Volume IX, No. 1, Fall 1981
THE OLD-TIME WAY WITH ART CORN
Story and photographs by Kathy Long
As we drove slowly down the gravel road lined with trees toward a clearing, we saw a rustic house protected with rough board siding and a large shed roofed with wooden hand-riven shingles. My ancestors might have seen a very similar sight as they traveled any one of many paths through the Ozarks country in a horse-drawn wagon one hundred years ago. But this was not a hundred years ago, and this house was not a part of a historical museum. It was the house of Art Corn, its designer and builder. Art constructed his buildings using native material, recycled materials, his own ingenuity and labor, just as an Ozarkian settler would have done years ago.
As I sat beneath a tall white oak tree watching Art, equipped with a froe in his left hand and a wooden mallet in his right, skillfully splitting shingles, I thought how closely he resembled an old-time woodsman, when in fact, he is a computer center administrator.
As he sighted down the two shingles to see if they were equal, Art said, "I have a lot of friends say, 'When did you find time to build this house and furnish most of it yourself?' Well, I don't like to play golf. I tried for five years, and I just don't. What's happened to golf? Everybody now gets in their carts--a game planned to give you exercise, and everybody rides little carts! Building with wood is a nice thing if you need something to get you out in the open. If you have no other facility for getting you out, it gets you in the fresh air. There isn't any reason why just anybody can't do it if you want to."
Art's house is only one example of the many ways Ozarkians are returning to their natural resources and their own ingenuity to satisfy their needs--a practice that is becoming increasingly popular. The construction and use of hand-riven shingles is a very good example of this trend. Art said, "I've been splitting wood all my life. For a number of years I've worked with computers, and most of what I do today with computers may not be apparent until two, three, or even six months later, so a decision I make today may hit me behind the ears a little further down the road. Maybe it was a good judgment or estimate at the time I made it, but time may prove me wrong." Art finds working with wood different. "If you drive a nail into a couple boards, that's it. That's final--done."
Art's home is constructed almost entirely of wood, unlike the typical modern homes, made primarily of synthetic materials. Art explained that years ago, before the synthetic materials were manufactured, "People always built with what was available. That accounts for slate roofs, thatched roofs, wood, tile--what-ever the thing might be. The Ozarks was well plenished with forest land, so just as Ozarkain settlers used the trees to make their log homes, when they became faced with a need for a sturdy, yet lightweight roof, they again turned to the trees for wooden shingles.
Art said, "oak is the most common, most desireable wood we have in this particular area. Oaks are generally separated into two varieties. We have the black oak varieties and we have the white oak varieties. Then from the black oak we split off into water oak. It is a sub-species. Shingle oak is yet another oak. When it sheds its branches, it is just ideal for a shingle. Nice straight grain. It splits very easily and very nicely so our ancestors not only made shingles, but they made clapboard siding which would be a three or four foot board and a natural tapering as you go around the bolt of wood gives an automatic taper for your drop siding.
"If you have good wood, it's no big trick to make shingles. It's more a question of doing it than it is of having some particular skill or trade secret."
To get the wood to split out shingles, carefully select a strong, healthy tree with few or no detectable flaws, such as knots, bird or insect homes or hollow centers. Usually wood of the finest quality if found in the lower trunk of a tree which measures between one and one half and three feet in diameter. "You get about seventy-five three-quarter inch shingles from a twenty inch diameter block of wood, provided there's few knots or other flaws," Art said.
Saw the logs into sections, eighteen to twenty-four inches long, or as long as you want the shingles to be. The important thing is to be consistent in all the sections so that all the shingles are of the same length.
There are three simple tools that are primarily used to split the logs into shingles--a splitting maul, a froe and a mallet.
Art uses a splitting maul, sometimes called a "go-devil," to split the log sections first into halves, and then quarters. It is very similar to an ax, but the head of a splitting maul is thicker and heavier than that of an ordinary ax. One side of the head is tapered to a sharp-edged blade, used to split a big block of wood into smaller sections. The other side is thick and round, and is handy for hammering wedges into blocks of wood after it has begun to split. "It is designed strictly for splitting and wedging. It's not a chopping tool at all," said Art.
The second tool used in splitting shingles is another wedging tool called a froe. Its handle is about eighteen inches long, and its blade is about a foot long. Whereas the splitting maul is used to quarter the log sections, a froe is used to wedge each quarter apart into several shingles.
"Most of these old froes were made in a blacksmith shop," said Art. "They'd take a piece of iron, hammer it out, and wrap it around something in order to get the eye, which fits tightly around the wooden handle, and then they would heat the piece of iron and literally weld it together with heat and a hammer. They applied the old trick of hammer welding. The froes look a little crude. They are not as smooth as something that was made in a foundry. It doesn't have to be a sharp instrument. It has to be something you can drive into the wood with the idea that you're going to wedge a couple of pieces apart."
The third tool, called a mallet, is a hand-held wooden hammering tool. Art usually makes his own mallets from hickory wood because of its strength. "Hickory is a little bit denser and better wood than osage orange for handles or mallets. After splitting the log into smaller sections, use the mallet to hammer the froe into each section several times to yield several individual shingles.
Art gave some advice about the best time to split shingles after you have the necessary tools. "Wood splits best green. It splits even better when it's green and frozen, on a nice cold January day when you can't stand to be outside." It is also more convenient to split wood during this time because, "The sap is down in late January and February in this area. There is very little up in the tree. It's as close to being dormant as it can be. Normally in a growing season when the leaves are green, the tree is pumping sap up to keep those leaves nourished, and you're going to have more moisture in the wood during the growing season than in the dormant season." There is less sticky sap to handle, and it takes the wood less time to dry.
With the splitting maul, quarter each log section and then split the heart from each quarter.
Art explained, "Then you start with the froe, driving it into a block of wood with the idea of getting it secured in the block of wood. If necessary, you pry your pieces of wood apart and you keep making smaller and smaller billets of wood until you get down to shingle size.
"If you can follow the natural splits where it has already started to run, it should split easier." Split the wood vertically, straight along the grain, so that each smaller section has the same thickness at both ends. However, each section will be slightly wedge-shaped in width and consequently will be thicker on the bark side, just as the original quarter section was thicker on the bark side.
Art uses a frog or splitting fork, a forked log braced diagonally against two upright crossed skinning logs to make this process easier. The solid part of the forked log touching the ground just beyond where the prongs join provides a good surface for this kind of splitting.
Finally, when each small section is approximately three-fourths of an inch thick, or is about twice the thickness of a shingle, only one last split is required to obtain a shingle of proper dimensions. Art said, "The trick to shingles, if at all, is in this last split."
Place the blade of the froe in the center of the small section with the blade lying parallel to the section's width. As before, split the wood vertically, straight along the grain, so that each shingle has the same thickness at both ends.
Placing the small section between the prongs of the frog fork gives added leverage in prying the wood apart into two shingles.
Art said, "Sometimes the wood splits out to the side, and I've got just a piece of a shingle, which is no big sin. Kindling is handy, too.
"Normally shingles are four, five or six inches in width. Thickness depends on the type wood you have. If you get exceptionally good wood, you can split it down to three-eights inch thickness. But a three-eighths inch shingle has a shorter life than a one-half inch shingle or a three-quarters inch shingle.
"A wood specialist told me that wood erodes at the rate of one-hundredth of an inch per year. Three-eighths of an inch is roughly thirty-five one-hundredths. So you should have a shingle there for thirty-five years, still turning water even with a thin shingle only three-eighths of an inch thick.
After splitting out a chunk of wood, remove the heart wood at the center before splitting into shingles. Remove the sapwood and bark after splitting shingles.
Sometimes, when Art desires a smoother roof, he uses a draw knife and a shaving horse to taper his shingles so that they are much thinner at one end than at the other. But, if a rough, more rugged appearance is desired, the shingles should be left with the same thickness at both ends.
After splitting the shingles to the desired thickness, use an ax to split away the bark and the sapwood from each shingle. Sapwood is the softer, more porous layer of wood just beneath the bark, which results from the tree's changing ability to withstand harsh weather conditions. Art explained, "When a tree is small, it is subject to all the stresses of the wind. As it becomes bigger, that twisting doesn't occur anymore. So your wood actually softens a little bit--just like people. We're not subject to stress, we soften. All sapwood should be removed because it is only going to last a short time on the roof to any exposed area before it begins to rot."
Also, the steepness of a shingled roof will affect the life of its shingles. Art said, "A steep sloping roof would last longer than one where snow tends to accumulate and rain doesn't run off and it doesn't dry out quite as fast.
"However, we've become a little bit overly romantic about the durability of a piece.of wood." Even as the Ozark settlers were roofing their log homes with hand-riven shingles, they realized that wood wouldn't last forever but did everything they knew to do to prolong its life. "Our ancestors intended for wood to have a long life," Art continued. "They even went by the moon and believed that shingles will curl if put on in one phase of the moon and not in another. I don't know if they're right or not because I put them on in weekends when I have the time. I can't pick my time. Shingles are more inclined to cup and curl if you've got intense heat while the roof is wet, and one side of the shingle dries and the other is still wet. The dry side is going to pull. That's basic physics. It has nothing to do with the moon. And when it finally dries out on both sides, it will lay back down."
Art explained that you can put either freshly split green shingles or dried shingles on a roof, but there is a difference in how you space them. "I would recommend you put them on immediately. While shingles are still green, they are at their full width and you can put them flush together and nail them in the center. Then, when they dry, they'll shrink, leaving a space. The next time it rains, the shingle will expand and contract, but there's no pressure.
"If you put the shingles up dry, you have to leave approximately one-eighth of an inch on either side to allow the shingle to expand laterally. The shingler's hatchet, which is used to nail down the shingles, has a blade just about that thickness, so if you drop that blade down in position between the shingles, you are automatically spaced. When a shingle gets wet, it's going to expand. If you don't allow expansion space, the shingles are going to curl and cup on you, and each expanding shingle is going to force the next one up."
Of course, eventually, leaks sometimes develop as shingles age. Art said that they're fairly easy to patch, but the real problem is finding the origin of the leak so that you can replace the faulty shingles. A leak may start in one spot and the water travel along the seams where the shingles join until it appears as a leak inside some distance from its origin.
Art said, "In the older farmhouses where we had very few priceless antiques and where we didn't have full finished walls, they could tolerate a leak much better than we can today. Now it is a catastrophe when a leak discolors the whole ceiling.
Today in our industrialized society, Art could have roofed his shed much more quickly with purchased manmade materials. Yet, because of his respect for nature and for the natural materials taken for granted by those first Ozarkian settlers, he chose to also use hand-riven wooden shingles.
"The use of hand-riven shingles continued pretty well up to the time when we started getting shingles from the west coast from the nice big trees that run 200 feet straight up without any knots. Also, the composition roof--the tar, asbestos, granular mixtures were easier, cheaper, faster to put down."
Even though today wooden shingles are used primarily as rustic decoration, they were used for many years exclusively for their purposefulness and because of their availability. Some of the better made and cared for ones show that usefulness. Art said, "There are houses and barns in this area still with wood shingles and some of those roofs have been there a hundred years."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.