Are You Shingle Minded?

Have you ever been shingle minded?

One day while I was sitting next to a shingled wall, taking a break from reroofing the Black Dog Tall Ships building in Vineyard Haven, a man came up and pointed at the wall and said, “This is easy to do, shingling. I mean, there’s nothing to it.”

“I don’t know, sir,” I replied. “I’ve seen some pretty complicated shingling jobs.”

“Come on, who are you kidding, huh?” he shot back. “Some nails, some shingles. I mean...come on.”

He drifted away shaking his head, which was probably a good idea because I was about to break out my wooden-handled Vaughan shingling hatchet and show him what else I could do with it besides applying shingles to a wall or roof. Instead, I decided to get back up on the roof and show the world its intended use – well, if not the world, at least the folks at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway across the way.

The Island is known for many things, many of them in the wide open. There is at least one group of folks on the Island who stay hid-den much of the time, however. Long before you come to your new home or to check on how the renovation is going, they are long gone. But when a contractor has a complicated shingling job, like six woven arches in an eight-by-eight-foot space, they call them in: the hand nailers, shinglers who use hatchets instead of pneumatic guns.

They come with names like Bugs, Cricket, Meatball, Gramps, and Wo. Each nickname has a story. One of them was given the nick-name “Tap Tap” because of his technique of setting the nail then sending it home...tap tap. Or maybe it should be tap, TAP!

Before pneumatic tools, carpenters used regular hammers to apply shingles to walls and roofs. The usual method was to put a board horizontal to the level of the course (or row) of shingles being applied and then lay the shingles along the board and nail them to the wall. Another method was to apply chalk to a string and “snap a line” as a guide to which the shingles would be applied. Today, how-ever, hand nailers use a specialized tool they call a hatchet because it is square-headed, then tapered like a hatchet. On the backside of the tapered section there are holes drilled in exact increments from the head into which a small cylinder called a button can be affixed. The shingler can hook the button on a course that has already been nailed down and lay a shingle for the course above on the head of the hatchet, in the perfect place to be nailed down.

The seemingly simple development of the button allowed shinglers to be more efficient. Instead of snapping a line every course, these days the shingler typically “takes” the snapped line and the three courses above it and uses the hatchet for the proper spacing of the courses above the snap. With four courses completed, the process starts again: snap, take three, snap, take three.

The challenge is to “hit” everything properly: the windows, doors, and top. If you are applying five-inch courses, you don’t want to end up with a two-inch course at the eave or window trim. If the height from the first course to the windowsill is thirty inches, the math is easy: six five-inch courses to the hit. That’s all well and good if all the windows are set to the same height, the foundation is solid and level, and the frame was built with care. But it is rarely the case that a shingler encounters a building where there is not at least one anomaly that requires the shingler to fix prior mishaps with the objective of making the building look square when it is not – or look as if the windows are, in fact, at the same height when they are not.

It’s called “cheating it out” and it’s a definite art. Say one side of the wall has a height of eight feet and is plumb, and the other side of the wall is seven feet, eleven inches, making the shape a trapezoid rather than a square or a rectangle. Then the shingler must snap out courses one at a time to incrementally make up the difference. To make up an inch in four courses, for instance, the marks on one side of the building are set at four-and three-quarter inches and the marks on the other side are set at five inches.

As a brother shingler, I could go on for hours explaining the ins and outs of the trade. I could detail how the grain and cupping of each shingle is noted before it is nailed to the wall, and the rules about where to place the nails so that when the next shingler comes along to fix or replace some shingles – perhaps decades from now – he or she will know where the nails are. I could explain how we sort the shingles onto a device we call an airplane so that once up on the roof we can select the correct shingle almost without looking – no shingle is touched that doesn’t get nailed down. But I would rather share some rooftop ramblings about the nature of hand nailers as I have known them.

These folks are old-fashioned in many respects: strong work ethics and a desire to do the best possible job reign as precepts. So it may seem interesting that many of the best shinglers have always smoked pot. If they don’t actually smoke pot, they have at least the mindset of a pothead to get the Zen of the job. When you think about it – or perhaps in the context of the Zen philosophy, when you don’t think about it – maintaining a calm repose and cultivating a sense of flow is of great use to a shingler, especially for a hand nailer. Look at any shingled building and pick out any course of shingles. For each shingle there are two nails, so if one row is thirty feet long, there may be sixty shingles in that row, all of different widths, but each with two nails nonetheless. So that row has 120 nails. Multiply that by the number of courses and you can see that in one building there are thousands of nails, each one touched by a shingler.

The hand nailer strives for efficiency of movement. The longer it takes to get the shingle applied, the longer it takes to finish the job. This is important because unlike most tradespeople, shinglers are usually paid by the piece, not by the hour. Thus the familiar adage amongst some hand nailers: “To get it done quicker you have to slow down.” Meaning, with a nod to mindfulness or mindlessness, it’s all one nail at a time.

With this primer for your benefit in place, I reminisce back to the day when hand nailers were the renegades of the construction scene here on the Island. Because they are paid by the piece, there are no set hours they must adhere to. They can take breaks when they want; they are on a different clock, one with no arms, only the length of sunlit hours during which they can work.

A normal day arose on the job site. It was early summer and we were lucky to be on a new construction job that wasn’t slated to be finished until sometime in late fall. We got there one by one, some carpooling. We agreed to try to get going by seven to beat the sun, so most of the crew arrived before 6:45. We had four people in the crew, all longtime shinglers. That was a good thing because the job was pretty complicated: it had a swoop at the bottom of the walls, all woven corners, inside and outside, and a bay window with weave as well.

We had all worked together for a while, so there was a lot of teamwork and a lot of laughter. The head of the gang, after exchang-ing hellos and pleasantries with the others, said, “Okay, so we’re all set with the staging. We can probably start reaming,” which is a term we use to describe “going for it” when there is a lot of open wall without windows to be concerned about.

“What do you think?” he continued. “Wake and bake?” He pulled out a joint from his front shirt pocket. “Let’s blow this doob and hit it!”

So the day began. A radio played, shingles were sorted onto airplanes, ladders climbed, and the nailing began. Listening to the four working away, you could hear the cacophony of the nailing. Bak ba bak bak...bak bak, bak ba bak bak...bak...bak bak. You could hone your ears to any one of the shinglers and hear that each had their own rhythm, some like Tap Tap, and others who take up to three or four hits per nail. All were happy and knew the deal – the flow –
and each got into his own groove. The job got done with care, happiness, and accuracy.

After a while a coffee break approached and someone yelled out, “Coffee time...bone up!” Another joint was lit and passed in the circle in a sacramental way. It was always so, the rules of smoking pot with friends and associates. Pass to the right and don’t bogart it – meaning keeping it to yourself rather than passing it after you take your hit. The deed done, the coffee break ensued, jokes and stories were shared, insights on life and the human condition were presented, and after a nice, un-clocked break, it was back to the wall. Bak, bak bak, ba bak bak.

Sometimes I muse on ways we could be paid other than the usual per-bundle-of-shingles.

Shingling on staging only four feet from the ground, I noticed the architect and builder approaching as they inspected progress on the job. I started up just as they get near: “4,896.” Bang! The nail was sent home. I continued, “4,897.” Bang! Another nail sent home.

“Excuse me,” the architect said.

“Excuse me, but why are you shouting out numbers while you work?”

“Well it’s simple, I am getting paid by the nail on this job, so I have to keep count.”

And so I continued: “4,800....” The day flowed by one shingle at a time, one nail at a time, mindfulness...mindlessness...until my concentration or lack thereof was inter-rupted by the foreman: “Bone up!”

One million four hundred fifty thousand four hundred twenty SIX!