Selecting Roofing Materials for Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Selecting Roofing Materials for Your Historic House

Selecting Roofing Materials for Your Historic House | Wisconsin Historical Society

Unless your historic house has ceramic tile, slate or metal roofing, you might not know what type of original shingles were installed on your house. Most houses built in Wisconsin before 1920 had wood-shingled roofs that were either removed long ago or covered over several times with substitute materials. The most common shingle wood was white cedar logged in Wisconsin. After 1915, asphalt roof shingles were readily available in many shapes and sizes. Fires from coal furnaces, wood-burning furnaces and stoves caused a lot of wood-shingle roof fires. Fire marshals were delighted with the more fire-resistant asphalt shingles.

If your house does have clay tile, slate or metal roofing, you should consider keeping it. These roofing materials last so much longer than substitute materials that they are among the most sustainable of all roofing materials. Repairing these true architectural shingles and their flashings will likely be cheaper than replacing them with standard asphalt shingles. Removing these classic shingles may also lower the value of your historic house.  

Identify Your Original Shingles

When you are choosing a new shingle type for your historic house, you should avoid creating a look that your house never had. If you know the type of your original shingles, consider going back to that type. Clay tile, slate, cedar shingles and metal are readily available today. Several companies make substitute clay tiles from concrete that look similar to clay tile.

If you do not know the type of your original shingles, try to find documentation from original blueprints, photographs or specifications for your house. Photographs provide the most accurate evidence, because the roof specifications in blueprints and specifications may not have been followed when your roof was installed. The original recommendation from the architect or builder may have been ignored for economic reasons, or the original homeowners may have changed their minds.

Another way to tell the type of your original shingles is to look in your attic. All roof rafters were covered with some type of sheathing. Historic houses with wooden roofs had a sheathing of wood shingles laid over skipped decking. These 1- x 4-inch, 1- x 6-inch or 1- x 8-inch boards were laid across the rafters and parallel with the eave. A gap of 1 to 3 inches was maintained between each board. These gaps allowed air in the attic to dry the shingles from the inside as well as the outside. Often you can see the original wood shingles in these gaps. Even if you can't see shingles in the gaps, you can assume your original roof was wood shingles if you see skipped decking. 

If your house was built after 1915 and the original sheathing is 1- x 4-inch, 1- x 6-inch or 1- x 8-inch boards that are edge-butted, edge-lapped or tongue and grooved together with no gap, your original roof may have had a solid shingle like clay tile, slate or even asphalt. Look around your attic where the roof meets the sidewalls. Often you can find pieces of the original shingles in these areas.

Choose a Simple Shingle Style

If you are unable to identify your original shingle type, choose a simple shingle style. You should not try to make your new roof an architectural feature of your historic house. The least intrusive style is a standard three-tab asphalt shingle. Choose asphalt shingles that are an unobtrusive color like dark grey, black, dark brown or a dark reddish brown. Avoid using reds, greens and blues unless you have proof your house had them originally.

Be careful if you choose an architectural-grade, laminated type of shingle. These styles often have strong contrast colors, texture and heavy fake shadow lines with a strong diagonal pattern that your roof never had.

Choose a Substitute Roofing Material

Roofs are one of the few places a substitute material can be appropriate on a historic house. Substitute roofing materials can be designed to look like historic roofing materials, or they can be completely different from any historic roofing materials. The word “substitute” implies that these shingles are not as good as the original, and in most cases this is true. However, as long as you do not create a false sense of a roof that never existed on your house, substitute shingles will do the one thing any shingle is supposed to do — shed water.

The least expensive and obtrusive replacement shingle for a historic house is a dark, three-tab shingle. Each shingle has three slots that create the appearance of three smaller shingles about the width of a cedar shingle. Avoid using fiberglass three-tab shingles. These shingles tend to buckle or delaminate in Wisconsin’s extreme climate. For a standard three-tab shingle, fiberglass is generally not as heavy as asphalt either.