roofing and roof specialties

Clay Tile Roofs: Repair & Replacement

A short course on repairing old roofs and installing new ones.

Click here for suppliers of new and salvaged roof tile
Click here for consultants specializing in traditional roofing materials
Click here for contractors specializing in traditional roofing materials

More than any other roof type, the traditional tile roof is an architectural feature deserving of special attention because the texture, color, and play of light and shadow impart a distinctive character to a building that no other roof type can match. Yet tens of thousands of tile roofs have been lost in recent decades because of the ignorance or laziness of low-level roofing repair contractors. When a contractor says of a tile roof, "That can't be repaired," it only means that he or she can't repair it!

REPAIR, DON'T REPLACE. Because installing a new tile roof is labor intensive, initial cost is high. But when initial costs are amortized over the life expectancy of the roof, a clay tile roof can be very cost effective. The high value of a tile roof is the primary reason to seek ways to repair -- rather than replace -- if at all possible.

SOURCES OF FAILURE. Well-made clay roofing tiles are extremely durable; most will last over a century under most conditions. If a tile roof is leaking, common causes are: (a) failure of metal flashings; (b) failure of the metal fasteners; and (c) a few broken tiles caused by careless roofers, cascading ice, etc. Unless all the tiles have been smashed by a catastrophic hail storm, it's unusual to find that all the tiles on a roof are worn out or somehow damaged.

REPAIR OPTIONS. If failure of metal flashings is the source of most leaks, it's possible to lift a limited number of tiles, replace all flashings and re-lay the original tiles. During this process, you may also find some broken or cracked tiles. (An experienced roofer can tell by gentle tapping whether a tile retains its structural integrity or has hidden fissures.) Cracked or missing tiles should be replaced at this time. Work on an existing tile roof must be done by an experienced roof tile contractor; an inexperienced contractor may break more tiles than he or she replaces.

TRICKS OF TILE MATCHING. Tile replacement on an existing roof raises the issue of tile matching. The accompanying list of roof tile suppliers contains several companies that maintain large inventories of salvaged roof tile, and they can be quite helpful in locating matching tiles. If you can't find an exact match, a frequently used trick is to scavenge tiles from the least visible part of the roof -- tiles used for patching -- and fill in the vacant spot in the inconspicuous roof area with the near-miss tiles.

Salvaged tiles that match the original tiles can also be a cost-effective solution if you're making an addition to a tile-roofed building, and matching tiles are not currently in production as a standard item.

If at all possible, try to avoid getting into custom production of matching clay roof tiles. Manufacturing exact matches of color, shape and texture in fired-clay roof tiles is as much an art as a science and is thus a lengthy -- and costly -- process.

FASTENER FAILURE. Sometimes a roof will start shedding perfectly good roof tiles because the original installer used cheap galvanized nails instead of copper. If the galvanized nails are rusting and failing, the only satisfactory solution is to remove all the tiles and re-lay them using copper or stainless steel nails. Even though this is a labor-intensive process, the result will be a lot more satisfactory -- and long lasting -- than an asphalt-shingle replacement.

LOOK-ALIKE MATERIALS. Fired-clay roof tiles are definitely a premium-grade roofing material -- and are priced accordingly. There are also substitute roofing materials, including metal and concrete, that can create the appearance of a clay tile roof at a saving in cost and sometimes weight. The accompanying list of replica suppliers will point you toward some of the leading manufacturers of look-alike substitute roofing materials.

THE RIGHT CONTRACTOR. As pointed out above, when dealing with a clay tile roof -- whether it's a repair or a completely new installation -- it's essential to deal with a contractor who's experienced in handling roof tile.