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By Mary Ellen Polson

Photo Courtesy Ludowici Roof Tile, Inc.

Considered over the lifespan of a house, a clay tile roof is a bargain. This colorful, richly dimensioned, historically appropriate roofing material can last for hundreds of years with proper maintenance and care. It's also exceptionally durable. Fire resistant and capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds, clay tile even survives earthquakes. It's no wonder that clay tile has been one of the premier roofing choices for millennia. If your home has an original tile roof, by all means keep it. As a rule, the fasteners and underlayment-even lead-coated copper flashing-will fail long before the tile will. An original roof is especially valuable because it is part of the architecture of an old house. Since a new or vintage tile roof can cost $20,000 to $60,000 or more, treat yours as an irreplaceable asset. While repairing or replacing a clay tile roof isn't for the faint of pocketbook, the good news for old-house owners is that both new and vintage (i.e., salvaged) tile are widely available (see "Suppliers," p. 00). Before you shop for a new roof, arm yourself with some basic knowledge about the shape, mechanics, size, color, and sources of origin of this extraordinary building material.

Shape. While literally hundreds of types of roofing tile have been made throughout history, most styles available today fit one of six or seven basic shapes. These include Spanish (or "S"), Mission (also called barrel), shingle (or slab), English, French, and Roman (or pan). Variations on shingle tiles alone include textured (or "rustic") tiles, thick and irregular slab or "crude" tiles, and cambered tiles. The concave shapes of exposed Spanish, Mission, and Roman tiles create undulating patterns and interesting shadow lines. Deeply grooved French tiles and interlocking English shingles offer well-defined shadow lines, while flat or cambered shingle tiles afford softer edges.

Mechanics. To make a watertight roof, tiles must either overlap or interlock. Interlocking tiles fit together with either a lip or one or more raised edges; since less coverage is required, the design promotes a more economical use of the material. Overlapping tiles lack both lips and raised edges. They may fit together by alternating concave and convex shapes, as with Mission and Roman tiles, or through staggered coverage, as with shingle tiles. While interlocking tiles weren't unheard of before the Civil War, many innovative designs were created by late-19th-century manufacturers and designers, such as George Babcock of Celadon Terra Cotta Co. (later Ludowici-Celadon), who patented more than 30 tiles. Then as now, manufacturers were looking for ways to make the material cover more surface area at a lower cost.

Size. The earliest American-made tiles were on the small side; some colonialera shingles measure as little as 10" x 6". Since larger tiles make it easier to cover a broad expanse of roof more quickly, manufacturers had an economic incentive to gradually push stock sizes upward. This pattern has continued late into the 20th century; stock sizes of a standard profile may be 2" to 3" longer than similar tiles dating to, say, 1900.

Color. Color is another variable in matching tile for an existing roof. Traditional unglazed tile is terra-cotta red, a result of the high percentage of iron oxide in the firing mixture. Natural variations on this hue range from light buff to pale orange and pink, deepening to reddish- and dark brown to black. Just as mineral content and firing techniques can alter the color of a piece of pottery, tile makers were adept at manipulating the firing process to produce unusual shades. Black, grey, purple, dark blue, and green casts weren't unusual on turn-of-the-century tiles. Manufacturers experimented with colored glazes, introducing shiny and matte greens, blues, and even lavender tiles to late-19th-century rooftops.

Origin. Between 1870 and 1930, dozens of factories churned out product in locations as diverse as New York, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and California-often tapping a rich source of natural clay. Two hardy survivors -Ludowici Roof Tile in Ohio and Gladding, McBean of California-still produce clay tile in many traditional profiles and colors. They're also able to re-create some vintage patterns they no longer carry as stock items. Since many manufacturers stamped the factory name on the back of the tile, samples from your roof may yield clues to its place of origin.

Picking and Choosing Tile. Given the diversity in tile profiles, colors, and sizes available over just the past 100 years, it's astounding that anyone can find a match for a historic tile roof. If you're contemplating a repair, replacement, or an addition to an original tile roof, you'll need professional assistance to choose and install the new material. Here are some guidelines to follow.

  • Most of the basic profiles haven't changed significantly in generations.
  • However, manufacturers have altered their products over the decades. For this reason, vintage salvaged tiles are often better candidates for a period house restoration or addition than are new tiles of the same profile.
  • If you know the tile on your roof was made by a manufacturer still in business, contact the firm directly to identify the pattern. Even if the tile is no longer in stock, the company may be able to recreate it by striking a new mold and color-matching the tile. This is usually an expensive proposition, especially if you only need a small quantity of tile.
  • Tiles are either handmade (barrel tiles were traditionally formed over the legs of workers) or machine made. Machine made tiles were introduced about 1870; if your house was built after that, you likely have machine made clay tile.
  • Like most roofing materials, tile is usually sold by the square (the quantity needed to cover 100 square feet when laid with average exposure). Quoted prices usually include installation, which can equal or exceed the cost of the materials. The price per square, installed, can run from $700 or $800 to several thousand dollars. Most houses require between 20 and 40 squares, depending on the pitch and complexity of the roof.
  • If you need only a small amount of tile, you may be able to buy it by the piece. Expect to pay proportionately higher prices for small lots.
  • Don't allow a roofing contractor to talk you into removing a clay tile roof. A good tile roofer should be able to demonstrate his or her skills to you (such as rigging the scaffolding to prevent damage to the tile) and should also be knowledgeable about sources for both new and vintage tile. You might want to consider breaking in a prospective roofer by having the company perform routine roof maintenance.
  • Let architecture guide you to an appropriate tile selection. For instance, choose Spanish or Mission tiles for a Spanish-influenced design; French tiles for a Chateauesque or French Provincial house; interlocking or flat English tiles for a Tudor Revival home.
  • Finding a match for existing tile usually means working closely with a reputable salvage tile dealer. You'll need to send samples of the tile taken from the field (broad area of tile) where replacements are needed. For many common types and colors, a dealer can often find a match from the same production run from the same factory.
  • Bear in mind that color choices in the past were limited. The color palette for a period house will usually fall in the earth-tone range, and most tiles will be unglazed.
  • Some types of vintage tile are harder to match than others. Popular common profiles, such as unglazed Mission and Spanish tiles in terra-cotta red, are easier to come by than a vintage crude tile. Tiles were sometimes flash-fired in the kiln to produce a black, dark brown, or almost blue random cast over about two-thirds of the face. Because of the danger of explosion, tiles are no longer made this way.
  • To achieve the aged look of a traditional English roof, choose a shingle tile with a cambered (slightly bent) shape. Rustic and crude slab shingles will also yield interesting aged effects.

Gladding, McBean
P.O. Box 97, Lincoln, CA 95648
(800) 964-CLAY

Ludowici Roof Tile Inc.
P.O. Box 69, 4757 Tile Plant Rd.
New Lexington, OH 43764
(800) 945-8453, www.ludowici.com

M.C.A. Clay Roof Tile
1985 Sampson Ave., Corona, CA 91719
(800) 736-6221, www.mca-tile.com

MET-Tile Inc.
1745 Monticello Ct., P.O. Box 4268
Ontario, CA 91761, (909) 947-0311

Monier Inc.
1 Park Plaza, Suite 900, Irvine, CA 92614
(714) 756-1605, www.monierrooftile.com

Northern Roof Tile Sales Co. Inc.
4408 Mile Strip Rd., Suite 266
Blasdell, NY 14219, (905) 627-4035

The Tile Man, Inc.
520 Vaiden Rd., Louisburg, NC 27549
(919) 853-6923, www.thetileman.com

P.O. Box 1694, Roanoke, TX 76262
(817) 491-2444

Vande Hey-Raleigh
1665 Bohm Dr., Little Chute, WI 54140
(800) 236-8453, www.arcat.com


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