The Finnish Shingle Roof: The Tradition Lives On in Kesälahti

The Finnish Shingle Roof: The Tradition Lives On in Kesälahti

“It’s a jewel! Truly remarkable! There is no other roof like it in the country.” Olli Cavén, the conservator of Finland’s National Board of Antiquities, finds the Kesälahti bell tower’s shingle roof a wonderful example of the handicraft of traditional folk building. He also recognises the beauty of its intricate patterns.

The need for the restoration project of the Kesälahti shingle roof came to light in the early 2000s. The parish is a small community of two thousand people who didn’t have the means to repair the roof on their own. Would re-roofing with metal, or even abandoning the bell tower altogether, be their only choice?

The project began with preparing measurement drawings and compiling a building history report as well as a damage assessment report. The subsequent dendrochronological dating was done by researchers Margarita Kisternaya and Valery Kozlow of Petrozavodsk, from the Forest Research Institute of Karelian Research Centre of RAS (the Russian Academy of Sciences), using samples from the bell tower log frame and the shingles.

The roof turned out to be roughly 170 years old, one of the oldest in Finland. Roofs are generally a very visible element of wooden churches and bell towers, especially due to often being quite steep. The high surface of the roof was laid into regular patterns, which were created using carefully arranged shingles hewn into different shapes. The structure of the Kesälahti bell tower shingle roof, laid in the 1830s, consists of a layer of pine shingles, in some parts a double layer, over a birch-bark underlay which was originally placed only along the lower and upper edges of the roof.

The tradition of hand-hewn shingles and individually forged nails flourished in Finnish construction until the 20th century, when it was largely replaced by sawn shingles and factory-produced nails. Laying a shingle roof called for competent workmanship from its earliest stages, especially for a patterned roof of hand-hewn shingles of varying shapes. The complex shape of the bell towers and spires also presented its difficulties. The builders started out as only doing local work. By the 18th century, church builders are known to have formed professional working parties for mutual projects.

Architect Hannu Piipponen from The Regional Environment Centre dedicated himself to saving the Kesälahti bell tower. As the project leader, he prepared plans and funding applications. The process turned out to be both complex and fascinating.

The restoration work drew heavily from the original workmanship of the builders who had laid the roof. The goal of the project was a roof that matched the original, not only in form but also in quality. This meant the shingles would have to be hand-hewn. Piipponen hit upon the idea of combining the restoration project with restoration training. The local carpenters were instructed by the most skillful specialists in the country. Several participants earned their restoration degrees while working on the project. This was a successful solution not only for this project but brought later work possibilities for the workers, too.

The North-Karelian Regional Environment Centre started to work on the project “The Shingle Roof, Feasibility Study and Planning” in the autumn of 2004. The funding was provided by the Finnish government and the European Regional Development Fund.

The next stop involved seeking funding for a local cooperation project. COSCNTR signed on as a cooperation partner in the negotiations in Petrozavodsk, February 15th 2005. A project plan was put together according to the guidelines of the Euregio Karelia operational model, and a funding application was devised for the Shingle Carvers project.

The North-Karelian Regional Environment Centre granted the government funding for the project on January 1st 2006 and The Council of Oulu Region the Neighbourhood Programme funding from the European Regional Development Fund on March 9th 2006.

After the funding for the Shingle Carvers project had been confirmed the Kesälahti parish could start looking for timber for the shingles. The parish approached the European Regional Development Fund for the funding of the bell tower restoration project, and it was granted on February 24th 2006.

Unfortunately it was later discovered that the gathered funds were still not sufficient for successfully finishing such a vast project that relied on handicraft and expertise. The Regional Environment Centre began environmental work in the Kesälahti region, and the Central Karelia Employment and Economic Development Centre appointed four people to assist in the work for nearly six months. The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland granted the Kesälahti parish 30, 000 euros for the bell tower restoration.

The Europa Nostra Awards, given each year in cooperation with the European Union, recognise cultural heritage projects, excellence in the restoration, repair, study and training related to cultural heritage and initiatives related to education, guidance and other service in the field.

The purpose of the award is to promote and celebrate professionalism in repairs and restoration work, as well as encourage international exchange of knowledge in cultural heritage. The exposure will hopefully lead to further projects and work in the protection of cultural heritage in Europe.

In 2009, 28 Europa Nostra Award winners were chosen from the 140 candidates. The Kesälahti shingle roof project was one of the winners, and was also honoured as one of the seven Grand Prix laureates.

Antti Pihkala

Kesälahti, elevations

Literature, project material:

Osmo Karttunen, Antti Pihkala, Hannu Piipponen. Kesälahden kellotapuli. The Kesalahti Church Bell Tower. Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, Joensuu, Finland 2010. (Finnish, English, Russian)

Exhibition, text and picture panels (Finnish, Russian; English abstract), Joensuu 2009. Inquiry:

Antti Pihkala. Paanukatot Suomen kirkoissa ja tapuleissa. Shingle roofs in Churches and Bell Towers in Finland. A study of the building history and restoration practices for shingle roofs from the middle ages to the present day. Oulu University 2009. (Finnish; English abstract)

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