Steep Roof Shingling

Steep roofs are back in vogue for one reason — they make people feel great about their houses

Written and Photos by: Steve Maxwell

Few things add more style and visual presence to a home than a roof that’s at least 45 degrees from level. But shingling a steep roof is an entirely different proposition than working on a roof you can walk on safely without help. Once you enter the steep-roof realm, you’re into the zone where a different set of rules kick in. It’s all about maintaining safety, speed and production at slopes great enough to make your boots slide.

Low-slope roofs became popular when trusses and high-performance shingles meant that traditional steep roof designs weren’t needed for practical reasons anymore. This began back in the late 1940s, when the post-war demand for new homes put the pedal to the metal as far as homebuilding output was concerned. The faster the little boxes went up the better, and eliminating the traditional, steep-slope rafter roof frame was one of the first things on the list. But there are only so many shallow-roofed bungalows a person can take without looking at the old neighbourhoods with envy. Impractical or not, now steep roofs are being built in record numbers because people like the way they look.

There are three things you need to consider when gearing up to shingle any roof that’s too steep to walk on: personal safety, efficient work platforms, and an effective way to move tons of shingles up from the ground and out across a roof surface. All this is largely a matter of equipment, and the best steep-roof shingling jobs begin with scaffolding.

Most steep roofs have eaves that are well off the ground, and that’s one reason why it pays to erect scaffolding just under the lowest part of the roof. Establishing an elevated beachhead of this sort is a safe and efficient starting point for any steep-roof shingling campaign. It’ll take more time to erect scaffolding than tilt a ladder up into place against the wall, but the pay-off in time saved and risks reduced is well worth it.

You better be able to bet your life on the scaffolding job. There’ll be a lot of weight up there as you bring shingles up, plus the ever-present danger of someone sliding off the roof and hitting the scaffold instead of the ground. That’s why you need to take your time to install proper scaffold legs and railings. You also should consider bracing the scaffold frame to the structure, too. This precaution boosts safety, but also allows you to run a gin pole off the side of the scaffold framework to support pulleys and ropes so you can move shingle bundles up top with ease and speed.

Roof jacks are a mainstay in the steep-roof trade because they make it possible to create narrow walkways where you can work. Keep a few bundles of shingles at hand, and set your roofing nailer down without sliding. Jacks are prefabbed, triangular steel brackets that temporarily fasten to the roof sheathing. Secure a few brackets, slip a 2×8 or 2×10 into position on top of them, and then shingle right over the support strap as you work your way higher on the roof. The straps slide upwards off the nail heads when it’s time to move on to the next roof area, leaving no trace behind once the shingles flop back down.

Roof jacks are great, except for one thing. More and more steep roofs are being built these days with rafterless, panel-style construction to create insulated, all-weather living spaces in the attic. This building approach goes much faster than rafter or truss construction, and the energy performance is much better. But the absence of rafters also means that nails won’t hold roof jacks safely. For tips on solving this growing challenge, take a look at Rafterless Roof Jacks, right.

Regardless of how you anchor your jacks, there are a few tricks that will help them do a better job for you. Got some valleys to shingle? Arrange roof jacks so boards intersect in the middle of the valley, one board overlapping the other. Slip a scrap shingle in under the board ends if they threaten to damage valley shingles. Also, to protect new shingles as you move bundles up to cover higher areas of the roof, lay down some tarpaper to protect the surface from foot traffic. This is especially important where shingles are warmed and softened by sunshine.

We all know daredevil monkeys who leap around on crazy-steep roofs with nothing but an overdose of self-confidence standing between them and death. A safer option uses ropes and harnesses to prevent falls, and they’re worth considering. Certain types of harness can also speed roofing progress by supporting you while you work, even before you get roof jacks installed.

The key to the best climbing harness systems is a little piece of hardware called a shunt. It clips to your harness, allowing you to slide up the rope, but locks under spring pressure when weight is applied to the system. Shunts are so strong you can even hang from them without slippage. When you want to move down the roof, override the spring-loaded locking lever with hand pressure and the rope slides back through the shunt.

Climbing rope is usually about 1⁄2-inch thick, so it’s easy to throw and move around. But thin rope isn’t that easy to grab when you want to pull yourself up. That’s why you should consider throwing two ropes over the peak of every steep roof you work on: a thin one designed to work with your harness, and a thick one for grabbing with your hands while climbing. In building designs where two roof peaks intersect, these ropes end up resting on the gable end of the adjoining roof where they can cause damage to existing shingles. The solution is a rope cradle temporarily screwed to the edge of the roof. It holds the ropes away from the roof, keeping shingles in good shape. It takes just a few minutes to make one up using plywood and 2x scraps.

Shingling steep roofs does take longer than flat ones, and it does require more equipment. But the pay-off is worth it for a growing number of owner-builders and contractors. Master the techniques required for safety and productivity, and you’ll gain one more skill necessary to build homes and cottages that are better than ever.