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What are Wooden Shakes?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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Shakes are wooden shingles which are split, rather than cut, creating a distinctive feel which many people think of as rustic. Wooden shakes have been used in roofing and siding for centuries, and they continue to be widely produced for new homes and to replace damaged or lost shakes on older structures. Many hardware stores carry shakes, and they can also be made by hand, if you have the tools and experience; many woodworkers, for example, make wooden shakes as practice projects.

A wide variety of woods can be used to make shakes, depending on the region in which they are made. As a general rule, they are made from woods which are naturally resistant to infestation with insects, such as redwood and cedar, and they are also made from reasonably hard woods which will withstand years of use. Depending on the type of wood, shakes range in color when freshly made from a tawny gold to a rich, dark red.

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Shakes are classically made by bucking a log into segments, splitting these segments into flat pieces of wood, and then splitting these flat pieces into evenly sized shingles. While this process may not sound very difficult, it is in fact quite challenging to produce shakes which are even. The worker has to pay attention to the grain of the wood, and the flats and shakes must be carefully split to ensure that the resulting shingles are of uniform size; some people like to cheat and use a saw, in which case they are producing shingles, not shakes.

Shakes are typically attached from the bottom of a roof or wall up, with each succeeding layer being overlaid on the lower layer. In addition to making the finished product more watertight, this technique also conceals the nails or staples used to attach the shakes. As the fresh wooden shakes age, they will weather into a grayish color, and many darken, as well. It is also not uncommon to lose wooden shakes as a structure ages, because the nail hole typically creates a small split which may become deeper, allowing the shake to slip off the house.

Wooden shakes can be found in many parts of Northern Europe and in other regions of the world where trees are reasonably abundant. They have been supplanted in other regions by composite shingles and other roofing materials which are not as labor intensive as traditional shakes, but they can still be seen in specific schools of home design in some areas. Shakes often appear, for example, on traditional Cape Cod style homes in the United States, and on rural cottages in Scandinavia.

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