Siding With Cedar Shingles

by Robert Maxwell

Beautiful, durable, ecologically sound siding. That’s what cedar shingles can deliver. But    the idea of applying small pieces of wood over an entire building can seem more daunting than it is. The truth is, siding with cedar is easier than you think as long as you tackle the job properly. 


Step 1 - Selecting and Ordering Your Shingles

Choosing the right shingles for your installation is vital, but first you’ll need to figure out the total area of the walls you’ll be covering. Cedar shingles are sold by “the square” – a unit equal to 100 square feet of coverage. It’s wise to order 10% to 20% more shingles than you think you’ll need to allow for waste. Once you’ve figured out how many squares you need, it’s time to choose the shingles themselves. 


The first choice you need to make is species. Western red cedar makes very nice shingles, but eastern white cedar is my favourite. It’s harder than western cedar, weathers to a lighter grey, and I’m told it’s more rot-resistant.


Next, choose your shingles’ grade and butt-thickness. Shingles are tapered, and I prefer to spend a bit more for premium shingles with a butt thickness of 7/16”, rather than the standard 3/8”. Premium shingles are completely free of knots and rated to last at least 50 years on exterior walls – even without finishing . Extra butt thickness makes them more resistant to curling and cracking in the sun, too. Another feature worth paying extra for is rebutting and resquaring. This feature ensures the bottom ends of each shingle are square to the sides, making for a more precise finished job. 


Step 2 - Preparing for Installation

Cedar shingles certainly look beautiful, but like all siding, they’re not always 100 percent effective at keeping water out. That’s why it’s important to cover your wall sheathing with at least one layer of durable, waterproof underlay before you start shingling. Ideally, choose a product that lets water vapour pass freely, This allows trapped moisture to escape, while keeping liquid water out. For the job shown here, I used a vapour-permeable roof membrane called DELTA-ROOF against the 5/8” plywood wall sheathing, with a dimpled, plastic drainage membrane on top to allow easy vertical escape of liquid water from behind the shingles, if it ever gets there. Once your walls are shielded with underlay, it’s time to gather your shingling tools.


The first item on your checklist is a large supply of stainless steel fasteners to secure the shingles to your wall. 7/16” crown, air-driven staples  are perfect (don’t use 1/4” crown). Dedicated shingle nails work fine, too. Go with a length of at least 2” so your shingles will be properly secured through all the layers.


 In addition to a 16 ounce hammer and air stapler, I also use a 23 gauge pin nailer, a sharp hand plane, construction adhesive, adjustable square, tape measure, 24” and 6” levels, a chalkline, a utility knife, a ball of mason’s line, a pencil or two, and a sharp handsaw with a Japanese tooth pattern.


Step 3 - Beginning Shingling

Now you’re ready to start the real work. The main thing to keep in mind is that each layer or “course” of shingles should be as close to level as possible. Your first course should be fastened with the shingle butts extending about 1” below the bottom of your wall sheathing. This ensures that rainwater drips completely away from the wall frame. As you install this first course, eyeball each shingle and orient the cupped side against the wall before fastening. This applies throughout the installation. 



Put two nails or staples in each shingle, about an inch in from the sides, and roughly 3” above the bottom edge of your sheathing. Hold a 6” level against the first shingle and every fourth or fifth shingle as you work, checking for plumb, while ensuring each shingle you fasten is tight against the previous one. When you reach the corners of your building, you can proceed in a couple different ways. 


Step 4 - The Main Shingling

When you finish your first course, start another one directly on top. This second layer of shingles is no higher than the first, and it must overlap the joints of the first course by at least 1 1/2”. This overlap minimum applies to every course you install. This time, position your nails or staples roughly 7” above the shingle butts. Tackle the corners of the second course in the same way you did the first, making sure the joint line is on the alternate side of the building this time. Once your second course is complete, it’s time to decide how much shingle you want exposed on each course. 


The usual practice is to leave anywhere from 4” to 6” of exposure per course, depending on the look you’re going for. Once you’ve settled on exposure size, measure up from the corners of your first course, marking a line on each corner where the second course will rest. Snap a chalkline between your marks, then repeat the process for the other three walls. Next cut a strip of wood about 1/2” thick and 1 1/2” wide, and pin it to your wall with the top surface level with your chalkline mark. This serves as a straight guide for your shingles as you lay out the next course. Fasten a string tightly between two nails about 7” above this platform, then begin laying out the shingles behind the string.  The string helps you in two ways. It’ll keep your shingles in place and upright as you lay them out on the straight edge before nailing. The string also shows you the ideal location of nails or staples. 


 Whatever exposure you choose, keep it consistent as you advance up the first few courses of the wall. You’ll soon need to vary it slightly, but more on that later. For now, just keep each course the same height, measuring up from the previous course and snapping a chalkline. I find it easiest to install the corners of each course first, then fill in between. 


Step 5 - Working Around Doors and Windows

Unless the building you’re shingling is a windowless, doorless box, eventually you’ll have some obstacles to work around as you advance upwards. These will probably take the form of windows and doors. The main challenge is to plan your work so the tops and bottoms of doors and windows line up fairly closely with the bottoms of the nearest shingle courses. This isn’t essential, but it’s a whole lot better than having little strips of shingles fastened below or above windows and doors. The trick is to determine how many courses you’ll need and how short or tall they’ll have to be to line up with the tops and bottoms of the obstacles when you reach them. Measure the total height ahead of you, then use a calculator to experiment with different numbers of courses and how much exposure they result in. Choose the number of courses that most closely matches what you’ve started shingling with. 


Step 6 - Finishing Up

As you near the top of your walls, you’ll face several new challenges. The first is height. You’ll need to set up some good scaffolding to continue working safely and productively. You’ll also have to start shingling around the eaves and working around protruding rafters or trusses. Finally, if your work includes any gable walls, you’ll need to start cutting your outer shingles at an angle to match the underside of your roof.  


Cedar shingle siding isn’t for everyone. Compared with modern methods of siding, it’s pretty slow, troublesome, and finicky. But if you’re someone who cares about lasting, natural beauty and wants to leave a legacy of craftsmanship behind you, consider investing some extra time and effort in this beautiful, timeless, and ecologically friendly tradition. 


Sidebar: Fancy Patterns

Whatever the lay of your building, consider investing a little extra time and effort in cutting shingles of fancy shapes as you near the top. For my installation, I used a scroll saw, chop saw and edge sander to create half-round “fish scales” and pointed “diamonds”. It took time, but the effect is quite striking, and I’ve never regretted investing the extra effort.


Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50


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