maybe even stop it all together, is to have a copper ridge cap on the roof. Minute particles of the copper will stop any kind of mold, mildew or any other fungus from growing on the shingles. :) I have a Question. I know that cottonwood is a witch to split, but I have a ton of cottonwood trees that I would like to get rid of...can they be used for shingles?? or maybe for some other kind of dimensional lumber? I was told that as firewood they are no good because of a low heat output...

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