what are they?
They are waterproof wooden tiles for exterior cladding of buildings – more typically roofs, but also walls. A shingle is a shaped (profiled or dressed) shake. In other words, a shake is a raw, split piece of wood and a shingle is that same shake shaped to have a slightly different angle (slightly thicker towards the bottom), and a chamfered bottom edge to make it easier to lay on a roof. A shake is a quick, rustic product and a shingle is a more refined, crafted product.
Historically, shingles and shakes were one of the original natural roofing materials, along with thatch and stone (including slate). Fired clay roofing tiles came along and eclipsed shingles, but they are now enjoying a renaissance. Traditionally, building materials and styles were vernacular, and the underlying geology and flora of a region determined the type of buildings that people made. So roof slates were first used in Wales, thatch in flat fen and reed areas like Norfolk, stone roofs where there are easily available stone deposits like the Cotswolds, and shingles in wooded areas, especially with oak forests.
Shingles and shakes in Britain were traditionally made of oak or sweet chestnut – both of which have a natural durability due to their high tannin content. More recently, western red cedar has been used as a shingle material. It's not native to Britain, although it can and does grow here. It is also naturally durable, but will not last as long in the UK climate as oak or chestnut.
Shingles and shakes are used throughout Europe and North America, and in many other countries where splittable and durable woods are found. Traditionally they are riven (split) by hand along the grain – it's easier to split wood this way, but also it means that none of the vessels in the wood are cut through (vessels are the vertical tubes within wood that sap travels up). Often, modern roofing shingles are sawn rather than split, which means the vessels are sawn through and exposed, allowing water to enter the shingle, thus starting decay earlier.
what are the benefits?
what can I do?
You can buy shingles, or you can make them yourself. If the average roof is 30-40m², and at around 50-70 shingles per square metre, that will mean up to 2,800 shingles for the average roof. So you might want to make some and buy the rest, or get some friends round to help you make the lot. You can attend a course to learn how to make and lay them, and get some practice. Below is an outline of the process.
Then if you wish to dress or shape the shakes that you have split – i.e. to make shingles, you will need a drawknife and a shavehorse. You can make your own shavehorse – you can attend a green woodworking course to find out how (check the course titles - sometimes there are courses specifically on making a shavehorse).
fitting / laying shingles
Thanks to Adrian Leaman of Wholewoods for information.
a building at Ecclesall Woods Sawmill in Sheffield with wooden shingles on the roof and walls
splitting a log with a froe and a wooden mallet
close-up of installation