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Shingles and Roof Tips

© 2001 by Pat Thomas

To begin with, we use our own shingles, made from a thin (3/64"), fine-grained cedar veneer, approximately 1"long x 1/2"wide. (Yes, before cedar we used mahogany, but that is now a scarce material.) We like these dimensions because they are in-scale, they lie flat, and look realistic. Yes, they take a long time to lay, but roofs (and walls) comprise too great an expanse of a miniature to cover with something that looks clunky. Another bit of "Roof Truth" to consider: on a full-size house the roof is at least 20 ft. away from the person looking at it, so the shingles appear smaller than if you were right next to them. For a miniature, the viewer is face-to-face with shingles, and if they are even slightly over-scale they appear enormous.

shinglesIn miniatures, Noel and I work with what we call the illusion of reality. By that I mean we strive to build houses that remind people of real houses, particularly houses they feel comfortable in. For us comfort comes from an old house that has mellowed from exposure to weather and human habitation. When the viewer looks for a while, then says, "Oh! I remember a house my Uncle Joe lived in, and you know, in his attic he had...," then we know we've done our job. He or she has accepted our illusion of reality and taken it on as their own. However, if half the surface of the project is covered in an unconvincing material, there is no way our illusion will be a success. Basically a roof is something we put a whole lot of time into so people won't notice it!
So, we begin our illusion by darkening the roof with Bug Juice, or, if that isn't dark enough, then a wash of water and Grumbacher tube acrylic Mars Black. A wash is transparent. It is made by adding a lot of water to a little dab of pigment in a dish, then mixing well and applying before the pigment settles to the bottom of the dish. Darkening the roof takes the new look out of the wood. Over time, shingles shrink, or pieces get knocked off, and a dark roof won't draw attention to itself and break the illusion.

Next step is to lay a "shingle lift-strip" along the bottom of each section. This is a narrow strip (approx. 3/64" X 1/8"), that we darken to match the roof, and glue down with Elmer's white glue. Yes, we swear by Elmer's white: it lasts, is predictable and can be removed with water. By gluing the lower edge of the first row of shingles over this strip, a slant is established which allows all subsequent rows to lie flat. To glue down that first row, I squeeze a narrow strip of glue along the top edge of a shingle, and another about 1/2" up from the bottom. I apply it to the roof so it overhangs both the lower roof edge, and the exposed side edge, enough to cover gutter edges and any trim I plan to edge the roof with. I allow about 1/8" to overhang 1/16" trims. It helps to tape on a temporary piece of trim the same dimension you want the overhang to be, so you don't have to eyeball it. Using the gluing lines on the first shingle as a guide, I then apply two beads of glue, (for top and bottom of the shingles) the length of the roof section. The idea is to use enough glue to hold down the shingles, without it oozing out between them. Clean any glue off the top surface right away with water. For spacing I try not to leave more than a literal hairline between shingles. Any more and the roof or glue will show through. Any less will look like a solid band of wood.

shinglesOnce the glue under the first row is fairly well set, I draw a line for the bottom edge of the next row. This sets the reveal, or how deep the rows will be. For most projects I want 1/2" between rows. For this I use a 3/8"w (Yes!) piece of stripwood for a ruler. Holding this 3/8"w strip along the lower edge of the first shingle course, I draw a pencil line, horizontal to the roof edge, the whole length of the section. The surprise is, due to the thickness of the stripwood and the pencil lead, it gives me a line 1/2" up from the lower shingle edge. Row two begins by applying the lower edge of the next course right on, or slightly above, that line. I draw a line for each row, not only for the reveal, but also to make sure my lines remain horizontal, to one another and the roof edge. Always measure from the bottom of a row, as the length of the shingles can vary. No, I don't make wavery shingle lines on purpose--it would look like The House That Jack Built. The rows will have enough irregularity just by trying to lay them straight!

Starting with row two, I glue on each shingle individually. A realistic roof has texture, so I coax a little warpage into my shingles by gluing with what I call the "T" method. I apply a bead of glue horizontally along the top of the shingle, then another down the center, forming a "T". This leaves the lower corners free, so they can curl slightly when I later age them. I want a subtle texture, not overt cupping. Noel and I aim to create buildings that improve with age, not tumble-down shacks. At the start it's better too little salt in the soup than too much.

shinglesNearing the peak, I make a smooth top roof edge by trimming the last few rows to length. I find it's best to do this before gluing them on. It's fine if you end with a short top row. When you come up the back side, you'll trim that top row to meet this one.

Aging shingles is a step-by-step process--how many steps is determined by the look you want. We begin by masking off the rest of the project with taped-on sheets of newspaper, then Bug Juicing the whole roof and allowing it to dry thoroughly. We apply Bug Juice with a 1" foam brush, methodically overlapping strokes to get full coverage on the first coat. Glue spots show up right away because they won't darken. To remove such spots, scrape with an Exacto blade, then dampen and scrub out any residue. Any light spots remaining can be later toned-down with a dirty water wash. Depending on the wood (test yours on a sample piece), Bug Juice will produce varying colors, from a neutral gray-brown, to gray, to black. Wait until the Juice is totally dry before judging the color. If your shingles look too dark, thin the Bug Juice with water until you get a neutral gray. Another antidote for dark shingles is to lighten them with an application of water and household bleach--about 50/50--applied with a 1" foam brush in smooth, downward strokes. Bleach also enhances the texture of the shingles, and adds a subtle, realistic greenish tinge. If you have silver gray walls, we recommend a darker roof for contrast. We usually aim for a medium-to-deep gray-brown.

With our cedar shingles, after the Bug Juice dries, I emphasize the wood grain by wire brushing the roof (with a housepainter's wire brush) in downward strokes. Then I sand the whole roof lightly, in downward strokes, with 80 grit sandpaper, then go back with a finer--100-120 grit--paper to add a little more age, especially near the lower edges. (Notice on full-size buildings how the bottom of each shingle, as well as the roofs, show more age.) For even more age, I may apply a bleach solution of 1 T bleach to 5 T water, which, after a few minutes, I dab off with wet paper towels (I recommend a mask and goggles if you sand after bleaching). When I'm happy with the texture, I then re-apply Bug Juice (use the same dilution as the first application) and allow it to dry. Still not satisfied, I make up a dirty water wash of Mars Black, warmed with a little Raw Umber (mud puddle color). Just before applying the wash, I dampen the roof with clear water, using a 1" foam brush. Then using a #10 watercolor round brush, I apply several washes (allowing each application to dry) until I come upon a tone I like.

About this time, Noel comes in with his #10 round and adds darker washes where a tree might have shaded the house, and a strong wash of Grumbacher Sap Green tube watercolor (watercolor is more transparent, and can be sponged off if the color is too strong), to indicate moss. If this is a really old roof (say, on a garden shed) I'll go back with some real moss, that I've pulled out almost hair-by-hair and trimmed to about 1/8" in length, and glue it under the edges of some of the greener shingles.

shinglesFor the famous Cape Cod silver-gray shingles, I begin with my favorite piece of driftwood from the beach to check my color against. After the Bug Juicing/brushing/ sanding/bleaching steps, I then mix a watery wash of Titanium White, the tinniest dab of Mars Black, and some Raw Umber. The umber warms up an undesirable blue cast from the black. This I apply in layers of the thinnest washes, checking my color against the driftwood sample to prevent it from getting too chalky, too blue, or too brown. Some variation is both inevitable and desirable.

For woodsier locales, or those shingles unaffected by the whitening qualities of salt air, it's a matter of adjusting the proportions of the pigments in the washes. On the Maine coast we've found houses that were silver gray on the ocean side, and a variegated almost chocolate brown on the shore sides. It takes practice to get the knack of it, but if you approach it cautiously, and allow each wash to dry, you can sneak up on any color you want. Think of a wash as a way to add tone, a feel, rather than as painting on color. Though I hate to say "always,"I'll say it here anyway: to keep the toning even, always apply a wash over wood that has been dampened first with plain water. Add to that, "Look at the real thing whenever possible!" and you'll have all the tools necessary.

Once the weathering's done, we cap our roof s with flashing made from old wine bottle leads. As most wine is now sealed with plastic, you'll need to ask your miniature dealer (or stained glass supply or hardware store) about 1/64" (or thinner) lead tape. (The Dollhouse Factory (1-800-DOLLHOUSE) carries B&H Miniatures' Lead Foil Tape that should do the trick.) With an Exacto knife, cut the lead into _"w strips. Short lengths are fine (ours are 3 3/8" long), as you'll be overlapping them on the roof (for authenticity and texture). Next, flatten the strips by rolling them out on a sheet of glass with a smooth, round Exacto knife handle. To "galvanize" flashing, Noel makes a watery wash (he calls it "colored water") with Grumbacher Mars Black and Titanium White (acrylics). Putting a dab of each near the rim of a saucer, and a pool of water in the middle, he mixes a light gray (dirty white) wash with a #10 round watercolor brush. He brushes on the mix, enough to break the surface resistance of the metal. "Just keep brushing, " he says, " 'til you break it down and the wash starts to adhere. Not thick, it's a wash you scrub in, apply wet and allow to pool." After it dries he applies a thin wash of Raw Umber acrylic, to warm the color slightly. Let it settle and pool with the natural irregularities of the metal.

While the strips dry, you can Bug Juice and glue a 3/32" dowel along the roof peak. This makes a better looking shape around which to apply the flashing than just the trimmed shingle tops. We then glue down the strips (with Elmer's), pressing them around the dowel so there is an equal amount of flashing on either side of the peak. We overlap each section by about 1/16" (to keep out the rain, of course!). As a final embellishment, you can ornament the peak by painting two map tacks with aluminum paint (to match the flashing) and sticking them into either end of the dowel. Other details will depend on the period, age and intricacy of the architecture you are miniaturizing.

- Pat Thomas