Past houses all about shingles and shakes

The Associated Press
Friday September 15, 2000

From the saltboxes that dot the northeastern shoreline to California’s ornate Victorians, wood shakes and shingles are part of America’s past. Whether the traditional square butt or the multipatterned fancy-cut variety, it’s hard to beat the beauty of this natural, textured siding. 

Historically, shakes and shingles were made from many types of wood, including cedar, redwood, oak, cypress, pine spruce and fir. Although they are still made from a variety of species – particularly on some of the more sophisticated architectural restoration jobs – cedar is the most common wood used for today’s shakes and shingles. 

Shingles are machine-sawn into smooth, tapered boards that range in size from about 3 or 4 inches wide to more than 16 inches wide. Shakes, on the other hand, are hand-split with a steel-bladed froe, then sawn in half. This gives them their rough surface and flat, smooth back. 

The traditional way to install shakes and shingles is called single coursing. Each piece of siding is attached so that it covers about half of the one below it.  

Only two nails are used to secure each shake or shingle and are spaced so that the following course covers them. This is the common way homes were shingled on the East Coast. 

Siding with double courses is the way to achieve deeper shadow lines and wide weather exposures, from 12 inches to 16 inches, depending on the shingle size you use. It can also be more economical, since a lesser-grade product is used for the undercoursing that is fastened with one nail at the top of each shake or shingle. 

There are two ways to do this. The more common way is to apply the exposed course one-half inch lower than the under course using two nails placed about 2 inches above the bottom edge and three-quarters of an inch from each edge. In this type of installation, the nails will be visible, which most people consider to be unacceptable. If you are trying to match coursing that’s been applied this way, then by all means, use the surface nailing. But, generally speaking, it’s a better idea to always plan your work so the subsequent course will cover up the nails.The other way to apply double coursing was common on the West Coast in the early 1900s, and is a way to achieve even deeper shadow lines. You start out with the basic double course at the bottom of the wall (as you would with any job), then lay a single row of shingles 4 inches above this. Lay another row only 1 inch above the butt line. Skip 4 inches and repeat. Nails are placed about three-quarters of an inch from the outside edges and are covered by each ensuing row. 

Nails that are aluminum, double-dipped galvanized or stainless steel (the most expensive choice) work well on cedar. Don’t be tempted to use plain steel nails. The natural reaction of iron oxide with the cedar and water will create ugly dark stains on the siding. When nailing shakes or shingles, don’t push the head too far into the wood. It may crack. Rather, the heads should be just flush with the siding surface.