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
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.
Source: Kuhl’s Contracting
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.
Types of Asphalt Shingling
Asphalt or composition shingles are most commonly constructed from organic material or fiberglass. Asphalt shingles are built upon a base or mat that was originally made of absorbent cotton rags.
Later, more readily available wood pulp or paper replaced the natural fibers. Asphalt was poured onto that base, known as “felt.” In the 1970s fibrous glass was introduced, which did not rot like the organic materials. Today, 95 percent of asphalt shingles feature fiberglass felt.
Cedar Shakes/Shingles Vs. Asphalt
Materials & Installation Costs
In the roofing industry, an 18-inch wood shingle is referred to as “Perfection” and 24-inch wide shingles are known as “Royal.” A wood shake is a premium product, costing around $3.50 per square foot versus $2.50 a square foot for wood shingles.
The most expensive option for shingling a roof is wood shakes — between $6.50 to $11.00 per square foot or $650 and $1,100 per square (100 square feet), installed.
Wood shingles are slightly less pricey at $4.50 to $9.00 per square foot or $450 to $900 per square, installed.
For comparison, asphalt roofing can cost as little as $2.50 to $5.50 per square foot or $250 to $550 per square, installed.
So, why do homeowners opt for the much more expensive wood shingling? The answer is…
It is hard to beat the appearance of a natural wood roof. If you are making over a traditional older house, cedar roofing is probably the historically appropriate choice. Not that asphalt shingles are an unattractive alternative.
Asphalt shingles come in a wide variety of colors and shapes and patterned asphalt roofs can be eye-catching in their own right. Beyond looking great, wood shingling does not win many comparison battles with its asphalt-covered competition. Let’s explore some of the pros and cons up on your roof…
Pros and Cons
Life expectancy for both asphalt and wood shingles is a tricky matter. Let’s tick off all the factors that can affect the longevity of a roof covering: quality of installation, diligence of maintenance, quality of materials, age of the house, overhanging trees, climate and foot traffic.
Chemically treated wood will outlast untreated shakes and shingles and a shake will survive longer than a shingle. Both asphalt and treated wood shingles can survive up to 30 years on a roof, given ideal conditions.
Cedar shingles are resistant to insects but not large amounts of rain. Cedar shakes in a damp environment are susceptible to mold and mildew and rot. Sap from overhanging trees will encourage mildew. When rot sets in it has likely affected more than a single shake and the entire roof is a candidate for replacement.
Asphalt has its own weather issues. Algae is more likely to take hold on an asphalt roof than cedar shakes. While this will not hamper your roof’s protection abilities, it does lead to unsightly staining and premature replacement on appearance grounds, especially at resale time.
Cleaning either a asphalt or wood shingle roof with a solution of water and bleach applied professionally and gently with a powerwasher will run from $25 to $30 per square. And this is a job best left to competent professionals as a poorly handled powerwasher can wreak havoc on roof shingles.
Some building codes where fire is a danger restrict or ban the use of wood shingling altogether. Asphalt shingles have a high resistance to flames. Keep in mind that wood shakes and shingles can be pressure treated with fire retardants and chemical preservatives.
Wind and Impact Resistance
Cedar shakes and shingles are the clear winner here. Both have proven to be highly impact-resistant and have tested to withstand wind speeds of up to 245 miles per hour (which your house will never see). Asphalt shingles will, however, blow off a roof in high winds. Fallen branches are also much more likely to damage an asphalt shingle that a wooden one.
Cedar is a high maintenance material. For starters, the wood needs to breathe and the roof must be kept clear of leaves, branches and debris. Gutters must be regularly cleaned and ventilation kept open for air to flow around the shakes and shingles.
Topical treatments can be applied as water repellents and ultraviolet inhibitors that can prevent graying of a roof. If individual shakes or shingles are required they will match the composition and color of the original roof – score one point for cedar.
While algae will not impair the performance of asphalt shingles, mosses that grow on a damp roof can cause the edges to lift or curl leaving them vulnerable to a blow-off in storms. Moss can be removed with a 50:50 mix of laundry-strength liquid chlorine bleach and water soaked with a low-pressure sprayer.
The moss will eventually loosen and can be swept off the roof. It will return, however, if many of the same measures as keeping a wood roof dry – trimming tree branches, removing debris and clearing gutters — are not followed. Replacing individual shingles is often a DIY job.
ROI, Property Valuations, and Curb Appeal Considerations
In terms of property valuations, replacing a cedar roof with asphalt will instantly diminish the value of your property. — On some historic homes, as well as homes surrounded by other homes roofed with cedar, such as in historic districts/neighborhoods, this may not even be an option to begin with.
However, if you must replace a cedar roof with something else, then opting for a metal roof rather than asphalt will help preserve the valuation and curb appeal of your property.
On the cost and maintenance considerations – the “Big Two” for most homeowners – asphalt shingles are the clear choice over wood shakes. And in fact, about 70 percent of American roofs are covered with asphalt shingles today. On the other hand, those wood shingled-roofs just look so darn good, don’t they? 😉
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