Slate is a fine-grained, foliated, homogeneous metamorphic rock derived from an original shale-type sedimentary rock composed of clay or volcanic ash through low-grade regional metamorphism. It is the finest grained foliated metamorphic rock. Foliation may not correspond to the original sedimentary layering, but instead is in planes perpendicular to the direction of metamorphic compression.
The foliation in slate is called "slaty cleavage". It is caused by strong compression causing fine grained clay flakes to regrow in planes perpendicular to the compression. When expertly "cut" by striking parallel to the foliation, with a specialized tool in the quarry, many slates will display a property called fissility, forming smooth flat sheets of stone which have long been used for roofing, floor tiles, and other purposes. Slate is frequently grey in color, especially when seen, en masse, covering roofs. However, slate occurs in a variety of colors even from a single locality; for example, slate from North Wales can be found in many shades of grey, from pale to dark, and may also be purple, green or cyan. Slate is not to be confused with shale, from which it may be formed, or schist.
The word "slate" is also used for certain types of object made from slate rock. It may mean a single roofing tile made of slate, or a writing slate. This was traditionally a small smooth piece of the rock, often framed in wood, used with chalk as a notepad or noticeboard, and especially for recording charges in pubs and inns. The phrases "clean slate" and "blank slate" come from this usage.
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.
Slates with holes for fixing, viewed from below. Photographed in Tremedda, Cornwall, a farm in England
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. Slate roofs are still used today.