Growing up in the Yukon woods, I knew the different species of trees around me, the type of wood they produced, and what that wood could be used for. Harvesting trees for log building is an artform in and of itself—choosing the right tree for straightness and minimum twist. Back in the day, trappers would use birchwood for the bottom of dogsleds because it was stable, bendable, and hard. I now consider it a privilege to have had the experience to see not only how trees grow and live in the natural habitat that surrounds them, but also how they are harvested, milled, and used as material for carpenters and woodworkers.
Vertical-grain cedar is one of my favorite woods to work with. It's soft, it smells wonderful, it's resistant to decay, and it's milled in all sizes of dimensional lumber. Vertical-grain cedar is without a doubt the most versatile wood that can be used on the exterior of a home here in the Northwest. Decks, stairs, railings, exterior trim, siding, fascia, soffits—you name it, vertical-grain cedar is milled for all these applications.
There is a downside to cedar though: Because it's so soft, it's easy to mar or dent. Also, I've seen cedar used in restoration applications like historic double-hung windows, where a harder wood would have been a much better choice. For the most part, historic windows in the Northwest used vertical-grain fir simply because fir is harder and more stable for joinery. At my company, Westbrook Restorations, we perform work on a lot of historic homes and I've seen firsthand what lasts over time. Our exterior work is almost exclusively vertical-grain cedar or fir.
As a master carpenter, I really enjoy the simple repetition of installation. After installing thousands and thousands of shingles, it has become a soothing, meditative, rewarding act, and when I'm installing elaborate patterns it's easy to become totally immersed. Whether you're doing a simple install or something more elaborate, or just reweaving a corner or replacing a few shingles in the body of an existing wall, there are a few simple steps and techniques I've learned that might help make your next project a success.
Step 1: Fasteners & Weatherproofing
For cedar, it's best just to use a stainless steel nail or staple, simply because the manufacturers that mill cedar recommend it. When installing shingles, use a good latex caulking at your open joints and apply it as you go so your calking joints overlap, just like the shingles overlap. It looks better, it's a more efficient use of your time, and of higher quality.
Step 2: Determine Spacing & Layout
Depending on the length of shingle you're using, there is a maximum "to the weather" spacing you can't exceed. Basically, it's 5 ½ for a 16" shingle. You could go to 6", but the top of the third shingle down starts to get pretty thin at that point, so you might want to bump up to a longer shingle if you want that wider spacing.
Layout is pretty much the same as you would figure out for lap siding, using a story pole and marks. However, when doing bevel siding I always snap lines marking the top of the siding pieces, and with shingles there is no top (and they cover up the lines when applied, anyway.) What I do is snap lines on the wall marking where the butts of the rows will be. I then have reference lines to measure down and mark on the finished row of shingles, and snap a white chalk line to set my next row of shingles. Then, I just keep repeating the process.
When on a gable end, make sure you're working up the gable at an equal distance from the peak on either side, so that when you end up at the top you're centered with the peak. Otherwise, you will see that it's off and then you're stuck taking off shingles to fix it.
Step 3: Starter Course & First Row
The starter course is the bottom row you install. Then, the "first row" is simply installed over the starter course, keeping the gaps between the shingles staggered from the gaps of the starter course. Locate the bottom of the next row, install, and so on all the way up the wall.
And that's it! Following these simple steps will provide a great baseline for avoiding costly mistakes, and set you up for executing more complicated installations.
As always, I'd love to hear your feedback and see your siding projects!