Subscriber & Member Login

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

Shingles. Actually shakes. In search of a better way.

32 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    April 2007
  • From: Boyne City, Michigan
  • 82 posts
Posted by navyman636 on Thursday, December 1, 2022 9:16 PM

From my 50-year career in historic preservation I can say from experience that while there are no end of textbook definitions of roofing shingles and shakes - which are similar in use but not the same thing - anything of any material and appearance whatsoever, laid in small pieces along nailers of many kinds, to cover a roof qualifies as a roofing shingle or, if wood, a shake.  It's wide open and has been from time immemorial.  Standardization of any kind is a recent development, so it usually doesn't apply for a historic building such as you illustrate.  So you can do whatever pleases you, or meets your need and resources, just like people have done for the past few thousand years.  The extent to which you make choices can include a range of justifications too.  My point is that you can make your roof look however you want within a very broad range of possibilities, and I guarantee there's a prototype out there, or was historically, to prove you correct.  You can even install a roof wrong and be accurate, because that happened often enough, and fixing the error could be costly and take time.

As far as nomenclature and definitions, they could easily fill a large book, all discussing and describing the exact same thing.  Therefore, literally every other person who posted a comment offering a description, name, dimention, etc., is completely correct and accurate, although nobody is exclusively so.  People will call them what their experience and preference leads them to call them, or what a marketer has convinced them to call them.  But there are common usages.  A cedar shake, in common parlance from the days of its common usage, is not sawn anywhere, but split.  Both sides are rough.  You could always, and still can order them in any thickness you please and other dimension as well, as long as you can get someone to make them that way for you, or make your own.  The fact that you're building a model railroad tells us useful information about materials availability, because with a train depot in town, you could order from far and wide.  Otherwise you were limited to what was available nearby unless you were willing and able to cover enormous costs for transport and put up with often shocking delivery delays.

What material was the handiest, to get and to use?  Did the guy want the best roof available at that time and place?  Was the roof intended to be part of the show (I'm thinking colored or other fish scale shingles laid in a design)? Was it a DIY job and did the roofers know what they were doing?  (there's a joking corollary between the quality of a roof installation and the proximity of a known tavern.)  To what extent was cost a constraint?  How old do you want it to look, which will have an effect on things like coloration, wear and stain patterns, how the exposed edges are holding up, etc.  Answer a few pertinent questions however you please, and your building has a new backstory to go with the new roof.  I love that about modeling.

As far as any wood shingle or shake curling, that is strictly a factor of the wood itself and, as another poster correctly pointed out, the way the roof itself was ventilated.  The top usually won't curl unless the roof is laid very badly, because that's where the nails, and the force of the next layer of shingles is.  The bottom end will curl, if it does at all, in a direction determined by the wood grain.  Thus it could be up or down, unless the roofer knows to look at the individual shake for its grain characterists before installing it for uniformity.  

Looking at your specific statements, I wonder if you might not have some success getting close to what you want using party store or craft store crepe paper instead of any sort of plain paper.  If you can find the crepe that's a very close pattern, using it thoughtfully can bring you VERY close to cedar shakes.  BTW, only modern shakes are ever saw-cut, fully or partly.  Sawing adds a LOT of time, work and cost to making a shake.  All the others were, for centuries, just split, often using a tool called a froe, which splits wood along its grain.  A froe for shake-making usually has a blade long enough to cover the diameter of the logs it'll be used on.  One good whack, and off pops a shake ready for use, whether the wood is dry or not.  You could even curve a froe to whatever arc you wanted, to cut curved shakes for a curved roof.  You'd just have to hope for the wood to cooperate while splitting it.  You could also shape them by soaking them good first.  Since shakes were usually irregular in width, who cared if a few broke.  If made from wood anywhere close to decent quality, they usually broke nearly straight, and unless you were buying and using expensive shakes none of them were exactly rectangular anyway.  So use the pieces too.  All such shakes or shingles have a rough, unsmoothed surface that is the primary visual characteristic of shake rooves.  The other main characteristic is their color and hue as they age in place.  Painting or other treatmant was rare and only for the wealthy and showoffs.  But with the paint available when shakes were common for roofing, you wouldn't paint anyway because the paint always ran in the rain and streaked the building.  It never lasted long enough to be worth the cost or effort.

When I used crepe paper to make shake shingles I gently stretched it along a strip of cardstock that I'd already prepared with an end-to-end thin coating of thinned paper glue, allowing the bottom edge of the crepe to overhang the backing by 1/8 inch or so, to mask the paper underneath.  Don't worry too much if you press down on the crepe paper, because even scrunched it will often continue to have a good pattern mimicing the appearance of froe-cut shingles.  Every strip will look different, just like the reveal of any shake roof.  If you mess a strip up, just make another.

If you make some laying them up along cardstock, remember that given the slightest opportunity any paper will curl.  Make sure you lay them down fixed well enough to last for the planned life of your building without the need for avoidable repair.

I painted mine quite successfully and without trouble.  If you glue it to a backer paper, let it dry completely (!!!) before painting.  Brush or spray painting - I've done both using several kinds of paint (basically whatever I had laying around at the time) - are simple, as long as you use a light touch, not soaking the paper too badly, almost like dry brushing.  It might need more than one coat to cover to your satisfaction, so there's your opportunity to use different tints and hues to replicate the ways the shakes age.  You might even throw in an occasional "brand new replacement" shake to accurately render the never-ending need to repair all such rooves.  They worked really well when properly installed, but were hard to maintain, especially back when nails were far more costly than even now, and less readily available.  (Don't forget to put a cask of nails somewhere around your shake-roofed building.  In real life they were a constant necessity)

Such shingles in the real world often had their thick end, if the wood they were cut from didn't have a completely even grain, exposed at the bottom, the thin end being used for nailing.  Because it was going to be covered by the next layer up, the top, thin end didn't need the strength or protection; the thick end is for the visible bottom.  It had to survive the wind, rain and sunlight, and was the better and common choice for that reason.

If a shake roof appears very neat, orderly and exact, that means the builder or owner spent an awful lot of time and probably money choosing which individual shakes to use where, likely rejecting quite a few in the process, or using the off-casts where they'd be less visible.  There are precious few straight lines unless the shakes purchased were cut to exact length and perfectly installed.  They'll be nailed mostly along a straight line - but not always - but the bottom ends may look raggedy.  Nothing unusual there.

Building a roof this way, on a model or at 1:1 scale is a lot of work.  But when done, you'll never stop admiring it and being glad you made the effort.  Best of luck!

  • Member since
    February 2021
  • 828 posts
Posted by crossthedog on Friday, December 2, 2022 12:45 AM

navyman, thank you for the time and effort you put into this treatise. I read the whole thing and it was very interesting and very encouraging. I did decide to use the Campbell roll -- here in the northwest there would be plenty of shingles, and if Mr. Perkins was feeling flush in those first few years, why not splurge for good shakes?

You can even install a roof wrong and be accurate, because that happened often enough,
That was what I was thinking as the first rows of shingles went on in not quite perfectly straight rows. I just said, "Sometimes it was hard to get good help even back in the mid-1950s."


Returning to model railroading after 40 years and taking unconscionable liberties with the SP&S, Northern Pacific and Great Northern roads in the '40s and '50s.

  • Member since
    April 2007
  • From: Boyne City, Michigan
  • 82 posts
Posted by navyman636 on Saturday, December 3, 2022 4:35 PM

Dear Matt - I sometimes think I should cut every other word before I post something, because I can tend to go on.  Your choice of the word 'treatise' was a kind one; others might have said otherwise :)

My problem is that I really love and am fascinated by this stuff, in the real world and on our models.  I've been tremendously lucky and have had wonderful educational opportunities of all kinds.  One of them, maybe the most important one, is that after being around and watching things for 70 years I now know better than to expect everything I do to come out perfectly, or stay that way over time. As I write I'm looking out the window at all the big cedar planting boxes I was so proud of having built two years ago.  Now they just sit there screaming, "repaint me!"So much for perfection, huh?

Fences in need of repair, a roof that has seen better days, and everyone's old friend - rust - ought to appear more often in our models, I think.  Making everything perfect is as unrealistic as it could possibly be.  Artful weathering is great, but it can't create a sagging roof.  When I look at a model railroad layout where no roof is missing a shingle, I imagine the roofers in that town must be the busiest (and wealthiest) guys in the county.  Not a single broken window in that factory??  Aw, g'wan.  Not on this planet.

And I'll admit to at least once having stopped for a maybe less-than-well--advised beer while doing the occasional roof repair around the farm here.

I've been working on my 9-stall roundhouse for over a year.  Last week I finally added a bucket of paint that someone had kicked over.  The worker is standing there getting dressed down by the shop foreman, who, of course, got splashed with the paint.  Remember all those times our teachers told us "neatness counts?"  One of them must have been married to that guy in the roundhouse.

Then we can segue to the conversation about how much we need to strategize about making at least a few things wrong, to make it look right.

Have fun, buddy.  That's the whole point.  Best wishes!


PS:  If you're building an American town in the 1950s and you haven't yet put in a homeowner standing in his front yard yelling at the kid who just swatted a softball throuh his living room window. . . you know the rest.

Subscriber & Member Login

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

Users Online

There are no community member online

Search the Community

Model Railroader Newsletter See all
Sign up for our FREE e-newsletter and get model railroad news in your inbox!