The Infinite Complexities of Shake Geometry

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At long last the shakes on three walls are finally finished! I can’t say I’m sad to be done with that part of the house. Those things are not the most enjoyable thing to install. Yes, they are thin cedar boards, which means they’re flexible and easy to cut with a razor, but at the same time those same qualities lead to them breaking, cracking, and being an all-around nuisance.

Our last post on the subject was when I was working with mainly nice, big, square pieces. It was a good place to start, and relatively easy to measure. But once I started on the cheek walls (the vertical walls between the dormers and the gable roofs), things got especially tricky. For one, the two roofs are different pitches – our dormers are 12 degrees and the gables 42. So I had to take that into account when creating the pieces. Next of course, I’m leaning on the roof, so maneuvering around the ladder made it challenging to reach everything, especially since one side of our house is parked so close to the fence that it’s nearly impossible to stick a ladder in there. But, at least with the cheek walls everything was cut on straight lines. Yes, an occasional shake cracked and yes, an occasional curse word was uttered, but it wasn’t too bad. I think they turned out pretty well.

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Right side and cheek wall
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Left cheek wall

But the biggest, most challenging surface yet was the dreaded half circle window on the front of the house. Here are some of the challenges:

First, the thing is a half circle, which means lots of angle-calculating and geometry. Geometry wasn’t my best subject in school (although my teacher Ms. White was a godsend and really helped me through that class), and I’ve apparently forgotten most, if not all, of my geometry skills (sorry Ms. White…). Drew and I had recently worked on the trim for the half circle window and were clever enough to come up with a template that I could use for the shakes. So simple, right? That would make everything so much easier. Yeah. Right. What I originally thought I would do would be to lay out the template on the work table, insert shakes underneath the edges all the way around draw a line and cut them with either the jigsaw or band-saw, and then install them on the roof. That way they’d all fit against each other (since they matched with the template) and it would simplify everything.

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My initial plan for how I was going to complete the shakes

Yeah. Right.

So of course it didn’t work out that way. What I didn’t account for was the angle of the roof – because the half circle window is so large, part of the trim on two sides butts up against the roof and creates an infinitely small gap (that lessens in size as it goes) leading up and around the trim that I have to fill with some sort of shake. (Also, note that the smaller the shake, the more likely it is going to break when being screwed in.) Also, the trim wasn’t the exact same shape as the trim template, and the eave trim (which came down more than 4 inches) made it really hard to access the tight areas underneath it. Using a drill bit extender helped, but it was still difficult to access. So the method I had come up with would have worked in theory, but it didn’t quite fully make it to fruition.

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The area I needed to access… (imagine there’s 4″ wooden trim surrounding the half circle window as well.)

So, as many of these things do, it turned into a guess-and-check situation (or, as one of my other math teachers would have said, a ‘plug-and-chug’). I would create a shake using the template as best I could, go out on to the ladder, check it, see it was off, go back inside and cut it, go back on the ladder and check it, see it was off, go back inside and trim it again, etc. etc. For such a small section it took a long day to complete. Also, something else I didn’t think would be a factor but did was how difficult it would be to make sure all the shakes were oriented 90 degrees so that they were flush when installed. For example, when placing a shake under the template I needed to use the square (a triangular device that helps carpenters makes 90 degree angles) to make sure it was positioned straight up and down.

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But hey, now it is done, and the shakes are complete. (I’ve probably made it sound a lot worse than it was.) We’re getting pretty close completing the entire exterior of the house! It will be nice working on the inside, although I bet progress will slow down a ton since we face a rather large learning curve with the plumbing and electrical. (Hopefully not as much geometry.) Onward!

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