with and getting to know a group of slate roofers in Western
Pennsylvania has been one of the greatest joys of my life,
and I have treasured every moment. It was only a handful
of years ago I didnt know what a slate roofer was.
That was because the slaters who worked in my
area were long gone. For that matter
. almost forgotten.
they were indeed there nearly a century earlier, as evidenced
by their handicrafts that still hang with great longevity
and beauty high above the bustling city streets on some of
the older historic buildings and residences of character
in my hometown.
was upon me several years ago and I was feeling a bit depressed.
Perhaps it was because I was relatively new at enduring the
long, cold, damp, and grim winters in the shadow of Lake
Erie. Maybe it was because I had spent several years working
in the comfortable indoors and lacked the ambition
and confidence to get out of my chair and do something about
it. Nevertheless, I was uncertain about my course of direction
and a stack of bills was literally growing from the surface
to make some changes in my routine. I wanted nothing more
than to be finished with my part-time indoor job at a local
university, when the opportunity to get involved in the slate
roofing trade arrived on my doorstep like a mysterious little
gift. I accepted the opportunity as a way to change my lifestyle,
for the summer at least
. The supposed therapy
of manual labor, I imagined. Little did I know, slating
was a much bigger concept than just hauling heavy rocks up
a ladder to nail on the roof. My future was going to depend
on my ability to salvage the clues, techniques, and materials
of many generations past.
I met Joe Jenkins through my research assistantship position at
Slippery Rock University. Through Jenkins, I met Barry Smith of Union City, PA. Barry needed help working on an elaborate
old house for the summer in Bellfonte, PA with lovely Peach
Bottom slate. I accepted his offer. As his helper, I had
to buy a few tools. Among the most important were a slate
cutter, a slate ripper, a slate hammer, a prybar, and some other
miscellaneous tools such as sheet metal snips. Through his
expert tutelage and never-ending patience, for which I am
ever so grateful, I began to learn the trade. [source of tools for slate roofing]
rare Peach Bottom slates we were using for replacements had
already been off the roof and were on a local farmers
property. It was my job to cut these larger recycled slates
down to the small beveled style that we needed. One day as
I was busy shuffling through the slate piles I noticed someone
had carved their initials on one of the pieces and the date 1882.
It is not uncommon to find slate that old, but we saved that
piece anyway. I knocked on the slate with my knuckles and
it rang like a bell, well over a century later. I was learning
how good of a material it was that we were recycling.
imagined the great joy the slater who carved his initials
must have had when he left his mark on that particular tile,
hoping that someone in the distant future would notice..
we did. Although the initialized slate was probably not worth
much money, to me it felt like finding an important historical
job was completed on schedule, and I was somewhat relieved.
Partly because I was sore, sunburned, and bee-stung. I was
also glad not to spend my days forty-to-fifty feet above
the ground any more. Barry had no more use for me, as he
was going home to do other jobs.
back down South to my hometown with a few hundred dollars
in my bank account and a few new skills. I gathered my cutter,
ripper, and some ladder hooks and tossed them in the garage
in case I might ever need them again.
I would at first, until I spent some time looking at the
various ways the roofers were doing patch jobs on
the beautiful slate roofs in my town- with tar, roof sealants,
face-nails, and other techniques I had learned were unattractive
and of poor workmanship.
I had a revelation: I have 300 dollars, a cutter, a
ripper, a hammer and about 150 recycled sea green slates!
am the luckiest man in town!, I exclaimed to myself.
Within a few weeks I landed my first job. I have made a living
recycling roof slates for restoration jobs ever since.
I traveled to Scotland with a group of slate roofers. We
had the opportunity to observe a culture that generally places
a higher value on its roofs, both functionally and artistically.
Due to its population density and limited resources, Europe
has traditionally taken a more environmentally sensitive
approach than Americans in its selection of building materials
in an attempt to reduce waste and save energy. And they do
this with style and pizazz, using some of the best materials
and technique anywhere! I was very inspired by what I saw
on the other side of the Atlantic.
the various folks I was able to meet in Scotland involved
in the traditional roofing trades and slate industry, the
Honorable Master Slater John Ball of England undoubtedly
left the greatest impression on me. Not only is he the most
artistic and creative roofer I have ever witnessed, he is
a warm and friendly fellow who did not hesitate one second
to take a few hours out of his busy day to share his knowledge
and skills with us. I was truly lucky to see such a heavyweight in
action. His ability to pass the trade on to his apprentices
so gracefully is quite admirable.
to a younger generation of slate roofers, I am truly grateful
for the efforts made by all those before me who have so generously
shared their experience and vision. Well try our best
to do the same. . . Can you please hand me my ripper? Thank
See photos and video of the Slate Roofing Contractors Association attending the 2010 IFD Congress in Belfast, Northern Ireland.