the durable slate company logo
1 (877) 340-9181
Georgetown Lutheran, Washington DCGeorgetown Lutheran, Washington DC

Clay-Tile Roofing

The Durable Slate Company is your expert clay tile roofing contractor with the experience to handle any clay tile roofing job, no matter the size. Whether you have a few tiles out of place or want to discuss a new roof or roof replacement, we're ready. Let's talk.

Request a Quote

Historic (and Pre-Historic) Tile

Clay roofing tiles come in a huge variety of colors, shapes, sizes, styles, and textures. Used throughout the world for thousands of years, clay roofing tiles were originally hand made and fired. Demand drove large-scale manufacturing, expanding the number, size, consistency, and variety of clay tile roofs globally. Durable, versatile, and energy efficient, clay roofing tiles remain a popular option among architects and historic roofers.

close-up of tile roofing on Stifel Fine Arts Center in Wheeling West Virginia

History of Clay Tile Roofing

Clay tile roofing can be traced back as far as 10,000 year B.C. to Neo-Lithic China and the Middle East. From these early beginnings, clay tile roofing expanded into Asia and west-ward into Europe. Ancient Greece and even more ancient Babylon would stand as some of the best very-old-world examples of clay tile roofing done right.

And, like so much else, 17th century New World bound settlers brought the practice and art of clay tile roofing to the United States. Thanks in no small part to Dutch traders who imported the product from Holland for distribution. As popularity grew and demand rose, clay roofing tiles would eventually be fabricated locally in the Hudson River Valley and distributed southward to New Amsterdam and beyond.

In fact, dating to as early as 1585, remnants of clay tile roofs have been found in Roanoke, Virginia, North Carolina, and early English settlements throughout Jamestown, Virginia, and Maryland. Spanish and French settlements common during Florida and Louisiana’s colonial era famously used clay tile roofing materials, some of which are currently popular tourist destinations.

This early popularity owes much to clay tile’s natural fire resistance. Increasingly dense and populace urban centers are more fire prone than their ancient predecessors and poor building manufacture has contributed to countless deaths from fire. The Boston Fire of 1679, for example, compelled the first building codes in New York and Boston. These codes encouraged the adoption of clay roofing tiles to control the spread of urban fires.

Besides, clay roof tile’s naturally low thermal conductivity makes it a great insulator and good protection against any New England winter.
However, by the early nineteenth century, new roofing materials – such as slate, copper, and wood shingles – were gaining in popularity. Often cheaper, easier to install, and increasingly fashionable, these “new” materials gained market share. The clay tile recession would reverse by the middle-19th century, as Italianate Villa style buildings rose in popularity through the Eastern United States. By the 1870s, large scale factories in Akron, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, had been completely revitalized for a new era of clay tile roofing.

Indeed, clay tile roofing proved so popular that new styles, colors, and textures were invented to meet novel market demands and frequently changing architectural tastes. And with those needs, new clay-tile alternatives sprung up – including metal sheeting made to resemble clay tile roofs and eventually plastic.

Romantic Revival architecture in America advanced clay tile roof demand into the 20th century, as well as an expansive new selection of factories to produce and market to America’s intense roofing tastes.

Despite this variety, surviving and contemporary clay tiles comes in essentially two styles: interlocking and overlapping. Both styles must be fastened to the roof with nails. Terra cotta red is probably the most recognizable, and obviously clay, color choice; the unique hue owing to the iron oxide inherent in most clay. Depending on the amount of iron, the clay tile produced will have a deeper (more iron) or lighter (less) color once fired. Additives, like manganese, can alter the outcome color and glazing can also be used to change the natural color and texture completely.
clay roofing tiles as seen from drone aboveclose-up of red spanish tile and dormer in south carolina

Outstanding Longevity

While clay tile roofs are uniquely beautiful, they are also fragile and demand special care and precautions in order to preserve and eventually repair them. Like slate, clay tile has an exceptional life expectancy. When properly installed and maintained, a century or longer is common; in rare cases, clay tile roofs can last several hundred years or longer.

If a repair is needed, it is crucial to choose a clay tile roofing contractor with the experience and expertise needed to correctly identify your repair solution and implement in a way that respects the historicity of the roof. 

Improper repairs can create new, costly problems immediately, as well as unexpected, avoidable problems down the road. 
Done right the first time – with proper attention to routine, small stuff maintenance – and your clay-tile roof will be incredibly low maintenance, long-lasting, beautiful, and largely fire proof.

Since antiquity, resistance to fire has been a strong driver for clay tile roof adoption. Before alternative roofing solutions were developed, wood, straw, and other highly flammable materials were used for roofing. In urban areas, these poor, highly flammable materials contributed to the rapid spread and intensity of city-wide fires. 

To save lives and reduce property damage costs, fire resistant materials like clay tile became natural and popular options, and were eventually encouraged by zoning and building codes.
clay roofing tile preservationclay roofing tiles with moss header image

Tile Roof Preservation & Repair

Although naturally durable, fire resistant, and excellent insulators, clay tile roofs will eventually require repair. Chiefly, individual clay tiles suffer from frost damage and the roof itself might suffer from a problem inherent to that particular roof or, more commonly, an issue with the fastening system underneath. Anything built to survive a century or longer will see the full, unrelenting and patient power of Mother Nature. If there is a chink in your roof’s armor, she’ll find it or patiently carve out a new weakness. But proper attention to the unique needs of your roof, plus expert knowledge about the properties of clay tile will greatly reduce roof maintenance requirements.

Antique clay tile roofs tended to use wooden pegs to fasten each tile. After the wood has rotted, that tile might shift or loosen, possibly break. These fasteners were often replaced with iron, which also corrodes quickly (again, relative to the age of the roof). Unlike modern asphalt roofs which presume multiple replacements within a century, the materials needed to fasten a clay roof tile must be able to endure.

As the fasteners decay and the tiles shift or slide, associated structures such as the metal flashing, valleys, and gutters can cause irregular water drainage and pooling, accelerating roof damage. All told, the whole roof stands or falls together and small cracks can grow quickly into major leaks or other problems.
Over time, the roof supports might be unable to withstand the constant weight of the clay tiling, particularly if water has snuck inside. This weight might cause the roof to sag, again causing water pooling, cracked tiles, and deep structural problems that worsen with time.

Pooled water is made more dangerous as outside temperatures drop. The freezing water will relentlessly expand, damming water from flowing downward, adding to the total volume of water stuck on the roof, eventually damaging nearby tiles, flashing, and just about everything else.

Simply: Clay tile is a fragile material and easily damaged by frost or ice damming problems. If there are any outstanding water drainage issues it is wise to treat them immediately; winter will offer no respite here.

Adding insult to injury, inexperienced clay roofing contractors can cause unintended damage by walking improperly on clay tiles. For this and other reasons, it is essential that an experienced clay tile roofing contractor be hired for all repairs, maintenance, and clay tile roof replacements.
georgetown lutheran in washington dc. clay tile roof repairrepaired copper gutters, spanish red clay roofing tile, and copper standing seam roof in south carolina

Clay Tile Roof Maintenance

Leaks, missing tiles, and broken tiles are clear signals that something is wrong with your roof. That said, with a structure as complex – and in some cases ancient – as a clay tile roof, finding the ultimate source of that leak can be a daunting challenge. As the water travels, it might move a good distance from the break point, creating a visible leak well away from its true origin, revealing other problems along the way.

After a comprehensive roofing examination has been completed and the source of the leak and other damage identified, a repair and preservation program can be designed to suit that roof. This can include immediate, but temporary protections to prevent more damage, clay roofing tile replacement, a new roofing membrane, flashing repair, and more. Sometimes it is necessary to replace several interlocked rows of clay tiles; sometimes a full roof replacement is recommended. Replacing individual tiles without breaking adjacent tiles is challenging and requires exceptional training and practice. As noted, clay roofs as a whole are quite durable; the individual tiles are quite fragile.
Often, the tiles themselves are fine, but the underlayment or fasteners have decayed. In these cases the expert’s challenge is doubled; remove the original tiles without damage to unaffected tiles, repair the area underneath, and securely re-fasten with new corrosion resistant nails. It is not unusual for the original tiles to be in good condition. If the fastening system underneath is too severely damaged, it might be necessary to remove all of the original tiles, install new fastenings and battens, then re-attach the original tiles with new fasteners.

It is essential that broken or missing clay tiles be replaced with matching, if modern-made, clay tile replacements.

For this reason, it is best to avoid concrete, metal, or plastic look-alikes; their coloration will age differently, but more importantly they can cause structural deficiencies that might cause water to flow unevenly, pooling and eventually backing up into more vulnerable roofing areas.

Avoid the nightmare and have your clay tile roof installed or repaired by established historic roofing professionals.
a stack of reclaimed roofing tiles

Choose Durable Slate

Whether replacing individual clay tiles or the entire roof, it is important, and sometimes mandatory, to preserve the original historical look. The Durable Slate Company has one of America’s largest stocks of reclaimed clay tiles and we can match almost any kind of clay roofing tile for a near-exact match for any sized roofing repair or replacement project.

When choosing a historical roofing contractor, it is also important that they adhere to historically sound roofing methods. Patching a hole with tar, asphalt, or caulk might be cheap and expeditious, but it is short-lived and visually inconsistent. Any place where water can be allowed to pool, such as behind temporary tar patches, will add damage and detract from the lasting, almost effortless value of your clay tile roof.
As with any roof, regular maintenance can prevent eventual damage. In the case of clay tile roofs, small but routine effort can help to make your roof last almost effortlessly. Clean your gutters and downspouts. Check the underside of your roof (via the attic) after heavy rains for leaks, debris, or other unusual issues. Catching them early can save money with timely repairs.

And, of course, choose the right clay tile roofing contractor for a job done once, correctly, using historically sound roofing methods.

Learn More:

spanish red clay roofing tilesgreen clay tile roofing with copper guttersgreen clay roofing tiles and copper dormerred clay roofing tiles
More than a roof.