Slate can be made into roofing slates, a type of roof shingle, or more specifically a type of roof tile, which are installed by a slater. Slate has two lines of breakability – cleavage and grain – which make it possible to split the stone into thin sheets. When broken, slate retains a natural appearance while remaining relatively flat and easy to stack. A “slate boom” occurred in Europe from the 1870s until the first world war, allowed by the use of the steam engine in manufacturing slate tiles and improvements in road and waterway transportation systems.
Slate is particularly suitable as a roofing material as it has an extremely low water absorption index of less than 0.4%, making the material waterproof. In fact, this natural slate, which requires only minimal processing, has the lowest embodied energy of all roofing materials. Natural slate is used by building professionals as a result of its beauty and durability. Slate is incredibly durable and can last several hundred years, often with little or no maintenance. Its low water absorption makes it very resistant to frost damage and breakage due to freezing. Natural slate is also fire resistant and energy efficient.
Slate roof tiles are usually fixed (fastened) either with nails, or with hooks as is common with Spanish slate. In the UK, fixing is typically with double nails onto timber battens (England and Wales) or nailed directly onto timber sarking boards (Scotland and Northern Ireland). Nails were traditionally of copper, although there are modern alloy and stainless steel alternatives. Both these methods, if used properly, provide a long-lasting weathertight roof with a lifespan of around 80–100 years.
Some mainland European slate suppliers suggest that using hook fixing means that:
- Areas of weakness on the tile are fewer since no holes have to be drilled
- Roofing features such as valleys and domes are easier to create since narrow tiles can be used
- Hook fixing is particularly suitable in regions subject to severe weather conditions, since there is greater resistance to wind uplift, as the lower edge of the slate is secured.
The metal hooks are, however, visible and may be unsuitable for historic properties.
Slate tiles are often used for interior and exterior flooring, stairs, walkways and wall cladding. Tiles are installed and set on mortar and grouted along the edges. Chemical sealants are often used on tiles to improve durability and appearance, increase stain resistance, reduce efflorescence, and increase or reduce surface smoothness. Tiles are often sold gauged, meaning that the back surface is ground for ease of installation. Slate flooring can be slippery when used in external locations subject to rain. Slate tiles were used in 19th century UK building construction (apart from roofs) and in slate quarrying areas such as Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethesda, Wales there are still many buildings wholly constructed of slate. Slates can also be set into walls to provide a rudimentary damp-proof membrane. Small offcuts are used as shimsto level floor joists. In areas where slate is plentiful it is also used in pieces of various sizes for building walls and hedges, sometimes combined with other kinds of stone. In modern homes slate is often used as table coasters.