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Mills of Finland

TIMS symposium speech on Finnish shingle mills




Soft wood shingles are used for roofing throughout Finland and both water and wind power were used to produce them. At Renko, Häme, behind the corn mill building was a water-driven shingle machine in an open-sided shelter. The timber is cut into logs of the required length and passed over the bed of the shingle machine several times until it is triangular and free of bark. Then the shingles are cut from all three sides in turn until the core is too small to give a shingle of a useful width. This, of course, produces much waste but the process is simple.

At Vaala, North Bothnia, there is the Jylhama Power Plant Open Air Museum. Here there is a purpose-built shingle machine consisting of a long substantial bench terminating in the shingle machine proper which is driven by an undershot waterwheel, and the whole is housed in a substantial open-sided shed. As can be seen, the machine itself is virtually an inverted plane on which the knife can be adjusted to cut the desired thickness as it moves along the base of the log. Another machine was seen attached to the outside of the Kankaapaa Watermill, Koyoio, Satakunta. This is a large two-storeyed mill with a wheel which is impossible to photograph.

Photographs exist of water-driven shingle machines in the neighbourhood of Tammela in Häme, at Porras, Lunkaa and Letku, also at Koivisto in Central Finland.

Waterpowered shingle mill at Yli-Hokka Farm in Lunkaa, Tammela, Häme
Water-powered shingle mill at Yli-Hokka Farm in Lunkaa, Tammela, Häme

Post windmills were used to power shingle machines which were attached to the tail of the mill as at Konginkangas in Central Finland. The drive was from a crank at the tail of the windshaft and could be hooked on to connect to the shingle machine as required as at Ylipaa, Temmes in North Bothnia. There were also purpose-built wind-driven shingle machines working in the 1930’s of which there are records of four: at Koro and Retko in Häme, Pyhajervi in South Karelia and at Kustavi in Varsinais-Suomi.

Further notes on the background and history of the Finnish Shingle Mills by A Hirsjärvi:

Until the second half of the eighteenth century most farmhouses and cottages in Finland had their roofs covered with square sheets of birch-bark, upon which, as a weight, thickish wooden poles were tightly placed running abreast from the top to the eaves. There was no great danger of fire because those houses had no chimney, and the smoke which billowed out from the mouth of the fireplace was ventilated away through a special hole in the ceiling, the open door, and a few holes in the walls which could be shut with a sliding panel-board.

But, when towards the end of that same century more and more houses were provided with both glass windows and fireplaces with chimneys, often perhaps with a straight flue, the old birch-bark roof was found dangerous enough because it easily collected from the air all sorts of loose rubbish which was highly inflammable by the sparks from the chimney. The birch-bark also is notoriously inflammable and is first-class material for kindling a fire. So a new material for covering the roof had to be found and this was the thin wooden shingle. These were already known as they had been used from time immemorial for making baskets and for torchwood for both indoor and outdoor use. Now the demand grew immensely, and the old methods of making shingle with the aid of a knife or an axe proved, of course, to be inadequate. So a real mechanical solution for mass production had to be found and this was the wind- or water-powered shingle mill.

In order to cover a roof with birch-bark and wooden poles, no nails and no iron had been needed at all. On the contrary, a shingle roof needed quite a lot of nails, and to produce the required amount was an impossible task for a village blacksmith who had enough ordinary work to do. However, at about the same time the metal industry in Finland really got going and the problem was thus settled. Fireplaces were soon built with a meandering flue which effectively caught the sparks.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of shingle roofs and mills in Finland. At the end of that century felt and galvanised-iron roofs began to appear, and in the 1930s a heavy roof made of concrete tiles coloured red was the latest fashion. New shingle roofs were still made after the last war until the last decade, when they were forbidden, and only modern fire-resilient materials are now allowed for new buildings. The local municipal authorities nowadays have a keen eye for this everywhere.

So such was, as I understand, roughly the birth, heyday, decline and definitive death-blow of the Finnish shingle mills.

Two toe mills and a wind powered shingle machine in Finström, Åland
Two toe mills and a wind-powered shingle machine in Finström, Åland