The Magazine

Shingler on the Roof

David Skinner, handyman.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By DAVID SKINNER
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"As is" was the description attached to the garage when my wife Cynthia and I bought this fixer-upper a couple of years ago. The house itself was habitable, more or less, but the garage was four slanting walls and a roof with holes, some big enough to pass a basketball through. Our insurance company sent a letter, mostly boilerplate, saying we needed to address the garage's peeling paint or we'd lose coverage for the house.

Cynthia called to explain that it was going to take a while since the garage's deficiencies went well beyond its damaged surface. Be that as it may, said the woman on the phone, you should still throw on a coat of paint.

In the spring I finally got around to working on the garage. Indeed, the paint was peeling, almost elegantly in spots, producing miniature scrolls. Elsewhere it was pockmarked, flecked, and bumpy, like the acne-ravaged cheek of one of those teenagers kids used to call pizza-face.

But the overall appearance of the building reminded me of those Southern, mossbacked, gothic ruins that are always being photographed. The only thing missing was a half-legible tombstone: Here stand the remains of a once-serviceable garage, hounded by nature, killed by neglect.

The situation was, in fact, urgent. With every "partly cloudy" forecast, I worried for my poor bicycle parked inside. (Its name is Murray, after Murray Kempton, the late bicycle-riding columnist. I plan to name every bicycle I own after a bicycle-riding writer or editor. My next bicycle may also go by the name Murray, after James Murray, the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Anyway, I started by hacking away at all the trees--or were they overgrown weeds?--that had been crowding and groping the garage, for years obviously, getting under its skin, pulling at its siding and prying off its shingles.

Then I learned the art of roofing, if anything so brutish can be called an art. As I understand it now, roofing comes down to one simple imperative: Don't fall off. The work is slow, dirty, and on a hot day, truly savage in that you lose all capacity for idle reflection because any bandwidth your brain can spare is devoted to not falling.

The dirtiest part is removing the old shingling, in my case three rotting layers of it. After just a few minutes, I looked like a chimney sweep. From then on, I knew always to wear long sleeves. After replacing some of the underlying boards and putting on a layer of weatherproofing, I was able to start reshingling. Getting to this point, though, took three grueling weekends.

To make the work go faster, a friend lent me a pneumatic nail gun. But if there is one thing worse than hanging onto a roof in the hot afternoon sun, as you fret constantly about falling to your death, it is doing this while holding what is literally a gun. The gun can blow nasty holes in wood, shingles, or human flesh, and it is attached by a long tube to a compressor that, without notice, clicks in and out of action with a loud, bitter groan that can be heard blocks away. So my quietly disturbing experience of working on the roof was made terrifying by the inhuman utterances of the compressor and the sound of gunshot nails. After a couple of hours, I went back to using an old-fashioned hammer.

My roofing artistry was hobbled in one major respect. A massive crack in the cement foundation of the garage sent the otherwise stable walls askew, which sent the roof askew, which made it hard to get the shingles to follow nice straight lines. Passing other people's houses now, I often study the grid-like geometry of the shingles on their rooftops. When the angles are a perfect 90 degrees and the spacing is truly regular, I naturally assume they are the work of a machine.

A couple of Sundays after I started, I was putting down the last rows of shingling. With a foul working-class expression falling from my lips, I discovered that I was out of gray shingles and down to a stack of brown ones I had bought accidentally. Running to Home Depot at this point would take another couple of hours, keeping me from finishing up until the next weekend.

So, I decided to create a pattern using the last of the gray shingles mixed in periodically with the brown. Architectural Digest has not come by yet to photograph this marvel, but -Cynthia says it's "not so bad," and I kinda like it. And I couldn't help swelling with pride when I opened the door of the newly roofed garage during the first storm to find that no rain was falling inside. This was my reward for so many hours of ridiculous, dangerous work. And now I was ready to start painting.

DAVID SKINNER