The manufacturing of shingles was an intricate part of the early redwood lumber industry in Humboldt County. Because of its physical properties, redwood became the premier wood for making sawn shingles. Among its many advantages are its straight grain and soft texture. These properties allow shingles to be sawn truly and vertically without difficulty.
The large size of the tree, and greater percentage of clear timber, permitted shingles to be wide, clear and free from defects common to other woods. Another advantage is its fire resistant qualities, due to the absence of pitch and the presence of an acid which opposes combustion. Its resistance to beetles and weather conditions is superior to that of any other wood used for making shingles.
It warps, shrinks and swells comparatively little and if properly put on a roof, redwood shingles will maintain their efficiency for 25-75 years. By maintaining a redwood shingle roof with linseed oil and graphite, one can expect a long useful life of the roof.
In Humboldt County shingle mills were scattered from just north of Trinidad to the Mendocino County line.
Bolts of wood used for shingles first were made from virgin stock. As the big trees were logged, the stumps were later used for bolt stock. The bolts that came from tree stock sometimes had to be blown apart because of the massive size of the tree. A powder auger was used to drill a hole, then the hole was filled with block powder and lit. A drag saw was then used to cut the bolts to 18-20 inch lengths.
Before 1850 all shingles were split using a froe and mallet to split the shingle, or sometimes called a shake, from the bolt.
Beginning in the 1850s and 1860s, the U.S. Patent Office was flooded with inventions and designs for various kinds of shingle machines. The tricky part of the problem was to find a way to make tapered shingles. Split shingles had no taper, and this was an added reason for the search to find a way to saw them.
One interesting proposal took the form of a large turntable with pockets for five bolts, placed horizontally. As the table slowly revolved, a horizontal saw beneath it sliced off shingles, like slicing cheese. The taper was made by tilting the bolts. This the operator did by pushing in or pulling out a wedge as they passed by him.
The type that proved more successful, however, was made with a large circular saw in an upright position, though it took only one bolt at a time. The operator stood facing the edge of the saw, with the bolt clamped to a frame in front of him. With his left hand, using a handle for the purpose, he tilted the bolt forward against the saw. After the shingle had been sliced off, he withdrew the bolt tilted in the opposite direction with his left hand and repeated the operation.
Improvements took the form of automating the operation of tilting and moving in and out. After cutting the shingle, it was held momentarily against the trimmer to straighten the edges then tossed to the packers. The trimmings were called excelsior and was used as a packing material. the shingles were graded #1 and #2 in Humboldt County.
the most nimble fingered of the shingle packers (nicknamed weavers) stacked shingles in the proper order in the packing house. Two hundred shingles to a bundle that were fastened with steel bands nailed to binders, two strips of wood placed across each side of the center of the bundle. Legend has it that some packers could bundle up to 80,000 shingles per day.
In most places it took five bundles of wood shingles to cover “one square” or 100 square feet. In Humboldt County they shipped what was called a California Square, because the claim was you could expose five inches to the weather instead of the normal practice of four inches. So it took only 800 shingles (four bundles) to cover a square.
During 1904-05 the shipment of shingles amounted to nearly 700 million annually. The existing mills were capable of cutting 900 million, if needed. The production became greater as transportation improved.
In 1915 with the opening of the railroad, the shingle manufacturing of Humboldt County reached an all-time high. there was a shingle manufacturing association, established in 1896 by the principal mill owners of the region. They demonstrated to members the value of unity of action by exercising some control over shipping costs.
By 1920 the shingle industry started to decline. New roofing materials, including roofing, paper, asphalt shingles, corrugated iron roofing and later aluminum and plastic shingles. Most of the new material was cheaper, easier and faster to apply, though it was not as long-lasting.
The shingles manufactured in Humboldt County were used both for roofing and the fancy siding seen on many various Victorian style houses. The Hansen shingle saw, developed by Humboldt County resident Ole Hansen, sawed uniform six-inch shingles and from these it was easy to saw the “fancy shingles.” They were made by stacking five of the square butted shingles on top of each other and then re-sawn with a band saw into the needed shape.
When the redwood shingles were introduced to New York City and Boston, they were readily accepted by the builders in these two cities. They ranked them as the best roof covering to be had. They were painted to look like slate, and in many respects they were superior to slate. Slate tended to break and was difficult to replace.
By 1955 only about 20 shake and shingle mills still operated in a normal year. Today there are only two mills still in operation. One of these is at the Blue Ox Mill. The saw is a 1908 Sumner and Eric Hollenbeck claims it still is the best shingle saw around.
Mary Spinas Kline, January 2020
Curated by Mary Kline, Alex Cox and Patti Fleschner