Arguably no roofing material brings out more emotions than wood.
Despite the unmistakable, timeless, rustic allure of this tried and true roofing element, most casual observers cannot point out the differences between shingles and shakes – the two primary types of wood roofing.
Whether you seek to ensure your upcoming wood roof renovation matches the distinct personality of your home, want to brush up on your carpentry knowledge, or you simply must know whether shingles or shakes are better, this article has you covered.
On this page:
- Wooden shingles vs. shakes
- Shingles or shakes?
- Things to consider
What’s the difference between wooden shingles and wooden shakes?
Right off the bat, wooden shingles and wooden shakes look different and therefore suit different homes better.
Wooden shingles boast clean lines and have a relatively flat profile. Image source: Custom Shingles
Wooden shingles are precisely sawn on both sides to foster smooth surfaces and consistent dimensions. They have a flat profile that creates a more uniform pattern across a roof, not unlike asphalt shingles. Although they are a staple of older, traditional homes, wooden shingles can also enhance the appearance of more contemporary architecture.
Wooden shakes are manufactured in two different ways, both of which produce a rougher look than shingles.
Notice the pronounced shadow lines of these taper sawn wooden shakes. Image source: Best West Roofing
Like shingles, wooden shakes can also be sawn on both sides to give them uniform, easy-to-work-with dimensions. Unlike shingles, however, the naturally rough grain remains, which creates shadow lines and retains the textured quality of wood. Manufacturers call this type of wooden shake "taper sawn".
Handsplit and resawn shakes have irregular surfaces. Image source: Inspirational Village
Hand split and resawn, the other method of manufacturing shakes, involves sawing only the backside and leaving the outward-facing wood split along the grain. This type of shake preserves the inherently ridged surface of the grain, cultivating even deeper shadow lines and an authentic, rugged appearance.
No two shakes look exactly alike, which gives a roof a charmingly unprocessed appearance. When paired with natural scenery or a cabin-style home, the beauty of wooden shakes is tough to beat.
Cedar shingle installation. Image source: Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau
Wooden shingles are easier to install than wooden shake shingles. They are flat on both sides, which means they sit flush on the roofing surface and neatly accommodate overlapping shingles for an effective seal.
Wooden shakes require felt interlayment between each row of shakes. Image source: Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau
Wooden shakes, on the other hand, have thicker butt ends and do not cleanly sit next to and on top of each other because of their uneven surfaces. This leaves gaps between and under shakes where wind-driven precipitation and debris can infiltrate. To combat this, installers need to space layers of felt between each row of shakes to block water and debris – making installation more complicated.
The performance, as in the insulation, protection, and longevity of a wood roof, boils down to a variety of factors such as the species of tree, the quality of the wood, and regional climate.
In comparing shingles and shakes, we can only focus on what separates them in every case by definition – thickness.
Wooden shingles are thinner and therefore less insulative and durable than wooden shakes. When properly maintained, cedar shingles can last beyond 30 years, while cedar shakes can last anywhere from 40 to 50 years.
Apart from the breadth of the materials, the quality of installation makes or breaks the capabilities of a roof. Wooden shakes pose a tougher challenge for installers because they require felt interlayment between rows. Exposed felt will pick up water after rain and prevent shakes from drying, while too little will not protect your roof from infiltration, so correct installation requires expertise and precision.
As there are more opportunities for installation to go wrong with a wooden shake roof, the competence of the installer plays a larger role in performance over shingles.
For wood, the species, quality of cut, and treatments will influence pricing regardless of whether you pick shingles or shakes.
Cedar wooden shingles cost between $5.83 and $9.76 per square foot to install. For an average 1,700 square foot roof, a full cedar shingle roof will run you anywhere from $9,911 to $16,592.
At $6.07 to $10.31 per square foot to install, cedar wooden shakes cost more than shingles. A cedar shake roof will therefore cost anywhere from $10,319 to $17,527 on an average 1,700 square foot roof. The higher price of shakes largely stems from the more involved manufacturing and installation processes.
Typical cost factors for roof replacements include who you choose to install and the complexity and pitch of your roof. A steep-sloped multi-story home with penetrations like chimneys and skylights will warrant a more expensive bill than a basic one-story home.
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Should I go with wooden shingles or wooden shakes?
Now that we know wooden shingles are smoother, easier to install, and more affordable than their rougher and tougher shake counterparts, let’s figure out which option better suits your roof.
First, follow your budget. If you need to keep costs to a bare minimum on your wood roofing project, choose shingles. They will generally set you back less than wooden shakes.
As there are stronger and longer-lasting roofing materials out there, we will go out on a limb and say the difference in durability between wooden shingles and shakes carries little importance in the grand scheme.
If shakes still lie on the table after assessing how much you want to spend, consult your home’s architectural design and the surrounding environment to make sure you pick the correct style.
Architects and home designers typically say wooden shingles and wooden shakes both complement traditionally styled homes like Cap Cod, Tudor, and cottages while the rustic aura shakes work particularly well for homes immersed in nature. For those earnestly committed to tradition, page six of this paper from the National Park Service takes an exhaustive dive into how to pick a shingle or shake that stays true to architectural heritage.
Cape Cod-style home with cedar shingle roofing. Image source: Hadar Guibara
Design conventions aside, remember that most residential roofs in the United States consist of one-dimensional asphalt shingles. The coarse look and natural beauty of wooden shakes will undoubtedly make your home stand out.
Cedar shakes on a cabin-style home. Image source: Architectural Designs
While wooden shingles also deliver a welcome sensation of individuality, their flat profile sends a less aggressively different message than shakes that arguably suits a broader range of tastes. Combine this with their greater affordability, and shingles strike a superior balance of style and economy.
For these reasons, we recommend a wood shingle roof.
Of course, your personal preference trumps our opinion. At the end of the day, you will end up with a stylish, energy-efficient, and sustainable roofing system whether you go wooden shingle or wooden shake.
Other factors to consider when choosing a wooden roof
Once you arrive at your decision to go shingle or shake, you should take the following into account before you get the ball rolling on your wood roofing project.
Different tree species translate to different colors, textures, qualities, and costs.
A home with Western Red Cedar shake roofing. Image source: Direct Cedar Supplies
For instance, Western Red Cedar is among the most abundant trees and splits easily, making it one of the most affordable options to use for wooden roofing.
In Northwest U.S. regions, locally sourced Redwood can prove a worthwhile option for its superior strength over cedar roofing materials.
An Eastern White Cedar shake roof. Image source: Dow’s Eastern White Cedar Shingles & Shakes
If you’re not fond of how the salmon-brownish hues of Western Red Cedar or Redwood contrast with your home, perhaps the pale yellow of Eastern White Cedar, which weathers to a gray with age, will better suit your tastes.
Wallaba shakes on a cottage-style home. Image source: Sandura Tropical Shingles
Beyond common options like cedar, some manufacturers specialize in rugged, long-lasting, and significantly more expensive hardwoods like Wallaba.
Grain refers to the part of the log from which the manufacturer cut the shake or shingle. The type of woodcut plays a vital role in how well the shakes and shingles resist splitting and distortion.
There are three types of grains:
- Edge grain: cut perpendicular to the tree rings, the most stable
- Flat grain: cut parallel to the tree rings, less stable than edge grain
- Slash grain: cut an angle greater than 45 degrees perpendicular to the tree ring, the least stable
You can expect to pay more for higher quality cuts, with edge grain costing the most.
To indicate the grain and overall quality of cedar products, the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau provides stringent grades for bundles of shakes and shingles. A bundle of Number 1 Grade, Blue Label shingles, for instance, will consist entirely of crème de la crème edge grain heartwood.
Wood shingle and shake manufacturers offer treatments to improve product durability under certain conditions.
CCA treatment, one such popular treatment for cedar products, infuses the wood with a preservative that deters fungal decay and termites – common threats to wooden building materials. This treatment is particularly effective for preserving wooden roofs in wet and shady climates susceptible to fungal growth.
To reduce the natural flammability of wood products, cedar product manufacturers provide shakes and shingles impregnated with fire-retardant polymers. Fire-retardant treated wood alone can deliver up to a Class B fire rating. Class A, the highest rating available, requires a fire-retardant underlayment in combination with Class B rated product.
Keep in mind that wood can only receive one treatment or the other.
Map of San Diego County showing very high fire hazard severity zones in red, where Class A rated roofing is required. Image source: ReadySanDiego
In regions prone to wildfires like California’s very high fire hazard severity zones, you may need Class A fire rated wooden shingles and shakes to comply with building codes.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, bans wood roofing altogether without approval as even Class A rated wood poses a fire risk.
In turn, you should check with your jurisdiction’s regulations before choosing wood shakes or shingles.
Moss growth on a wooden shake roof in a shaded area. Image source: Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks
Apart from flames, one of the greatest threats to a wooden roof is moisture – a breeding ground for moss, mold, and mildew. Not only will these unsightly growths tarnish the appearance of your roof, but they rot the wood. Moisture cycles also cause wood to repeatedly shrink and expand, which stresses shingles and shakes to the point of warping and splitting, further reducing the span of their useful life.
If you live in an especially wet or humid climate, keep in mind wooden roofing may not last as long as its prescribed lifespan.
In regions that see wind-driven snow and seismic activity, the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau recommends solid sheathing underneath shingles and shakes, which may warrant greater costs.
Mold growing on wooden shakes. Image source: A.B. Edward Enterprises
Like any roofing product, wood shingles and shakes require routine maintenance to look and perform well.
Moisture tends to accumulate in the cool shady areas of a roof. In turn, you should cut trees and overhanging branches to allow the sun to evenly dry your roof, which prevents warping. Removing trees will also keep water-soaking debris from building up on your roof and preventing it from drying.
Apart from keeping your roof dry, you will also want to make sure your shakes or shingles show no signs of cracking – avenues for water to penetrate your roof. Cracks can show after severe impacts and after repeated expansion and contraction of the wood shingles or shakes in close quarters.
You can have damaged shakes and shingles replaced as needed. Of course, high-quality wood and correct spacing during installation from a professional roofing contractor will help prevent the need to replace individual shingles and shakes.
To maintain the natural color of your wooden shingles and shakes, you will want it cleaned every few years. Many roofers also offer to apply surface treatments, which can help repel water, resist deterioration from ultraviolet light, and control organic growth. Surface treatments only last a few years, so you will need them reapplied if you want long-term protection.
Even if your locality permits wood roofing and you are eager and willing to perform necessary care for your shakes or shingles, your insurance company might raise your premiums, limit coverage, or exclude coverage of wooden roofs because of fire risk and maintenance needs.
Consult with your insurance agent, broker, or company to understand how and whether your coverage and rates may change after installing a wooden roof.
Final thoughts on wooden shingles and shakes
Whether you pick shingles or shakes, a wooden roof elicits an unparalleled charm that can take the curb appeal of your home to new heights.
However, as with any big-ticket renovation, we think you should consider the limitations of wood as a layer of protection for your homes and weigh your options.
For many homeowners, the beauty of wood alone compensates for the drawbacks. If this attitude resonates with you, make sure to team up with a trusted installer so you can enjoy the enchanting allure of your wood roof for as long as possible.