Backroads: Riving Wooden Shingles

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Hershel Bridge on the draw horse. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Last month’s article was about firewood, so while on the same subject I decided to write about riving wooden shingles which, in earlier times, were used to roof houses, barns and outbuildings.

Before the onset of metal roofing and the myriad colorful asphalt shingles used on today’s homes, there were wooden ones. The majority of mountain people either knew how to rive shingles themselves or knew of someone in the area who was competent in the craft.

The old log cabin in Chicken Holler where my husband was born had a wooden roof and he remembers being able to see the stars at night through the cracks between the shingles. Many times, he woke in the morning to find a fine layer of snow on his bed quilt where it had blown in under the roofline. Amazingly, the roof never leaked when it rained, possibly because the moisture swelled the wood, making a tight fit that water didn’t penetrate. 

“Turkey feather” shingle overlap. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

The materials for making the shingles were usually a stone’s throw away from the roof they were nailed to. Chestnut wood was the top choice for shingles, or “shakes” as they were sometimes called. After the demise of the chestnut trees, white or red oak was used. 

Although I heard many of my older neighbors speak of riving shingles, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Hershel Bridge actually demonstrated how the craft was done. Hershel had made a crude draw horse (or shaving horse) on which to work. The draw horse is a wooden device that holds the shingles steady while a drawknife smooths them. He used a tool called a froe to slice a four-to-five-inch-wide piece of wood from a chestnut block that had been quartered. Hershel said he had been saving the chestnut block for a long time and was waiting for the opportunity to show the ease in which it could be split.

After a pile of shingles were cut, they were taken to the draw horse, where they were clamped down by a wooden vise and then shaved smooth by pulling a drawknife across them. The shingle maker sat on the horse while the shaving process was going on or sat on a round of wood directly behind it.

Overlapping horizontal shingles along a roof line. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

The finished shingles measured eighteen inches long and four to five inches wide, and a half-inch thick. Around 1900, shingles sold for five dollars a thousand. “Leftovers” such as shavings and odd pieces were used for kindling for cook stoves and fire-starting material.

When the shingles were ready to be put on, starting at the bottom, an inch or more was allowed to hang over the roof to allow rain and snow to run off. They were spaced a quarter inch apart to allow for expansion and contraction. The shingles were then nailed onto sheeting boards that went horizontally across the rafters. With each successive row the joints were staggered so the cracks wouldn’t fall over the one below it. This prevents water from seeping through the joints and penetrating the roof. The shingles were overlapped as each row was laid out up to the top of the roof. There were different ways of finishing the ridgeline once the last row of shingles was nailed on.

Wooden shingles are still used on newly constructed homes, but they are now manufactured in plants that use the wood from red cedar. Although they tout that cedar shakes repel insects, they require more maintenance and don’t last as long as the chestnut or oak varieties. Hershel said that shingles rived from chestnut wood could last up to seventy years or more.

It is now a rare instance when an old building with a wooden shingle roof can be seen. But aesthetically, they are rustically beautiful to behold and extremely functional if one is willing to put the time into riving their own shingles. 

Deteriorating shingles on an old cabin. Photo: Jack Jeffers, 1968.

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