Never before had a client asked Wes Williamson to polish a copper roof turret with Brasso. But the homeowner had company coming, and he wanted the turret to match another newly installed section of roof, and he didn’t care that all of it would oxidize again in a couple of weeks. “He liked it shiny. I was glad to have my crew do it for him,” Williamson says. “But it was a first.”
Firsts are getting harder to come by for Williamson, who’s been looking at Charleston from the top down for 26 years. His company, Skyline Roofing, is one of only a few that routinely works on historic homes and buildings in the old city and its surrounding areas.
Because metal, slate, tile and wood roofs are all part of Charleston’s preserved past, “they’re all part of what we do,” says Williamson. Installing them requires special skills and sometimes specialty licenses.
Good contacts are important, too. The ability to locate particular materials is important in a city whose Board of Architectural Review mandates replacing or repairing a roof in a historic section with the same type of material being taken off—at least the newest layer.
It’s been an ongoing education for Williamson, who says he was “pretty much a rookie” back in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit and “everyone needed roofing.
That’s what brought us out of the suburbs and into the city—the restoration of old roofs. I started studying the old techniques as we took those roofs apart.
“They’d been made before any automation. They’d been done on the job, by hand—it was tedious. I have a lot of respect for people who worked like that.” Intrigued, Williamson began studying with the manufacturers of old-style building materials, traveling to their headquarters to learn Old World techniques.
Innovation, however, continually changes the way even old materials are manufactured and installed. “Today, we have prefinished metals—basically Teflon—that they didn’t have in the past. We have technology that makes the manufacturing process less expensive and fairly durable. We can machine most of these parts and get the look of an old, hand-installed roof,” Williamson says, but “we still have to hand-do a lot of parts. I don’t get the easy jobs. Mine usually take time.”
Take, for example, a Queen Street project, where Williamson encountered an entire roof of hanging tiles. Each clay piece had a protrusion on the back that fit down into a lattice. “There were no nails—the tiles were just hanging there! That roof could easily have been 150, even 200 years old, so old we couldn’t find replacements. We salvaged a fair amount, though,” and the owner made them available for other projects.
Restoration is another large part of Skyline’s business. Several years ago, Williamson restored a terne metal roof on a Legare Street house where the owner produced a 1916 photo “that clearly showed the same roof. It’s amazing how well that material held up—almost 100 years—and it’s still there. We replaced the damaged panels and refinished the rest of the roof with Hydrostop, basically an acrylic finish.” Skyline crews also know to watch for another dating method used by the old-timers: soldering a new copper penny onto a copper roofing panel.
Humans aren’t the only beings that live and work under roofs. “Bats are a big issue in downtown Charleston,” Williamson says. “If you take open a roof and bats come flying out, you’ve got to call a removal service.” For angry bees and wasps, his crews carry cans of spray, though Williamson says they’ve discovered that “WD-40 also works well in an emergency.”
Skyline has always covered new construction as well as old. Kiawah, Seabrook, West Ashley and East Cooper are regular sources of business, though the company works as far away as Myrtle Beach, Edisto and Beaufort. The miles mount up, literally. One project alone, a 10,000-square-foot home in Mount Pleasant, involved the installation of 2.9 miles of metal roofing panels.
In fact, 80 percent of Skyline’s business involves metal roofing. Instead of buying its panels out of state, “we make and install our own,” Williamson says. In his 6,000-square-foot shop, the company receives huge spools of sheet metal—copper, aluminum, zinc, steel, stainless steel, or the tin and steel alloy known as terne. Cut to specification and fed through an automated roll former, the metal is bent along one side to create a lip.
Then, up on the roof, the panels are fit together, tongue-and-groove fashion, double-locked and crimped into a watertight standing seam. If the job calls for panels too long to transport, the machinery is towed to the job site and the pieces are cut and bent there.
Skyline has 10 employees, including office manager Cam Karwinski, who has worked with the company for a dozen years, and whose computer is filled with photos of projects in various stages of completion.
Williamson spends his day moving from one job site to the next, checking on progress, making decisions. “Mine is the quality control part now,” he says. He loves the fact that he can view real-time photos “smartphone to smartphone” if his crews have a question.
A lifelong resident of James Island, a husband and father of four, and a guitarist in the band Missing Linc, Williamson is current vice president and rising president of Carolinas Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association (CRSMCA), a large group of industry professionals working in both North and South Carolina. The group hopes to see courses in specialty roofing offered through the technical education system or the American College of the Building Arts. “We need an educated work force,” Williamson says. “We’d like to set up an apprenticeship program. This is a dying art.”
In a region that lives its history, the need for specialty roofing is ongoing: a former officers’ quarters on Sullivan’s Island…a 1900s-era dance hall on the Ashley River. Williamson works to stay on top of it.
Margaret Locklair writes and edits books and magazine pieces in Berkeley County. E-mail: email@example.com.