Copper, everybody’s favorite

How difficult is it to install copper roofing?
Whether a contractor is installing metal shingles, standing seam, or through-fastened panels, he probably realizes installing those products requires a little more skill than slapping down an asphalt shingle. For those who have never installed a roof of copper or another “exotic metal,” why is it? It may take some different skills than they have attained installing steel or aluminum, but let it be known: help is available.
For more than 40 years, the Copper Development Association has been working for its members to expand the markets for copper where it is used in automotive, electrical, telecommunications, tubing/piping, and various other applications. The CDA also promotes the use of copper in architectural applications like roofing. The CDA Web site ( offers all the direction a contractor could want, and then some. Craig Thompson, Midwest Region manager of the CDA, says there really is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to working with copper.
“Contractors, with the ability to solder, can work with copper; it’s more malleable,” Thompson says. “It takes a certain skill level. You certainly don’t want your first project to be something intricate without the proper training.”
One method the CDA has successfully instituted to grow the architectural copper market is to operate an installer training program, a program the installer has a hand in designing — so the program is malleable as well. The program is broken down into modules, so a contractor can select from a list of what training is needed or desired. The one module that is typically standard with every training program is soldering techniques. Soldering may be the most unique skill needed for working with copper. The CDA provides training for soldering standing seam, flat seam, and gutters. “Soldering takes skill,” Thompson says. “Our training program introduces soldering tools, called hand-held soldering coppers.”
That being said, a contractor may be able to get by without soldering. Thompson says a typical standing seam roof is designed to be installed on slopes of 3:12 or greater, so the details are self-flashing and soldering or sealing is not required. “Soldering or sealing is required when you want to hold water, like in a gutter liner or gutter,” he says, noting other details may best be installed with the help of soldering.
Randy Thompson of CopperCraft by Fabral believes if a contractor can install a steel or aluminum standing seam roof, that same contractor can handle copper. “The actual installation of copper standing seam is really the same,” he says. “You’re dealing with clips, either floating or not, you put the panel in, and you run your mechanical seamer. I have not seen soldering with a standing seam roof. And if you find yourself in a situation where you have to solder, it’s OK. Soldering is not a dark black art. It works the same way it did 100 years ago, except now they use propane lighters.”
One thing copper has in common with steel and aluminum roofing material is copper demands considerations for thermal movement. Copper expands approximately 1/8 inch per 10 feet of pan length per 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise. Accommodating for this expansion can be done by fixing the pan at one end or by fixing the center of the pan.
There are several tools used by copper installers those working with steel and aluminum may not be familiar with. The training program includes hands-on work with such equipment, including the stretcher-shrinker. As the name suggests, the stretcher-shrinker forms copper into curves for bell vaults or architectural rake trim. The stretcher-shrinker is a useful tool and not very expensive. It can be used for concave or convex roofing as well as circular trim pieces. A variety of beading tools, used for curved seams and certain types of seams, also are introduced during training. Copper seams can be hand formed, hand-seamed, or mechanically seamed.
Another major point of emphasis in copper education is to avoid using dissimilar metals during the installation. Dissimilar metal corrosion may lead to the failure of the system. The CDA says always use copper, brass, bronze, or compatible stainless steel alloy hardware and fasteners. With any copper detail, such as an apron or flashing, make sure there is no contact with components such as aluminum gutters or steel flashing. And never allow water to flow from copper onto less noble metals.
Our copper panel
Contractors who work exclusively, or almost exclusively with copper, are happy to talk about their love affair with one of nature’s most versatile metals. They know they’re working with one of the most durable and attractive architectural products. Hard work and experience have made them copper craftsmen.
Hal McBride started working with sheet metal 50 years ago at Benson High School in Portland, Ore., in a trade school setting. Half of the day was studying core subjects like math and English and half of the day was spent working on a trade. “The last two years, we worked in a specific trade, and I majored in sheet metal,” he says.
That helped McBride land an apprenticeship and got him into the business. About 20 years ago, he opened his own business in Portland, McBride Sheet Metal. Now retired, he stops in the shop a few days a week to make sure things are running smoothly. “We do a lot of high-end copper work,” he says. “As soon as someone gets something tough, they end up talking to us. We do domes and historical renovations.
“I love copper,” McBride says. “It’s what I call a 100-year material. It’s forgiving, it lasts a long time and you can do almost anything with it. Everyone likes the appearance and it’s just a great material to work with.”
Larry Stearns was introduced to copper in 1978 and founded Vulcan Supply 14 years ago in Westford, Vt. Now, most of the work Vulcan takes on involves historical restoration — either replicating and manufacturing a roofing profile or restoring it. Restoring roofing means working with the original roof and making repairs. “Copper lends itself to that kind of treatment.” Stearns says. “With a material like zinc, when it’s 60 years old or older, it’s very brittle so you can’t restore it. Copper is totally different. It gets thin, but it never gets brittle.”
Stearns says the work Vulcan Supply did on the Boston Public Library is evidence of that durability. “We restored a 100-year-old roof and it will be in service for another 100 years,” he says.
Stearns works with many metals and says the only material he has yet to work with is titanium. Copper “is hands down my favorite,” he says. “You can do anything with it. It’s not a structural material, but you can bend it and shape it to form anything.”
Stearns says one of his favorite challenges was some ornamental work for the roof of a pagoda in Petaluma, Calif. — 20-foot copper lizards, fabricated in a process called repousse. Repousse is the process of ornamenting metallic surfaces with designs in relief hammered out from the back by hand. At one trade show, he let children give it a try — letting them hammer out a design. It wasn’t long before he had a long line of “apprentices” in training. “I’m not saying anyone can do it without training, but it’s not too tough to get the hang of,” he says.
All installers do their best to make sure their crew members learn what they need to, to get the job done well. Dave Crocker of Crocker Architectural in Oxford, Mass., has established his own effective approach to training. He has 46 employees, including six or seven apprentices, who attend in-house training twice a week. That’s where they all learn how to solder — a requirement when dealing with the historical restoration projects Crocker works on.
“You have to have good solderers for detail work, like with skylights,” he says. “That’s what keeps them watertight. If you can’t solder, you can’t do anything. But that’s the beauty of copper, it’s very soft, you need a little finesse to get it the way you want it. With steel, you just bang it into place.”
It’s that finesse, that personal touch, that lures installers into falling in love with copper.
“Of all the metals we work with, copper is my favorite,” says Crocker. “It’s easy to work with and it’s simple to flash with skylights and penetrations. Its solderability makes it easy to work with. And it looks beautiful.”
When Crocker started working with roofing and sheet metal in 1969, working with copper was “taking the easy road,” he says. Copper, purchased from Revere Copper, accounts for 80 percent of the material Crocker installs. “We’re known as the gurus of the copper world,” he says. “If someone is looking for help with copper, they come to us.”
And someone is always looking for copper.

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