One way to give shingling projects a unique look is to use
repeating geometric designs, a basic technique I described in
an earlier JLC article (see "Decorative Shingling,"
But it's also possible to build complex patterns and free-form
scenes with cedar shingles. In this article, I'll demonstrate
how to build a meandering vine with leaves. The trick is to
build out the design with multiple layers of shingles, and to
use tapered shingles — or "ramps" — to ease the
transition between layers.
Sketching Out the Design
Though simple to install, a vine-and-leaf design offers plenty
of room for creativity. You can lay up a single vine or let it
branch in several directions; the design can "grow" up the
entire wall or just partway.
Vines are installed as the field shingles are being installed
— one course at a time. I start by sketching out a route
for the vine on the housewrap. Even though part of this sketch
is covered as each course of shingles is applied, it's easy to
retrace the route by eye as the courses go up.
Vines — which are simply slots cut into the exposed part
of shingles — can start anywhere on the wall, and
terminate either by dying into a soffit or by narrowing over
two or three courses and then curling to an end, just like a
Personally, I think the shadow lines alone create plenty of
contrast, but to highlight the design, some clients like to
paint or stain the vine brown and the leaves green.
To form leaves, I trace the outlines of precut patterns onto
shingles (see Figure 1), then cut out the design with a jigsaw.
While not every shingle course needs to have a leaf, I do cut a
vine into each course to continue the design.
Figure 1. To simplify layout, the author
prepares a series of leaf patterns. He draws them freehand on
heavy paper or cardboard and cuts them out to use as
Growing the Vine
As each shingle course approaches the vine I've drawn on the
building paper, I stop applying field shingles. Instead, I
center a precut undercourse shingle that's at least 5 inches
wide on the vine route and fasten it in place (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The author installs undercourse
shingles at potentially leak-prone spots, then fastens sideways
shingle ramps on either side of the undercourse to help
transition the overlaying shingles up and over the
This shingle will back up the vine and provide water
Undercourse shingles. Because they
need to cover only the top lap (upper two-thirds) of a full
shingle, I make undercourse shingles by cutting off the
exposure portion (typically 5 inches for white cedar) and
keeping only the top portion of the shingle.
While this undercourse step isn't strictly necessary (joints
between shingles expose the top lap beneath anyway), the vine
slots sometimes extend diagonally across the shingle exposure,
which tends to channel more water back toward the building than
ordinary vertical joints between adjacent shingles do.
In some cases, I apply more than one undercourse shingle,
because a wide undercourse is less likely than a narrow one to
appear as a bump in the wall. I make the bump less noticeable
by mixing up narrow (5-inch), medium (12-inch), and wide
(18-inch) undercourses from course to course. Then I chalk in
the vine route over the top of the undercourse shingle to serve
as a guide for the next course.
Ramp shingles. I use ramp shingles
whenever I need to blend overlaying shingles back down to the
level of the field shingles.
I rely on two types of ramp shingles: sideways shingle ramps
and planed ramps.
To make sideways shingle ramps, I simply rip a full shingle
lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips. Although I typically do
this on a table saw, it can also be done easily with a utility
To make a planed ramp, I use a block plane to bevel the face of
the shingle so that one outside edge is about 1/16 inch thick
Figure 3. Another way to ease the
transition from one level to another when installing decorative
shingle patterns is to taper the edge of the shingle with a
For more complex designs, I often use combination ramps,
especially when ramping a layer over a full-thickness shingle
undercourse. Rather than planing a 3/8-inch shingle butt to a
featheredge, it's easier to plane it to just 1/4 inch to 3/16
inch and then apply a sideways ramp to the bottom edge.
To make undercourse and ramp shingles, I always save shingle
cutoffs from previous sidewalling jobs.
After installing the ramped undercourse, I select a field
shingle to cut the vine slot through, mark (in chalk or faintly
in pencil) a square line across the "vine" shingle at the next
exposure above, and sketch the route of the vine in chalk
Figure 4. After marking the route for the
vine (top), the author uses a jigsaw to cut the vine slot to a
point just beyond the exposure line (middle). Extra fasteners
at the vine slot help prevent the shingle from splitting
Next, with a jigsaw or coping saw, I cut out the vine slot,
making parallel cuts to establish the width of the vine up to a
point 1/4 inch above the exposure line. While I do this, I'm
careful to brace the shingle well to avoid splitting it. Before
fastening the "vine" shingle to the wall, I sand and prime (or
stain) the cutout slot as necessary, then add an extra fastener
on either side of the slot.
Forming the Leaf
When it's time to cut in a leaf, I follow the same sequence as
above, but instead of applying an undercourse shingle over the
area of the vine, I use a full shingle. Since this shingle will
form the bottom of the leaf, it is sometimes stained or painted
a contrasting color.
After aligning the leaf undercourse shingle with the butt of
the shingle course below, I mark — faintly, in pencil
— a square line across the shingle at the next exposure
Then, holding or tack-nailing the shingle in place, I position
one of my cardboard leaf templates over the exposure line and
the vine line and sketch around the bottom of the leaf pattern
just up to the square exposure line on either side (Figure
Figure 5.The author traces a
leaf pattern onto a full-sized undercourse shingle (top), then
cuts out the exposed portion of the leaf with a jigsaw
(middle). After fastening the leaf shingle in place, he fastens
sideways shingle ramps on either side (bottom).
Leaves can be oriented in any position: mostly below the butt
line of the shingle course, mostly above it, or anywhere in
between. They can also be oriented to the left or right of the
vine, or directly over it. On my designs, I like the position
of each leaf to vary as the vine rises up the wall.
Next, I cut out the shingle around the leaf and below the
exposure line, sand around the edge of the leaf, and prime or
stain the edges as needed.
Once I've repositioned and fastened this leaf undercourse
shingle to the wall, I install as many additional undercourse
shingles on either side as desired, then apply ramp shingles to
the sides of the undercourse shingles.
To finish the pattern, I fill in the next course of field
shingles, taking care to select another wide shingle to
completely cover the vine sketch.
I hold or tack-nail this shingle in place and, faintly in
pencil, mark a square line across the shingle at the next
exposure. Then I overlay onto the shingle the same leaf
template I used on the leaf undercourse below, and sketch
around the top of the leaf pattern with a pencil (Figure
Figure 6. To complete the design, the author traces
the leaf pattern onto an overlaying shingle and sketches in the
route of the vine (top), then cuts out the top of the leaf and
the vine slot (middle) before installing this shingle and the
remaining field shingles (bottom).
I also draw in the route of the vine from the leaf, across the
exposure area of the shingle, up to the next course exposure
line, and 1/4 inch beyond it.
After cutting out the top of the leaf and the vine slot, I sand
the cuts, prime or stain as necessary, and fasten the
leaf-and-vine shingle to the wall.
It takes me about 15 minutes to cut in each vine and leaf
crossing a course. For a single vine with leaves on every other
shingle course, I typically charge $100 per linear foot —
a relatively low price for such a high-
Mike Guertin is a builder and remodeler in East
Greenwich, R.I., and a member of the JLC Live construction