Up On The Roof

Ansel Head had been on many roofs when he was running his grandfather’s real estate company in Birmingham. They were flat ones, built up over the wooden decking with coal tar felt, hot pitch, and gravel. Climbing the ladders to the low buildings had been no real challenge to the former Navy fighter pilot. As for the guys actually doing the work, they were more concerned with heat than height.  When it came to spreading hot tar from boiling kettles in the August sun, junior executive Head omitted that course from his quest for an education.  

It takes a special breed to be a roofer, to do this grueling, backbreaking job high above the ground. But without these fearless craftsmen, tent makers and miners would be the only ones providing shelter for the masses.

For flat roof work, there’s little danger of a debilitating fall. But think of a football field; then picture scrapping off the gravel, hardened tar, and rotting felt and decking with shovels, hauling it to the edge by hand or in wheelbarrows, and  dumping everything into a receptacle below – all work that must be completed before starting to put on the new roof. Heavy equipment could lessen the burden, but roof decks won’t support the weight. In fact, there’s the ever present danger of the old decking giving way under the roofer’s feet.

Pitched roof roofers play on a much smaller field; but falls from loose footing on the steep slopes are in the forefront of their minds, or at least it is for those who have made a lasting career out of this trade. Watching them work reminded Head of an axiom from his flying days: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Head has never seen an old roofer working without his safety rope and harness.

Everything to do with the old roof must first be removed. Any stray stone or protruding nail head will puncture the new roof from below. Weakened or rotting decking will sag under the weight of the new roof creating a low place for water to gather and seep into the space below.

Once clean, the new decking and materials must be brought to the roof, no easy task in small house jobs where it’s financially infeasible to bring cranes and high reaching lifts. Instead, it’s up to the roof on a ladder one board or bundle at a time.

For a flat roof, roofers lay down one layer of felt (tar paper) over the clean decking, seal the seams with hot tar, and secure that layer to the decking. The second layer goes down in the same manner but the seams are arranged so as not to coincide with the lower layer. This process is repeated until three to four layers are down. Then hot tar is spread over all layers and covered with stone. Once the tar cools and anchors the stone, you can walk on the roof.

That’s how the older building in Head’s grandfather’s company were roofed. Head has been told it’s easier now. Modern flat roofs can be covered  with a synthetic blanket rolled out and sealed with a special tape. But the backbreaking work of removing the old roof must still be completed.

Because the water acts differently on a sloped roof, the process is different. The roofer lays down tar paper and secures it to the deck. He then install asphalt shingles (or wood or slate shingles for that elegant, Tiny Kingdom look). The roofer starts at the eves. Working his way up the slope, he lays each subsequent row so that it covers the upper two thirds of the lower shingles and their joints. This process insures that there are no gaps between the shingles and the tar paper below. Water will then run down the slope and over the shingles with no way to get to the material below. In a heavy wind, if some small moisture does blow up and under the shingles, then the tar paper will keep the water away from the wooden decking.

Where the roof meets the parapets and other protrusions, the roofer has to take special care to “flash” the junctions. This usually entails bringing the tar paper up along walls or pipes, sealing it with pitch, and covering the seals with a metal sheet so that water can’t run down the protrusion and behind the roofing material.

All of these things roofers do while exposed to the harsh sun or freezing air. They are generally exempt, though, from working in the rain and snow. For obvious reasons, you can’t take an existing roof off in inclement weather. So when the job starts, it has to be finished while the weather is clear.

There’s something admirable about hard, fit, and cheerful men who start a difficult and dangerous task knowing they can’t stop until it is complete. That’s the type of fearless craftsmen that Head knows built this country.

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