The clang of a hammer rang out from the chalet roof and echoed against the serene Pre-Alps of Fribourg, Switzerland. Vincent Gachet, one of the country’s few remaining master tavillonneurs, or traditional Swiss roof architects and shingle-makers, carefully placed a wooden shingle on the roof frame. He’d finally completed a square metre – a labour-intensive task that took an hour and required 250 shingles, of which only 12 were visible – and he needed to do 200 more to finish the job. This artful but tedious work of Gachet and other tavillonneurs like him are what keep this Swiss living tradition alive.
View image of The Swiss art of tavillonnage, or wood-shingled roofs, dates to Gallo-Roman times (Credit: Credit: Alistair Scott/Alamy)
You may also be interested in:
• Where people commute by cable car
• How Innsbruck sold bells to the world
• The medieval marvel few people know
Dating to Gallo-Roman times, the tradition of tavillonnage, or wood-shingled roofs, can only be found across the landscape of French-speaking Fribourg and Vaud, two of Switzerland’s western cantons, which border the Jura mountain range where the best trees for the roofs grow. Like wandering through the pages of the Hansel and Gretel story, chalets dot the hillsides like a trail of gingerbread crumbs into the mountain passes. Swiss architecture in these cantons continues to be a significant cultural icon, with many villages imposing strict historical guidelines that must be met and followed. From the selection of the trees in autumn and the making of shingles in winter, to the monotonous work of stacking shingles thick enough to keep nasty weather out but thin enough to dry without rotting, tavillonnage goes far beyond simply meeting guidelines.
Wandering through the Fribourg countryside, I could easily spot newly timbered roofs against the silver tones of those that have weathered season after season for the past 40 to 100 years. Sometimes I saw a tiled roof, a necessary modern change due to the risk of fire.
“In many villages and quarters, it is forbidden to cover the roofs with wood because of the danger of fire. So tavillonnage is only possible for historic buildings and isolated buildings, but not in situations where the houses are [close] to each other,” said Isabelle Raboud, director of the Gruyère Museum and Bulle Library in Fribourg.
View image of Tavillonneurs must adhere to strict historical guidelines (Credit: Credit: Fribourg Tourism)
High above the valleys, however, the thin sheets of stacked wooden shingles, which resemble flaked layers of pastry, insulate traditional mountain homes to keep them warm during the bitter winter cold.
As I walked high in the hills leading to the mountain peaks, I could see a line of tavillonned chalets dotting the slopes before the land flattened and the Lake of Gruyère, Gruyère Castle and the quiet resort town of Charmey filled the landscape of the valley. It’s here that Shingle’s Day, a festival celebrating the art and tradition of tavillonnage, takes place on the first weekend in September as the summer’s construction draws to a close. While the tavillonneurs work to complete their projects, travellers can wander a 4.5km trail from the village of Vounetz up the 1,630m Vounetse peak and on to Charmey. Over the course of the three-hour trek, guests can watch the tavillonneurs displaying their techniques on the roofs of six chalets, backed by sweeping views of the valley below with Charmey at its centre. Though this day signals the end of the year’s work, the process soon begins anew with the tree selection so the tavillons, or wooden shingles, can be crafted for the following year.
View image of The stacked wooden shingles must be thick enough to protect against the winter cold, but thin enough to dry without rotting (Credit: Credit: Fribourg Tourism)
When I met Grégoire Gachet (no relation to Vincent Gachet), one of the newest tavillonneurs, he was at his home studio outside Charmey making tavillons. He explained that many of the trees used – usually red or white spruce or fir, which are plentiful in the region – come from the Jura mountains on the border of France and Switzerland. The master craftsmen make their choices based on where the trees are growing. The elevation here, typically between 1,000m and 1,600m, and placement of the towering trees are significant because the climate impacts the integrity of the wood. At this altitude, the trees grow more slowly, and those from a quiet forest void of forceful winds are considered best. And older trees are the most sought-after: once they have reached 200 to 300 years old, the trees’ fibres are straight and strong, which provides shingles that will not warp, according to Grégoire. The stronger the tavillons, the better protected chalets are from winter winds and snow.
The profession is a beautiful representation of ancestral craft
The master craftsmen visit the forests for years to watch the trees grow, assessing the quality of the wood for timber and passing on the knowledge to their apprentices. They fell the trees between November and mid-February, preferably toward the later phases of the moon when it’s believed that the tree’s sap has emptied from its veins. Grégoire believes that some of the traditions, such as harvesting after a full moon, may be far-fetched, although they stem from ancient tavillonneur practice.
During the winter and spring months, tavillonneurs, including Grégoire, are found in their woodworking workshops in preparation for the summer building, with their départoir (a knife for cleaving wood) and a large wooden mallet to split logs and form the wooden tiles by hand. Stooping slightly as he entered the room to take a seat at his workbench, Grégoire settled into a slower pace to show me each step of the shingle-making process. At his normal pace, Grégoire can make 230 shingles each hour for six hours a day. The work begins immediately after the tree felling while the wood is still green and malleable. As each shingle is carefully measured and bevelled to the correct specifications, the wooden tiles are then tightly tied in the exact order in which they are cut, forming a deconstructed stump. Tavillonneurs can then use the shingles in their precise order, providing perfect overlap for a leak-free roof.
View image of Today, there are only 10 master tavillonneurs in Switzerland (Credit: Credit: Fribourg Tourism)
Florian Despond, a master tavillonneur of 12 years from Montreux, works with two full-time employees. The team has worked on dozens of traditional chalets over the years, but his achievements required time. “It took me almost five years to work completely on my own in tavillonnage,” Despond said. The craftsman’s career began one Saturday, when he began helping his neighbour, a tavillonneur himself, on his chalet. Despond was drawn to the physically challenging task, and continues to love his work because he is in the outdoors working to create a ‘pure product’, as he calls the skilled art. He enjoys the sense of pride and accomplishment at the end of a project.
There are currently only 10 master tavillonneurs in Switzerland. Over decades, the workmen have passed their intelligence and understanding of this complex work on to the next generation of tavillonneurs through a time-tested means: orally.
Apprentices wishing to learn the trade must seek a master, and, if selected, will train under them for at least two years. Upon receiving approval from the Association Romande des Tavillonneurs (ART), the new tavillonneurs then work alone for one year. If at the end of the year their craftsmanship is approved by ART, the tavillonneurs are then named masters as well – as long as the standing members unanimously vote the newcomer into the association. Through rigorous training and sharing of the crafts’ traditions, these practices protect the quality of the art form.
View image of Every year, the Swiss town of Charmey celebrates Shingle’s Day in honour of the traditional craft (Credit: Credit: Fribourg Tourism)
Though the masters are few, they banded together in 2015 to form a programme in which prospective apprentices could participate. In autumn 2018, the first class of 15 graduated as tavillonneurs to go on and work in their own regions of the two cantons. The art is actively preserving and restoring the past traditions of life in the Pre-Alps while creating a cultural, evolving community for the next generation.
“Tavillonnage is a part of Switzerland’s heritage and landscape. The profession is a beautiful representation of ancestral craft,” Despond said.
With the help of state funding to protect tavillon-covered chalets within the region, handcrafted Swiss architecture and work for all shingle craftsmen will not fade. As I left Grégoire’s home and workshop, I could see the passion for tavillonnage in his eyes. With a heart for the ancient craft and a love for his land, he – and other aspiring tavillonneurs – are ensuring that tavillonnage will have a long future to come.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.