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Replacing the Historic Roofing Material

Professional advice will be needed to assess the various aspects of replacing a historic roof. With some exceptions, most historic roofing materials are available today. If not, an architect or preservation group who has previously worked with the same type material may be able to recommend suppliers. Special roofing materials, such as tile or embossed metal shingles, can be produced by manufacturers of related products that are commonly used elsewhere, either on the exterior or interior of a structure. With some creative thinking and research, the historic materials usually can be found.

Craft Practices

Determining the craft practices used in the installation of a historic roof is another major concern in roof restoration. Early builders took great pride in their work, and experience has shown that the " rustic" or irregular designs commercially labeled "Early American" are a 20thcentury invention. For example, historically, wood shingles underwent several distinct operations in their manufacture including splitting by hand, and smoothing the surface with a draw knife. In modern nomenclature, the same item would be a "tapersplit" shingle which has been dressed. Unfortunately, the rustic appearance of today's commercially available " handsplit" and re-sawn shingle bears no resemblance to the handmade roofing materials used on early American buildings.

Early craftsmen worked with a great deal of common sense; they understood their materials. For example they knew that wood shingles should be relatively narrow; shingles much wider than about 6" would split when walked on, or they may curl or crack from varying temperature and moisture. It is important to understand these aspects of craftsmanship, remembering that people wanted their roofs to be weathertight and to last a long time. The recent use of "mothergoose" shingles on historic structures is a gross underestimation of the early craftsman's skills.


Finding a modern craftsman to reproduce historic details may take some effort. It may even involve some special instruction to raise his understanding of certain historic craft practices. At the same time, it may be pointless (and expensive) to follow historic craft practices in any construction that will not be visible on the finished product. But if the roofing details are readily visible, their appearance should be based on architectural evidence or on historic prototypes. For instance, the spacing of the seams on a standingseam metal roof will affect the building's overall scale and should therefore match the original dimensions of the seams.

Many older roofing practices are no longer performed because of modern improvements. Research and review of specific detailing in the roof with the contractor before beginning the project is highly recommended. For example, one early craft practice was to finish the ridge of a wood shingle roof with a roof "comb" — that is, the top course of one slope of the roof was extended uniformly beyond the peak to shield the ridge, and to provide some weather protection for the raw horizontal edges of the shingles on the other slope. If the "comb" is known to have been the correct detail, it should be used. Though this method leaves the top course vulnerable to the weather, a disguised strip of flashing will strengthen this weak point.

Detail drawings or a sample mockup will help ensure that the contractor or craftsman understands the scope and special requirements of the project. It should never be assumed that the modern carpenter, slater, sheet metal worker, or roofer will know all the historic details. Supervision is as important as any other stage of the process.