Before we head up onto the roof to discuss shingles and shakes we need to begin our story inside the house, with artificial lighting. In fact, our story begins all the way back in London, England in 1812 with the organization of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The founders had discovered a new way to produce light — by burning coal in an oxygen-poor atmosphere and creating “manufactured gas”. Thus was born the gas lighting industry.
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One of the waste products of this manufactured gas was the tar left behind from the burnt coal. The coal tar was useless and an expensive pain to haul away from the plant. Enter Samuel Warren, who spent much of his young adult years in self-study, attempting to rescue his family’s faltering foundry.
In 1846, Warren began experimenting with coal tar and discovered it made an excellent adhesive. He perfected the process for manufacturing a waterproof roofing material by applying coal tar to paper.
Warren opened a plant in Cincinnati to produce “tar paper” and the business was immediately profitable — not the least because gas companies paid him to take the coal tar off their hands.
As the composition roofing business spread, the gas companies would eventually charge for their residue and naturally occurring asphalt was substituted. By the end of the 19th century, the tar paper was coated with granulated stone and sold in large rolls as roof covering for mostly industrial buildings, garages and barns.
In 1903 Henry M. Reynolds, a contractor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, got the idea to carve those big sheets into individual shingles – which he did by hand with a knife. In 1911 the National Board of Fire Underwriters went on a kick to get rid of the most popular residential roof covering of the day — wood shingles.
Asphalt shingles quickly gained favor and by 1930 the composite shingles had displaced wood as the most commonly specified material for residential roofing in America (an American invention, asphalt shingling is still rare on roofs outside North America). Wood and asphalt are still the kingpins in shingle selection today.
Let’s examine the pros and cons of both asphalt shingles and wood/cedar shingles & shakes. But first, an explanation of composition.
The Difference Between Wood Shingles & Shakes
Source: Kuhl’s Contracting
When used in roof covering, wood can be either shakes or shingles. Wood shakes have been used for centuries. They are split from logs and often left as split to retain the textured, rough-hewn effect. A wood shake is instantly recognizable by its thick butt end. With the advent of commercial sawmills a wood shake was often sawn after splitting to achieve a uniform back side.
These sawmills also produced a completely uniform product with an even taper and identical thickness by sawing shakes on both sides. This manufactured product is known as a wood shingle.
California redwood, western red cedar, cypress, spruce and pine are all used to manufacture wood shakes and shingles. Cedar is the most popular wood for shakes, southern yellow pine is also popular. Wood shakes and shingles can be pressure treated with fire retardants and chemical preservatives.