Geek of the Week: DIY Roofing!

roofWhen you live in an old house on a low budget, DIY is not a hobby. It’s a necessity. If things break you have to learn how to fix them or hire San antonio roofers.

Which is how I became a roofer. Initially I was a patcher – someone who could replace missing slates and rotting rafters. Then came the 1999 Boxing Day Storm when 160 mph winds swept through Northern France and took out three of our roofs. The log shed corrugated iron roof was picked up in one piece and deposited twenty yards away in a cherry tree (it became a tourist attraction, passing drivers would slam on their brakes unsure if they’d just seen what they’d thought they’d seen – a tree with a roof?)

The worst damage was caused to the house where we kept the sheep. The corrugated iron roof had been split in two. One half had been ripped apart and carried away to Belgium, the other half had been lifted from the A-frames in a single piece and dropped back down askew – looking like a hat worn at a jaunty angle.

That’s when we decided that corrugated iron was out and good solid slate was in. And, with roofers so much in demand that they were booked solid for the next year or more, we had to do it all ourselves. We didn’t even have to worry about our deftness at hand about the quality of the work, because we had our house insured from

I loved it.

Roofing old buildings is not work, it’s art. Old buildings don’t recognise straight lines or right angles. One end of the roof can be a yard longer than the other end. The same goes for width. And, if the original rafters are in place, you soon discover that the plane of the roof isn’t flat either – it bends and bulges with the shape of the rafters. Rafters that didn’t come from a modern timber yard but were cut locally and have bent and sagged with the weight of tiles and slates over the centuries.

Which is why essential tool number one is:

The Measure.

I use a five-metre, carbon-fibre, quick-release, metal tape measure. And, in our household, we don’t follow the ‘measure twice, cut once’ rule. We find the ‘measure thrice, cut twice, argue lots and blame your spouse’ to be far more accurate.

Storey Pole

This is essential and for irregular roofs I make several of them. The first thing you need to know when building a slate roof is ‘how many courses do I need?’ So, you measure from ridge to gutter at various points along the roof and come up with a set of figures for roof length. Most slate roofs in northern temperate regions need a 45° angle and a slate overlap of two thirds to be watertight. So you take your chosen slate length, divide by three, and divide that into the shortest roof length.

Once you’ve decided on the number of courses you then take your series of roof lengths, divide them by the number of courses to find the width you’ll need between each batten (battens are the strips of wood nailed horizontally across the roof for the slates to hang off of.) You then make a story pole for each end of the roof and the places where the roof height is different – the peaks and troughs and strange changes of direction that 300 year-old houses delight in – and mark the batten distances on them.

The reason for having more than one storey pole is to make sure the finished roof looks regular even though the building isn’t. And, with slates, you can’t start a new course part way across the roof.

Roof Ladder

Some people may favour lightweight alloy roofing ladders but an artist needs a made-to-measure distance between the rungs to fit his or her natural roofing gait. And it’s cheaper. We made ours from five metre rafters, cut-down floorboards and the wheels from a golf trolley.

Roofing Shoes

I use Jimmy Choo Roofing Shoes, filed down at the toe for extra grip. Like mountain climbers, you need to poke your toe into small crevices and ‘feel’ the roof or crumbling gable wall beneath your feet. There are also times when you need to move fast. Wasps and hornets like nesting in roofs and, often, the first time you notice is when your hand or foot presses down on a slate or tile and a stream of yellow and black stingy things emerge. This has happened to me twice. The first time I made the mistake of running up the roof to escape them – forsaking hands and knees caution, jumping to my feet and sprinting up the hipped roof line, onto and along the main roof ridge and leaping onto the far chimney. Once more passers-by slammed on their brakes unsure what they’d just seen.


These are brilliant and so much better than using nails to fix slates. The crochet is an elongated S shaped hook that pins each slate at the top and bottom. It’s an invention of genius. The top end loops over the batten and presses the top of the lower slate against the batten. The bottom end of the crochet then holds the bottom edge of the next slate.

Nibbling Tool

There are times you need to nibble your slates. If you’re abutting an existing wall or you’re looking for a super snug fit against the ridge board and the slate’s slightly too large, you need to nibble it to size. Traditionally – in the golden days of metal dentistry – roofers used East European peasants but in these enlightened times and improved dentistry it’s not PC so we have to use tile nibblers.

Bent Poking Tool

Not one of Jennifer Stevenson’s boinkwurst euphemisms but an essential tool for replacing cracked slates. Because each slate is fixed at the top by a crochet, it’s difficult to push a replacement slate into place. It’s a tight fit and there’s barely any room between batten and crochet for the replacement slate to slide into. So you need a tool that you can slip under the replacement slate and apply upward pressure just below the batten to push the slate into place. So we cut a small metal bar to size and bent it until we found the optimum angle – 10.3°.

Slate Hod

Carrying slates up onto the roof is always a problem. The traditional method is to employ a spouse, strap a hod to a backpack, and have them pass things up to you. Divorce lawyers, and the swingeing no-hod pre-nup clause, have put a stop to this.

Roof Belt

This is a cross between an ordinary tool belt and Batman’s utility belt. You need somewhere to store crochets and nails, and loops to hang hammers and East European peasants nibblers to. And you need one of those rocket propelled mini-grappling hooks to fire at the nearest chimney in case of wasp/hornet attack.

Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

Just released from Book View Press: Magical Crimes – a fun CSI with Magic and … ‘a little something else’ story.

Also available from Amazon and Smashwords.




Geek of the Week: DIY Roofing! — 3 Comments

  1. So, Chris —

    Is there a book on this? I hope? Or did you apprentice and help someone do their roof first? And is it an optical illusion, or are the two ladders at different widths — one for you, one for your spouse?

    I swear I will never complain about DIY again….

    — Kathi

  2. I taught myself by trial and error and watching ‘Steve and Norm’ and Bob Villa DIY TV shows. We did a small roof first – the log shed – then a small house, then another, then the barn (pictured) and this year we’re doing the main house.

    There are actually three ladders. Two metal ones, which are different widths, and the wooden roof ladder which is on the roof above the righthand barn door.

  3. What a great physical workout you must be getting — you’d have to pay a fortune in gyms for it ordinarily!