by David Bentley and Elizabeth Churchill
Since colonial times, the wood shingle has been recognized as an
ideal material for protecting seaside homes. Originally hand-split
from durable species of wood — cedar, cypress, oak, chestnut,
and certain species of pine — these tapered shakes in random
widths were layered over spaced wood sheathing on timber frames to
provide a watertight shell against coastal storms. Shakes from 18
to 24 inches long were typically applied with an exposure of 5 to 7
inches, resulting in triple coverage at every point on the building
exterior. By design, shakes channel wind-driven rain that gets
forced through the outer joints back out, over the underlying
layers, preventing water from damaging the sheathing and structure
below. Weathered to a natural gray, these wood shakes provided a
durable, low-maintenance surface that lasted for decades.
As sawmills became widely available in the colonies, taper-sawn
shingles replaced the earlier hand-split shakes for most
applications. By the late 19th century, industrial mass production
combined with the expansion of canal and rail systems provided
widespread access to precut shingles in numerous shapes, allowing
for a variety of decorative effects.
Figure 1. A striking example of the decorative use of pattern
shingles is seen at Idlemoor — a home constructed on
Nantucket Island in 1884. Most of original sidewall material
(above) remains intact today.
A striking example of the decorative use of pattern shingles is
seen at Idlemoor — a home constructed on Nantucket Island in
1884. Built in the Stick style, this house incorporates a variety
of traditional cut-shingle patterns across its panelized exterior
(Figure 1). Wood clapboards and three different
cut shingles — applied with the butts aligned and staggered
in five different patterns — combine to create a complex
decorative expression from a simple kit of precut uniform elements.
With continued maintenance of the painted slate blue-gray finish,
most of the original sidewall material remains intact today.
Although the shingle designs used on Idlemoor are no longer
available, similar precut white cedar shingles are currently
available in several traditional patterns from Maibec's Victorian
series shingles (www.maibec.com; 800-363-1930).
Detailing the shingled house provides opportunities for the
decorative use of patterns to create variety and interest in new
construction as well. In a recent design by the authors for a new
house on Nantucket, a staggered shingle pattern covers the gable
ends over a standard, random-width pattern below (Figure
2). A chalk line set 1 1/2 inches above the course line
guides the raised-butt alignment. A variant of this pattern can be
created by aligning wide shingles along the course line, with
narrow shingles staggered by 1 to 2 inches above, resulting in a
more ordered composition.
Figure 2. In a new house built by Edward O'Brien of Nantucket
(left), the authors' design called for gable ends with a staggered
pattern over a standard random-width pattern below. The patterns
are separated by a continuous frieze of flared shingles and bed
molding that wraps the first-floor plate line (illustration,
The patterns on this house have been separated by flaring the
gable-end shingles over a continuous frieze and bed mold that wraps
the building at the first-floor plate line (Figure 2
illustration, above). On the waterside gable, a second
water table over the French doors leading to the balcony separates
the staggered-butt pattern on the upper walls from the more complex
dovetail pattern on the upper gable (Figure 3).
Similar to its use in the waterside gable at Idlemoor, this
custom-cut pattern creates a striking geometric effect, albeit one
that takes extra effort to produce, so the effect was reserved for
only the most prominent location.
Figure 3. Similar to its use in the waterside gable at
Idlemoor, this custom dovetail pattern creates a striking geometric
effect. It requires extra effort to produce, however, so the
authors limited it to the most prominent end of the
Shingle patterns were frequently incorporated into roofing as well.
The most common traditional roof patterns used a band of a simple
shape, or a periodic double shingle course, wrapped horizontally
around the woven hips and valleys of the roof. By the mid-20th
century, most original wood shingle roofs, like those at Idlemoor,
had been covered or replaced by readily available and less
expensive asphalt shingles, often resulting in a significant loss
to the building. In addition to the loss of character, asphalt
shingles fail more frequently in windy coastal regions. Wood
shingles, with a unique combination of light weight and wind
resistance, coupled with new pressure treatments that achieve a
Class C fire rating, are the more durable roofing material choice
for many new and renovated seaside homes.
In our exterior restoration of Flaggship, built in the Second
Empire style, historic photographs dating from a period shortly
after the home's construction in 1890 revealed a decorative band of
"fish scale" shingles around the lower pitch of the original
wood-shingled mansard roof and in each gable end of the 12
intersecting dormers (Figure 4). By matching the
shingle patterns from the photographs, the house was returned to
its authentic historic character using heavyweight (5/8-inch butt)
red cedar shingles that were custom-cut on a band saw. To increase
the life of the roof, Cedar Breather nylon matrix from Benjamin
Obdyke (www.benjaminobdyke.com; 800-346-7655) was applied under the
roofing to promote airflow between the shingles and the felt
weather barrier laid over the original wood sheathing.
Figure 4. To complete the exterior restoration of Flaggship,
circa 1890, the authors consulted historic photographs that
revealed a decorative band of "fish scale" shingles on the home's
mansard roof and inside the gable end of 12 dormers. The
restoration work on this roof was completed by John Rex.
Whether on the roof, or used as an exterior siding, wood shingles
continue to provide a durable and practical material for coastal
houses today. Shingle-style detailing and decorative patterning can
add character and authenticity to seaside homes. Naturally
weathered in the sea air, the shingled house rapidly attains a
patina of age in a manner unmatched by any other material,
effectively relating houses to one another and to their seaside
— David Bentley and Elizabeth Churchill, architects on
Nantucket Island, Mass., have been building seaside homes for more
than 20 years.