Traditional trades being kept alive at Port Arthur

March 31, 2009

It’s not a forgotten art, but cutting wooden shingles just doesn’t rate among the must-have skills required of contemporary builders.

However, for a state so rich in built heritage, the demand still exists for artisans who can split a log straight down the middle and swing an adze to produce near identical roof shingles.

Father and son Ted and Gareath Plummer are among a rare breed these days. They are self-taught splitters and part of a team of skilled artisans working at the Port Arthur Historic Site.

When they are not caught up in the routine maintenance program at the former penal colony, Ted and Gareath are ensuring there is adequate material to repair and build the site’s rustic post-and-rail fences and to re-roof the historic timber-shingled cottages.

Unlike tiles and corrugated iron, roofing shingles last only about 20 years and even less if the material used is of inferior quality.

Stringy bark and brown peppermint are the preferred timbers and an agreement with Forestry Tasmania and its contractors ensures a supply of straight-grained logs for Port Arthur.

Ted and Gareath are preparing their splitting tools – mauls, wedges and adzes – for their next major project: re-roofing the Clerk of Works’ house at the Port Arthur Historic Site dockyard.

And because visitors are so intrigued by examples of traditional skills being used on heritage buildings, the public are being invited to see the shingle splitters and roof layers at work.

The demonstration, between 10.30am and 3.30pm on Wednesday April 8, will showcase the age-old craft, from log to roof.

In the north of the state, historic home owners and others with an appreciation for artisan skills will be able to see these traditional skills at work at Brickendon Estate at Longford on Tuesday 28 April.

Port Arthur convicts were involved in timber getting and shingle splitting during their incarceration. Historic records show that the Clerk of Works’ house was shingled by convicts in 1857 using hand-split “tiles” from local peppermint gum trees. However, it’s the shingles installed in the 1980s that will be replaced by Ted and Gareath.

They start the shingle production process by carefully selecting their raw materials from coups recommended by Forestry Tasmania.

Their most recent “timber picking” trip into the bush took them to Lake Leake.

“It is really good to get out in the bush but you have to go a fair way to find suitable timber,” Gareath said.

“We do a trial split on site to make sure we pick the best straight-grained logs.

“Sometimes quite a few logs are needed because the shingles you make have to be the same size and quality. And you can’t use the ‘heart wood’ or the bark so there is a fair bit of waste.”

The splitting process begins by sawing the selected logs into rounds. Iron wedges are driven into the rounds, splitting them into neat billets. The bark and sapwood are shaved from the billets which are then split into rough, tile-shaped shingles. A shingle hatchet is used to shave the edges. The roofers overlap the shingles exposing only a small portion to the elements. The natural raised grain of the shingle timber creates natural valleys to help drain water off the roof.

Gareath said he and Ted acquired their splitting skills by trial and error.

Being handy with tools, they watched the process and applied their practical skills. They have even fashioned a long-headed axe to assist them.

The re-shingling of the Clerk of Works’ house is part of a larger ceiling and roof repair project involving another traditional building skill, lath and plastering.

With the passing of time and ongoing building movement, the lath and plaster ceilings in the Clerks of Works’ house have become cracked and fragile. A special two-part conservation treatment of primer and adhesive is being used by Port Arthur’s talented building crew to consolidate and strengthen the plaster material to prevent further damage to the important fabric.

Roof Shingling Demonstration – Port Arthur Historic Site Dockyard
10.30am-3.30pm Wednesday April 8
Access to the demonstration is included in the cost of Site entry

Roof Shingling Demonstration – Brickendon Estate at Longford
Tuesday 28 April – free

Port Arthur staff member Ted Plummer demonstrates how to split wooden roof shingles

Port Arthur staff member Ted Plummer demonstrates how to split wooden roof shingles

Father and son Ted and Gareath Plummer hard at work splitting shingles

Father and son Ted and Gareath Plummer hard at work splitting shingles

The Clerk of Works' House at Port Arthur's Dockyard, showing its shingle roof

The Clerk of Works’ House at Port Arthur’s Dockyard, showing its shingle roof