There are hundreds of different ways of finishing off the roof of a house. From slate or terracotta tiles to thatch, zinc, or even ‘green’ roofs that resemble a meadow, and a host of others, including ‘shingles’ in a wide range of materials. Each one has its appeal, as well as its pros and cons, and some are more popular than others. In the past, the major factors in deciding on a roofing material were cost and availability. And while this is still generally the case, home buyers and owners are increasingly opting for more interesting alternatives in their choice of roofing. In recent times, cedar shingles have enjoyed a surge in popularity. In this article, we’ll look into this trend and find out more about why this traditional roofing method is suddenly appealing to so many people as a viable alternative.

What are cedar shingles?

Firstly, some help with terminology: a shingle is defined as ‘a thin, flat tile made of wood, slate, etc. that is fixed in rows to make a roof or wall covering’.

Some people use the terms ‘shingle’ and ’tile’ interchangeably. but there are differences. Shingles tend to be tapered to allow a tight-fitting, weatherproof pattern.

You may also come across the word ‘shakes’, which refers to a different type of wooden shingle. Shakes are historically older than shingles and are usually hand-split from a ‘bolt’ (a specially-prepared log without knots and with a straight grain). Shingles are generally sawn into shape and trimmed to remove rough edges.

Wooden shingles have been used as a roofing material across various parts of the world for hundreds of years, without really ever disappearing completely, and cedar shingles, in particular, have proved their worth. Here are a few facts that illustrate why this is:

  • Resistant to rot – western red cedar is particularly renowned for this quality, but only when the heartwood is used. This anti-decaying property helps the material to last for many years before needing maintenance or replacement.
  • Lightweight – the material is easy to handle and install and doesn’t add as much stress to the structure as other forms of roofing.
  • Durable – being naturally durable, they can withstand all conditions and protect your home for many years.
  • Insulation – cedar shingles are prized for their insulating properties, making them ideal for those who are seeking a more sustainable home with low carbon emissions.
  • Low density – this quality means that your shingles will maintain their shape over time with minimal shrinkage.
  • They are beautiful! – there can be no denying the stunning look of a home covered with this wonderful material, as the rich warmth of a newly-fitted roof gradually settles to a smooth silver-grey.

Are they all the same?

Cedar shingles can often be found in two types: certigrade and blue label. The certigrade shingles are regarded as the standard type but are still seen as a high-quality product. They are available in a range of patterns and shapes, as well as having optional treatments (flame-retardant coating or extra wood preservative). Blue label shingles are of the highest quality, guaranteed to be cut from the heartwood, have no knots, and to be ‘edge grain’. This last aspect means that they have been cut radially from the log, providing increased resistance to shrinkage and weathering.

You will sometimes also see wooden shingles separated into other grades:

  • #1 – as shown in ‘blue label’ above
  • #2 – flatgrain, which can include a limited amount of knots or sapwood (usually above the section visible when used)
  • #3 – may include sapwood or knots, mostly reserved for the under-course on shed and outbuilding, or gazebo walls
  • Undercoursing – not for roofing! These are ‘utility-grade’ used for sidewalls

or

  • Blue label – again, the same as above
  • Black label – economy grade
  • Red label – similar to #2 above

For those with concerns about the use of timber, there are various organisations who monitor the logging and production, providing certification for sustainable sources of timber. Cedar, and western red cedar specifically, is managed and monitored well to ensure an environmentally friendly resource.

As an alternative to cedar, larch is also popular in many places (especially the UK) and shares many of its qualities. However, it is harder and less durable, so more prone to shifting.

Can I fit a shingle roof myself?

In theory, yes. Installation is regarded as a specialist job and ideally should be left to the experts, but with the right tools and some patience, you should be able to manage it.

Guide to fitting cedar shingles

  1. Shingles can be fitted on existing underlay, but make sure it is in good condition. Otherwise, install a non-breathable underlay, ensuring that there is a good overlap with no gaps and that it is secured to the ‘felt support tray’ with adhesive tape.
  2. Attach battens along the width of the roof, setting the first one 125mm from the outer edge and with a gap of 125mm between each one.
  3. Starting at the eaves, lay the first row of shingles, which should be a double-course (ie two layers) overhanging the eaves by at least 38mm. The shingles should be laid in a ‘broken bond’ pattern, with the one above being placed over the join of the two below.
  4. Attach the shingles securely using staples or stainless steel ‘ring shank’ nails. You can speed up the process with a nailgun using ShingleFix staples. If you are using nails, you’ll need to put two in each shingle. These should be set 19mm in from the edge and 38mm from the butt of the course above. As the batten will be obscured, score a chalk line across to show its position. Remember to leave a 5mm gap between each shingle.
  5. At the ridge, cut the shingles to size using a hand saw or by scoring them with a craft knife and use a double row, working from the edges to the middle. Make sure the ridge shingles are uniform in size as you’ll want it to look great. Preformed ridges and hips will make this job easier.