How To Tarpaper a Roof

Simple But Necessary

If you’ve never seen a tarpaper shack, you haven’t lived. Where I grew up in rural Montana, there were a number of them. Tarpaper–not just for the roof!

The roof is, however, where most homes apply the product known as roofing felt. It comes in two “weights”, namely “fifteen pound” and “thirty pound”. Simply described, this ubiquitous building material is generally manufactured in rolls that are a bit more than 39 inches wide and something like 66 feet long–producing what professionals call a “square”, or 100 square feet, of coverage. It’s made of paper felt which is thoroughly impregnated with asphalt tar, the result being both waterproof and windproof but pretty easy to tear if you’re not careful putting it down.

Some online writers actually claim the lighter, fifteen pound version is the best way to go if you’re not a real dummy who’s getting suckered by your contractor. Well, paint me green and call me a dummy. I’ve actually worked with both and hope to never again lay a hand on the lighter product. Both types may very well accomplish the task of placing a moisture barrier between sheathing boards and roofing panels or shingles, but I hate that fifteen pound junk! I mean detest it! Here’s why:

1. It’s a little cheaper than 30 pound felt, but only a little–even the heavier version was a bit under $20 a roll at Home Depot, and that’s a February 2010 price.

2. The heavier type rolls out on the roof like a rocket sled on rails. Well, not fast like that, but straight. Today, I’d line up a roll the way I wanted it, staple one end, roll the thing out all the way across the roof–and end up with a perfectly straight 36 foot line (the length of the roof). When I last used fifteen pound paper, it wasn’t quite as easy to keep straight.

3. The wind catches the lighter version more easily, flips it up, starts things ripping and tearing like crazy.

4. While I did tear the heavier felt a couple of times today, it was only when I was being really stupid (or at least careless). I just like to work with it so-o-o much better!

5. With the heavier material, you feel like you’re actually building something. With the other, it always felt like I was trying to hide a really lousy term paper between the shingles and the sheathing.

Okay. That’s settled.

Today was Monday. The Home Depot delivery truck arrived around 1: 30 p.m., offloaded roofing panels and tarpaper (plus a pallet of OSB strand board), and headed back out. I was more than ready to get to work. The roof sheathing had been finished on Saturday night, and rain was forecast.

Sheathing done; where's that tarpaper?

Sheathing done; where’s that tarpaper?

A better angle for showing the Huachuca Mountains in the background.

A better angle for showing the Huachuca Mountains in the background.

A view of the northwest corner.

A view of the northwest corner.

Yup, built by a guy who thinks in "fortress" terms (bullet-stopping walls and defensible windows).

Yup, built by a guy who thinks in “fortress” terms (bullet-stopping walls and defensible windows).

As seen from the incoming driveway.

As seen from the incoming driveway.

An Apology

To my regular readers: Sorry about not taking any photos of the tarpaper application as it was happening. Will get some of the finished roof, but time was of the essence and the camera got left in the camp trailer where Pam and Justin were vacuuming out nine months worth of cat hair from the carpet and scrubbing a monsoon’s worth of mud from the kitchen floor. Figured it was worth my life to go in there….

Fortunately, the tarpapering process is about as straightforward as any building phase can be. The steps:

1. Chunk a heavy roll of material up onto the roof. Good for the biceps and shoulders. Bad for the ego when twenty-five year old Justin can sling a roll two feet farther up the slope than I can.

2. “Forget” to tell Justin that fact. He was busy elsewhere whenever I had to boost my own roll of tarpaper, and it somehow slipped my mind to tell him he’d won the Homebuilders’ Olympic Shotput event.

3. Start at one bottom edge with an inch or two of paper extending out over the board edges. These rolls have cool “tracking lines” that help you keep the roll straight as you roll it out, but before you do that, staple one end down at the edge of the roof. You don’t want the “free” end following you across the roof, curling back up into a roll as it goes (comes?).

4. Except for the final row at the roof peak, only a few staples are needed for the long upper edge–because you’ll be overlapping that with the next row. When you staple the dickens out of that lower edge, it’ll also catch the upper edge of the row below it. I overlapped about 5 inches, a bit more than the so-called professionals insist upon–but whadda they know?

5. Use lots of staples along the lower edges and at the ends, especially if there may be a delay of a few days before the roof will be entirely covered with the final roofing (either shingles or panels). A horrible gust in the 75 mph range will rip things loose no matter what, but abundant stapling will prevent damage if the weather is more reasonable.

6. Where a roll runs out in the middle of the roof and another must be added to the picture, I like to (a) try to have the direction going so that the most likely wind-with-rain will slide over things shingle-style (our predominant winds are westerly, though in monsoon season we do get rain/wind from the east as well), and (b) use a huge overlap–about 18 inches. Sure, that’s overkill, but tarpaper is not expensive and water damage can ruin your whole day.

Miscellaneous

Unless you are to roofing as Michael Jordan is to the game of basketball, you’re going to have a ripple or a bubble here and there in your tarpaper. If the roof sheathing is perfectly level all the way across, then maybe not…but this is the real world, folks. I’ve got water-fluffed boards here and there, a tiny bit of sag between trusses to add to that, etc. Net result: Ripples. Where this happens, I just try to staple on both sides of the ripple, than add more staples until they “meet in the middle”. You may get a tiny crease in your paper, but no big–the final panels (or shingles) will flatten everything out sufficiently. For now, you mainly want to avoid giving the wind a toehold, sort of like keeping the camel’s nose out of your tent.

It also helps to buy at least one extra roll of tarpaper, i.e. one more than your calculations indicate you’re likely to need. I did that on “general principles” (one of my late father’s overused sayings). It turned out I didn’t need it after all, but only missed needing it by two feet of material. Without that sense of security from knowing it was there, who knows how many mistakes I might’ve made? Especially when the last three rows were covered after dark, me up there rolling out roofing felt and stapling on top of a pitch black roof on a moonless night…yes, of course I had a flashlight. In my mouth.

No wisecracks, please. Well, unless they’re really original.

Two hours after sunset, I was done. Supper was ready. Justin warned me to “get it while it was hot”…so of course I spilled the entire box of 5,000 staples all over the place while gathering up tools.

All in all, a perfect day.

Note: Photos of the tarpaper-covered roof will be added sometime within the next 48 hours–gotta wait for daylight to get the right shots. Hopefully, those photos will show no wind damage!

It came THIS close to needing that last, spare roll.

It came THIS close to needing that last, spare roll.

Looking much better than bare wood.

Looking much better than bare wood.

From the other side.

From the other side.

Close-up showing stapling.

Close-up showing stapling.

Extra staples containing a small wrinkle until the roofing panel can cover it over.

Extra staples containing a small wrinkle until the roofing panel can cover it over.

A neater bit of stapling.

A neater bit of stapling.

2 thoughts on “How To Tarpaper a Roof

  1. Thanks. The walls were built from a pile of dirt left over from the septic installation. I had the septic contractor (the only part I didn’t do myself, though I later realized I could have) push all the dirt into one pile. From there, earthbags were filled and, with two rows of 4 point barbed wire in between layers to hold everything together, the walls were built up bag by bag. Our soil his really high in clay content and dries pretty much like brick; we couldn’t have asked for a better building material.

    After this post, once the roof was completed, the walls were then added to as follows:

    1. OSB strand board sheathing above the earthbags.

    2. A heavy two-layer application of concrete stucco on the outside, filling in all the earthbag curves plus at least another inch. There are now (5 years later) a few cracks I should patch and repaint, but it’s structurally very solid indeed.

    3. Inside, a standard 2″ x 4″ stud wall was added, insulated with R13 fiberglass batting, then finished off with a layer of OSB strand board–instead of sheetrock, which I will not use. I detest sheetrock. The strand board adds to the overall structural strength and takes nails just fine when pictures need to be hung.

    By the time all was said and done, the 3-layer wall worked out to be 17 inches thick on average.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.