Techniques > Briefs > Slate Roofs >

Repairing Slate Roofs


Define slate.

• damaged slates
• installation detail
• babies
• John C. Leeke, Historic Homeworks.

Broken, cracked, and missing slates should be repaired promptly by an experienced slater in order to prevent water damage to interior finishes, accelerated deterioration of the roof and roof sheathing, and possible structural degradation to framing members.

The damaged slate is first removed by cutting or pulling out its nails with a ripper. If steel cut nails, rather than copper nails, were used in laying the roof, adjacent slates may be inadvertently damaged or displaced in the ripping process, and these, too, will have to be repaired. If the slate does not slide out by itself, the pointed end of the slate hammer can be punched into the slate and the slate dragged out. A new slate, or salvaged slate, which should match the size, shape, texture, and weathered color of the old slate, is then slid into place and held in position by one nail inserted through the vertical joint between the slates in the course above and approximately one inch below the tail of the slate two courses above. To prevent water penetration through the newly created nail hole, a piece of copper with a friction fit, measuring roughly 3" (7.5 cm) in width and 8" (20 cm) in length, is slid lengthwise under the joint between the two slates located directly above the new slate and over the nail.

Alternate methods for securing the replacement slate include the use of metal hooks, clips, and straps that are bent over the tail end of the slate. The application of roofing mastic or sealants to damaged slates should not be considered a viable repair alternative because these materials, though effective at first, will eventually harden and crack, thereby allowing water to enter. Mastic also makes future repairs more difficult to execute, is unsightly, and, when applied to metal flashings, accelerates their corrosion.

When two or more broken slates lie adjacent to each other in the same course, or when replacing leaky valley flashings, it is best to form pyramids (i.e., to remove a diminishing number of slates from higher courses) to keep the number of bibs required to a minimum. When reinstalling the slates, only the top slate in each pyramid will need a bib. Slates along the sides of the pyramid will receive two nails, one above the other, along the upper part of its exposed edge.

When many slates must be removed to effect a repair, the sheathing should be checked for rotted areas and projecting nails. Plywood is generally not a good replacement material for deteriorated wood sheathing due to the relative difficulty of driving a nail through it (the bounce produced can loosen adjacent slates). Instead, new wood boards of similar width and thickness to those being replaced should be used. Because the nominal thickness of today's dimension lumber is slightly thinner than that produced in the past, it may be necessary to shim the new wood boards so that they lie flush with the top surface of adjacent existing sheathing boards. Pressure-treated lumber is not recommended due to its tendency to shrink. This can cause the slates to crack and become displaced.

To permit proper relaying of the slate, the new roof sheathing must be of smooth and solid construction. At least two nails should be placed through the new boards at every rafter and joints between the ends of the boards should occur over rafters. Insufficient nailing will cause the boards to be springy, making nailing of the slates difficult and causing adjacent slates to loosen in the process. Unevenness in the sheathing will show in the finished roof surface and may cause premature cracking of the slate. Roof sheathing in valleys and along hips, ridges, and eaves may be covered with waterproof membrane underlayment rather than roofing felt for added protection against leakage.

In emergency situations, such as when severe hurricanes or tornadoes blow numerous slates off the roof, a temporary roof covering should be installed immediately after the storm to prevent further water damage to the interior of the building and to permit the drying out process to begin. Heavy gauge plastic and vinyl tarpaulins are often used for this purpose, though they are difficult to secure in place and can be blown off in high winds. Roll roofing, carefully stitched in to areas of the remaining roof, is a somewhat more functional solution that will allow sufficient time to document the existing roof conditions, plan repairs, and order materials.

Slate roof repair is viable for localized problems and damaged roofs with reasonably long serviceable lives remaining. If 20% or more of the slates on a roof or roof slope are broken, cracked, missing, or sliding out of position, it is usually less expensive to replace the roof than to execute individual repairs. This is especially true of older roofs nearing the end of their serviceable lives because even the most experienced slater will likely damage additional slates while attempting repairs. Depending on the age of the slate, its expected serviceable life, and the cause(s) of deterioration, it may or may not be cost effective to salvage slates. Where deteriorated nails or flashings are the cause of the roof failure, salvage of at least some slates should be possible for use in repairs. When salvaging slates, each must be sounded to discover cracks and faults and the degree to which it has weathered. It is usually wise to salvage slates when only a portion of the roof is to be replaced. In this way, the salvaged slates may be used for future repairs to the remaining sections of the roof.