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Shake it up

The classic Atlantic Canadian style of shakes and shingles gets an update

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This rustic cabin is nestled on a four hectare lot in Hartsville, P.E.I. Photo: Stephen Harris

Shingles and shakes still decorate historic homes, from the majestic to the modest, around Atlantic Canada. Think about some of the homes in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley or along New Brunswick’s coastal drives. Shingles and shakes were functional but also crafted to highlight a home’s look. Today, technology has changed how they’re made, but the East-Coast look endures.

The first thing to know, is shingles and shakes aren’t the same thing. A wood shingle is sawed and planed uniformly on both sides to lock together. Wooden shakes are traditionally hand split so no two are exactly the same. That makes applying shakes like completing a large puzzle.

Shakes.

Shingles.

“If you’re a perfectionist like me, the shingle looks cleaner,” says Brad Baker, owner of Artisan Roofing in Moncton, N.B. says. “The shakes give a more rustic look.”

Brian Rose is the customer-service manager with Cape Cod Siding in Hammonds Plains, N.S., which produces wood siding in a range of styles. The company sells most of its siding to clients in Canada and Europe. It’s siding is made from western softwood grown in British Columbia and Eastern white cedar.

“Most people like the look of wood siding,” Rose says. “They like the warmth of wood.”

Today’s wood siding and shingles are treated to last longer. Cape Cod treats its siding and shingles with 100% acrylic, breathable water-based paint on all sides. That protects the siding from Atlantic Canadian weather.

Rose says one of the benefits of wood siding over composites is the range of colours to choose from. He says Cape Cod has a database of 15,000 colours, but beige and grey remain popular. “They are classic colours that never go out of style.”

This home in River John, N.S., combines decorative shingles and siding. Photo: Cape Cod Siding

Other popular colours include black or darker browns with white trim or semi-transparent colours that look more like a stain. Rose says clients can even bring in swatches of fabrics to match.

You can install shakes or shingles yourself, depending on your skill level and the size of the job. “You don’t need special tools,” Rose says. “It’s basic carpentry.” He advises clients investing a lot of money in wood siding to also invest in the professionals to install it properly.

Wood shingles and shakes no longer rule the roofing market. Ian Armour, owner at Refined Roofing in Halifax, N.S., says he shingled a pool house roof in wood last summer. He has a few wood shingles on his own home, but they’re more decorative.

“It’s expensive to get done and with the improvements in shingle technology, it’s made wood shingles less popular,” Armour says. “Other roofing materials are just better.”

Most homeowners choose architectural shingles made of asphalt that look like wood or cedar shakes. These shingles are made from asphalt and fiberglass and have a longer lifespan than wood shingles. Still, Armour says how long any shingles last depend on a few factors. Wood cedar shakes will last long on a steep roof but may rot quicker in a yard with lots of trees when leaves collect on the roof. He says asphalt shingles last longer on flatter roofs.

Armour uses four brands of asphalt shingles, each with different designs that vary from a modern look to a traditional shake style. Asphalt shingles also last longer and can have up to a 40-year warranty, Armour says.

A lot of historic homes still have wood-shingled roofs because homeowners must follow local by-laws about what materials go onto heritage homes, says Baker. He worked on the roof of Hammond House in Sackville, N.B. Artist John Hammond, who taught fine arts at Mount Allison’s Ladies’ College, commissioned the house in 1896.

Baker says shingles usually feature three types of wood: western red wood, Alaska yellow, and eastern white cedar. Eastern white cedar is mould resistant while western red works best for roofing applications.

Baker says which style you use on the roof depends on the style of the house. A steep roof will be more visible from the street, so homeowners should take that into account. Shakes work better on a cottage rather than a modern-style home.

How long it takes to install roofing depends on the materials, too. Baker says a roof with asphalt shingles might take a day to install, while a roof with cedar shakes will take two to three days. “Cedar shakes are all different sizes,” Baker says. “You have to shuffle through the box to find the right sizes.”

Paul Biso at Cedar Hill Roofing in Brackley, P.E.I., says he remembers 10 to 20 years ago when you could buy a bundle of cedar shakes for about $20–$25 a bundle. Now those same shakes cost $80–$100 a bundle.

“It’s more labour intensive to install,” Biso says. “It was already a labour intensive product, but now it’s priced itself out of the market. I don’t think you’ll see the price go down.”

Armour, Baker, and Biso all say when looking to hire a roofer to install shingles or shakes, it’s important to know who you’re hiring. Request multiple quotes, ask for references and go see homes the company worked on. Always ask for proof of insurance and avoid companies that don’t have websites.

“Don’t let your decision be an email,” Biso says. “You don’t know what you’re getting until I show up at the door.”

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