Historic Roofing: An Overview

Roofing can be one of the most challenging elements of your historic house. Especially here in Florida the roof bears the brunt of the sun’s wrath. Hitting temps well over 140° in the summer and suffering through hurricane seasons one after the other can wear on even the highest quality materials. And if they were installed poorly the rest of your house is in serious danger from water damage, mold, termites and a thousand other maladies. So, when it comes to roofing we recommend using a professional to protect your big investment.

In this post we’ll talk about a few types of roofing materials that would have originally been on your historic home. If you’re looking to re-roof you should know that you have more options than simply using asphalt shingles. And depending on your house, a different type of roof might be a more fitting choice.

Wood Shingles

One of the oldest methods for covering a roof, wood shingles or “shakes” come in a wide variety of shapes, styles and materials. Typically, wood shingles are made from regional species of wood. Here in the south, cedar and cypress are common due to their excellent weather resistance. Shaping the materials by hand often resulted in unique regional styles of wood shingles as well. Today there are dozens of different designs and patterns such as fish scale, pointed, staggered, and more. If installed properly wood shingles can last about 30 years and are relatively easy to repair/replace when there is damage. On the downside, wood shingles require a different type of wood decking that allows them to dry out quickly between rains. And in a wet climate like Florida, wood shingles may have a hard time drying out enough. Wood roofs, while historically accurate at times, can also pose a fire danger in Florida which is the lightning capital of the world, so think twice and do your homework before going this route.

Clay Tile

In St. Augustine, there are clay tile roofing systems still functioning that date from the 17th century, making them one of the oldest historical roofing materials available. Many historic clay tiles roughly measure 10”x6” and are around ½”- ¾” thick but vary from region to region. There are 1-2 holes at the top so that a nail or peg can be driven into the roof. A lip or edge on the bottom of the tile hooks to the lip at the top of the last piece to cover the nail holes. Mortar is used for some joints in the roof but it is mainly a process of one course of tiles facing up and the next course facing down which gives the roof its waterproofing. Clay tiles are some of the longest lasting choices you can use for a roof. The only real enemy of clay roofs is impacts from flying objects. The tiles are fairly brittle and can easily crack when a tree limb falls or the neighbor’s kid looses track of his baseball. Clay roofs are a particularly good fit for spanish or mission style homes.

Slate

Ah, slate. Hard as a rock, literally! They’re fireproof, waterproof, natural, will last centuries, and they have a track record that goes back thousands of years and spans the globe. Slate was and is a popular roofing material because of its strength, durability and aesthetic appeal. Because slate comes in wide variety of colors like red, green, purple, blue and gray, it was a popular choice for roofing materials throughout the Victorian era as well. Slate is the Rolls-Royce of the roofing world. A slate roof is so durable that often when it needs repair it’s because the nails and other fasteners have worn out, NOT the slate itself. Often a slate re-roof consists of taking the old roof down and replacing the same old tiles with new nails and flashing. However, this durability comes at a steep price.

Metal

Copper roofing was the first metal roof and many historic structures still wear their original greening copper caps to this day. When the method of galvanization (the act coating steel or iron with zinc) was invented in 1836 in France, zinc coated roofs became extremely popular. In 1857 the first galvanized roof in America was installed on the U.S. Mint in New Orleans. These materials were less expensive than the full copper roofs and therefore much more accessible to the majority of Americans. Another variation was tin-plated iron.  An early example of a standing seam tin roof appears on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. After tin rolling mill production methods improved here in the states, tin shingle roofing began booming across the country, employing a wide variety of shapes and styles, including stamped shingles that can be found on many of Florida’s unique Victorian era homes. The metal roofs are painted to keep them rust free and often they were painted a silver color or a dull green color to simulate aged copper. If a metal roof is painted regularly they can last almost indefinitely.

Final Thoughts

In America today we switch houses on a regular basis and not many folks are concerned with a roof lasting more than 20 years. However, there are more options for your historic house that can restore some of its original character. Also having a roof that lasts for generations and doesn’t have to be peeled off and thrown in a landfill every 20 years is good for the environment. While some of these historic roof types can be quite expensive, some are very competitive with quality asphalt shingles. Combine that with having no worries about how well your roof is holding up and you have a winning combination of quality, aesthetics, and eco-friendliness.

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

15 comments

  1. Jessica Hougen on said:

    Where can you buy metal roofing? I’m in Arkansas. Thanks.

  2. Great post Scott, really enjoyed.For me, a slate roofs is far Superior than any other roofing system..

  3. Bernice Oberland on said:

    I know this blog is short and meant to be an overview, but if you are trying to inform people about caring for historic buildings, it is loaded with innacuracies. Two stand out under wood alone: 1) “shakes” are a modern term and rustic-looking product; never used historically; 2) no one gets anywhere near 30 years out of a wood shingle roof of any type these days, which is the main reason not to even consider them except for special, historic museum buildings

    • Bernice, thanks for your comment! However, I believe you are mistaken about shingles and shakes. Shakes are split by hand or machine and shingles are sawn on both sides.
      Check out this article: http://m.finehomebuilding.com/tool-guide/qa/shakes-vs-shingles.aspx

      As for wood shingles lasting 30 yrs. it can be rare depending on what part of the country you are in. But down here in Florida we have several historic buildings with wood shingle roofs that are about 24-26 years (the time our historic associations were founded and required this). Historic buildings are so incredibly different depending on each region.

      • Joe Fors on said:

        I agree with you Scott, I’ve bee in the trades since the late 80’s and am responsible for restoration of many historic homes in the western suburbs of Chicago. I owned a roofing company for many years and there is another factor you forgetting, pitch. The house I currently live in was built in 1875 with pitches arranging from 20/12 to 25.5/12. the longer a shingle stays wet is a direct factor of how long a shingle will last, obviously the steeper pitch the faster the water will shed. The style of asphalt shingle that is just above the cedar were used around 1930. Even if I’m off a few years it’s still a 40-45 year roof.

  4. Saundra Wordlaw on said:

    It is interesting to note that these old roofing types (if maintained well) can survive long periods, considering these have been crafted years and years ago. Modern roofs are also designed to stand the test of time. Practicality should always be a consideration. Never sacrifice quality over aesthetic design. It is cheaper to re-paint than to replace the entire roof, isn’t it?

    Saundra Wordlaw

  5. tess on said:

    Concerning clay tile roofs, most of the tiles on my 85 year old have been cracked by roofers who ‘know how to walk on them’.Is there such a technique? And also, when replacing a portion one roofer advised to glue tiles directly to deck, denying the need for ventilation or water runoff. Most roofers simply suggest tearing off the whole roof and starting over (!!??) for a smal leak that turned out to be from no boot being around the vent stack.

    • I wish I could help you more but we don’t do much roofing. Though I would be hesitant to have an entire tile roof replaced unless there is widespread damage. Roofing tile from your time period are meant to last almost indefinitely, save any impact damage. They are designed to have the broken tiles replaced and the whole system does not need glue. Typically they were nailed to the roof deck and only the valleys and peaks required a mortar to make them water tight. Never glue!
      I’ll give you the name of a roofer that we work with in the area who does excellent work if you email me at scott@austinhomerestorations.com but I would suggest getting 3 or 4 estimates from roofers before making any decisions. Hope that helps!

  6. Really great article- look forward to more of your blog articles. Its interesting to see the difference over the years. In your opinion which form has been the most effective?

    • I love slate roofs, but the cost is often prohibitive. My personal favorite is tin shingles. Wide variety in style, affordable, and can last as long as slate as long as they are properly maintained. Unfortunately, most people don’t take care of them.

  7. And when dealing with older homes it has been are experience to be weary of slate looking products, sometimes these are asbestos!

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