Asphalt shingles are the most common roofing material in America. Wood shingles and cedar shakes are classic roofing materials that were the most common before asphalt took over. When choosing a new roof for your home, these two roofing materials can each provide some benefits, but each has its drawbacks, too. So let’s walk through a side-by-side comparison to see how the two compare.

Asphalt Shingles v Cedar Shakes: Which is Better [infographic]

A Brief History of Asphalt Shingles

Asphalt shingles owe their existence to another innovation of the 19th century, artificial lighting. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, predominantly French and English scientists began experimenting with ways to create “manufactured gas”. By burning coal in an oxygen-poor environment, gases were produced that could be used for lighting. In 1812 Gas Light and Coke Company was incorporated in London. They became the first company to sell manufactured gas as a utility.

One byproduct of the gas manufacturing process was coal tar. The tar was useless to the gas companies and expensive to dispose of. However, it was soon discovered that coal tar made an excellent adhesive. In 1846 a man named Samuel Warren began to experiment with coal tar and eventually perfected a method for creating a waterproof roofing material by applying coal tar to paper. He opened up a factory in Cincinnati where he began manufacturing his “tar paper” and the material became a hit. At first, gas companies would pay Warren to take away their leftover coal tar. Eventually, gas companies began to charge for their coal tar, so tar paper manufacturers moved to natural asphalt. Thus was born the first asphalt roofing.

The Popularization of Asphalt Shingles

For the rest of the 19th century, tar paper for roofing was sold in large sheets. But in 1903 a contractor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had the idea of cutting the sheets into individual shingles. The asphalt shingles provided a more traditional appearance, more closely resembling the wood roofs that were common at the time.

Asphalt shingles would have remained a niche product if it weren’t for the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Beginning in 1911, the National Board of Fire Underwriters ran an aggressive campaign against wooden roofs, citing fire safety concerns. Asphalt shingles rushed in to fill the market space opened up by the abandonment of wood roofing. By the 1930s, asphalt shingles were the most common roofing material in America.

However, despite the boom in asphalt shingles, wood shingles still remained as their largest competitor. Today, wood and asphalt shingles are the two main types of shingles used on homes in the United States.

The Difference Between Wood Shingles and Shakes

Wood shakes have been produced for centuries in the same way. They are split from logs, providing a somewhat rough and varied texture. Wood shake is instantly recognizable by its thick butt end, which is different than wood shingles. As sawmills became common in the industrial age, many shakes were sawed on one side after they were split. This sawing provided a smooth backside to the shake, making it easier to install.

Once it was possible to saw a shake smooth, sawmills began to go one step further and saw both sides of a shake. Sawing both sides created a smooth product with an even thickness. These evenly cut shakes are what we refer to as wood shingle.

Wood shakes are often made of California redwood, western red cedar, cypress, spruce, and pine. However, cedar is by far the most popular material. Both wood shakes and shingles can be pressure treated with chemical preservatives and fire retardants.

Asphalt Shingle v Wood Shingle/Shake:

Cost of Materials and Installation

Wood shake is one of the most expensive materials for shingling a roof. Installed, a wood shake roof can cost from $6.50 to $11.00 per square foot. Roofing materials are normally priced by the “square” (100 square feet), so wood shake would be $650 to $1,100 per square, installed.

Wood shingle is a little bit cheaper. At $4.50 to $9.00 a square foot, or $450 to $900 a square, installed, wood shingle is a cheaper option for homeowners seeking a wood roof.

By comparison, asphalt shingle is one of the cheapest residential roofing materials. At $2.50 to $5.50 per square foot or $250 to $550 per square installed, asphalt shingle has the lowest startup costs of any widely used residential roofing material.


If asphalt shingle is so much cheaper, you might wonder why anyone bothers with wood roofing. The answer is simple: it’s all about looks. Wood shingle and wood shake are classic roofing materials. If you are installing a roof on a historic home, cedar shake is probably the most appropriate material. If you live in an area with a lot of wood roofs, for example in a historic district, you may have little choice.

That’s not to say that asphalt shingle has to be ugly. Asphalt shingle is as varied as it is popular. It comes in a huge variety of colors and textures. More recently, a new type of asphalt shingle called “dimensional” or “architectural” shingles. Instead of the completely uniform look of traditional “3-tab” asphalt shingles, architectural shingles are cut into a variety of shapes and sizes. They are also thicker than 3-tab shingles. This creates a more natural look that is closer in appearance to shake or other natural materials.


The life expectancy of an asphalt or wooden roof can vary widely depending on a number of factors. The quality of materials, the installation, and the diligence of maintenance are all major contributing factors to an asphalt or wood roof’s longevity. Other factors include things like overhanging trees, the age of the house, and climate.

In general, architectural shingles and wooden shakes last longer than 3-tab asphalt and wooden shingles. This is mostly because they are thicker. In ideal conditions, an asphalt or treated wood roof could last 30 years. In many cases, however, the actual lifespan can be 12 to 18 years.

Cedar shake is relatively resistant to insects, but not to moisture. In climates with a lot of rain and humidity, the greatest enemy of any wood roof is mold and mildew. If there are overhanging trees, the sap they deposit can encourage mildew growth. Once a roof begins to rot it is usually too late for repairs. It is likely that the whole roof is affected and it will need to be replaced.

Asphalt doesn’t get mold, but it is highly susceptible to unsightly algae growth. Over time, an asphalt roof can dry and crack. Small damage from storms can also knock loose the gravel that protects the asphalt from UV rays. Once a little gravel comes loose, more is sure to follow. When this happens, the UV rays of the sun can degrade the asphalt and even cause holes.


There is no way around it. Cedar shake is a high maintenance roofing material. The wood is a natural material that has to “breath”. That means that the roof needs to be kept clear of debris. The area underneath the roof also needs to stay well ventilated so that air can flow underneath and prevent moisture buildup. It is also important to keep gutters clean to avoid too much water pooling.

Asphalt shingles also require maintenance. If a roof is too damp, moss can grow. This is not immediately damaging to a roof, but it can cause the edges of the shingles to lift and curl. This increases the likelihood that shingles will blow off in a storm. It is also important to check shingles for damage after a storm or high winds, so that small spots of loose gravel don’t grow into bigger problems.

In a storm, cedar shake and wood shingles fare better than asphalt. They are very unlikely to be lifted off by wind. They are also much more resistant to damage from falling branches and flying debris.

Both asphalt and wood roof can and should be cleaned regularly. In addition to clearing debris, a cleaning solution of bleach and water can be applied with a gentle power washer to clean algae and mold. This is a job best left to professionals, as too much pressure from a power washer can wreak havoc on an asphalt or wood roof.

Final Thoughts

A cedar shake roof where appropriate can be a significant part of a home’s value. Replacing that roof with asphalt would almost definitely be reflected by a lower home value. In some areas, cedar or wood roofing may even be required, such as in historic districts. However, areas with historically high fire danger levels may prohibit wooden roofs. Although modern chemical treatments can increase the fire resistance of wood roofing, certain neighborhoods and municipalities prohibit the installation of new wood roofs.

If it is simply a matter of price, asphalt is the better option. The advantages of wood are generally in the intangible realms of looks and style.

If you are considering replacing your roof, contact Eagle Watch Roofing today for a free estimate. We can help you explore your options and find the perfect roof for your home.