Every so often we get an inquiry from one of our readers wanting to replace a worn-out shake roof with asphalt shingles. The first question is, “Can I do it myself?” The second one is, “Do I have to replace the underlying boards with plywood?” Our answers are yes and yes.

Late last October, we received an e-mail from Jonathan Fishman, a homeowner in Davis, Calif. We were just entering what turned out to be one of the wettest winters in memory — not a good time for a column on re-roofing.

Now, with most of the rain behind us (we hope), it’s a good time to share Fishman’s story. It contains tons of good information and practical tips that we hope will inspire the do-it-yourself roofers out there. Here is what he wrote:

“My new roof just passed city inspection, and I am writing to say thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

“You may recall I wrote to you last spring asking for do-it-yourself advice on replacing several layers of old shingles, wood and comp.

“You told me I needed to nail a new OSB (oriented strand board) deck over the existing skip sheathing. Indeed, that was the case: Strip three layers of shingles, install a new deck, and nail down the new shingles.

“I could have done all that work myself, if it didn’t rain for five years. Hiring helpers was out of the question because of the legal issues involved. So, I decided to have a builder put on the new deck. I installed the shingles myself.

“I’m going to stop short of enthusiastically recommending roofing as a do-it-yourself project. The work is not especially interesting; it involves a great deal of kneeling, squatting and heavy lifting, all the while trying not to fall off. And it’s very hot.

“Here in Davis, when it’s 100 degrees on the ground, it’s 120 on the roof, or more. That’s as high as my thermometer goes.

“On the other hand, it does give a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, since you can look over every day what you have accomplished. And you get an appreciation of the environment from a new angle. I loved being up there first thing in the morning, watching the neighborhood wake up, and seeing the landscape and streets from a new perspective.

“I figure it took me about 150 hours, and whether it was worth the trouble versus the money saved is practically an existential question.

“At least I feel confident the work was done right. I found out that roofing is piecework, and I have some consternation when I think of the corners the pros must cut in order to make it pay.

“A good book on roofing and some self-discipline are all anyone needs to do what I did. I only have a few pearls of wisdom to share with prospective roofers:

  • Get a wide-brimmed hat, like a Panama. A baseball cap does not give sufficient sun protection. It’s amazing how much more you can get done when you’re not keeling over from heat prostration.

  • Snap chalk lines for each and every course. It’s a lot of trouble, but if you do this, the shingles will find their places practically by themselves. And, instead of messing with a tape measure, I made story sticks (measuring sticks) customized for the shingles I was using. This saved a lot of time and frustration.

  • You need a pneumatic nailer, not just so you can get the job done in a timely manner, but to save your arm from the consequences of driving 7,000 nails. Renting one makes sense only if you intend to finish in less than a week. These can be dangerous, but not in the way most people would assume. You probably won’t put a nail through your foot, but it is awfully easy to trip over the air hose. So be careful up there.

  • I strongly prefer nails over staples, for I have seen on my old roof how staples can cut through old shingles, rendering them useless. I can’t understand why any competent roofer would use them.

  • Be paranoid about water. Anywhere you think water might have a chance of getting in, cover it, flash it or caulk it. It will pay off later, in peace of mind, if not more tangible ways.

“Patience and good humor are a must, but of course everyone knows this, and I’m afraid I’m starting to sound vapid so I’ll stop now.

“I just wanted to say thanks: It was corresponding with you that got me off on the right track. I even inspired a neighbor, who, following my example, has decided to do his own roof. He thanks you as well.”

Congratulations, Jonathan. You tackled a big job, and you deserve to feel proud. Your message provides some valuable information from someone (other than the two of us) who has actually “done it.” Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

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