How To Calculate Rafter Length Using Pitch? [2024]

How To Calculate Rafter Length Using Pitch? Determining the correct length of rafters is an essential part of roof framing. Rafters are angled structural members that support the roof deck and transmit loads from the roof to the walls. Calculating rafter lengths involves using the roof pitch, or slope, along with the horizontal span of the roof. This allows you to determine the actual length that each rafter needs to be cut to achieve the desired roof slope.

Learning how to calculate rafter length accurately is a key skill for carpenters, builders, and do-it-yourselfers. With the right techniques and formulas, you can determine the precise rafter lengths required for reliable structural support and an aesthetically pleasing roofline. This article will guide you step-by-step through the complete process.

What is Pitch?

Pitch is the degree of slope or incline of a roof. Also known as rise over run, pitch is a ratio of the vertical rise to the horizontal span. Rise refers to the height from the top of the roof to the bottom. Run is the horizontal distance covered from one end to the other.

Pitch is commonly expressed as an x in 12 ratio. The first number denotes the number of inches the roof rises vertically for every 12 inches it runs horizontally. For example, a 4 in 12 pitch means the roof rises 4 inches vertically for every 12 inches horizontally. The higher the first number, the steeper the pitch.

Using Pitch to Calculate Rafter Length

Pitch is a critical component in rafter length calculations because rafters must be cut at an angle to achieve the desired slope. The pitch ratio determines the angle of the cut. Once you calculate the angle, determining the rafter lengths needed to obtain that angle at the correct spans is straightforward.

The math behind using pitch to calculate rafter lengths employs right-angle trigonometry. The key measurements involved are:

  • Run – The horizontal distance between walls that the rafters span
  • Rise – The vertical height the roof rises over the horizontal run
  • Rafter Length – The actual length of rafter from birdsmouth notch to ridge
  • Pitch – The ratio of rise to run, such as 4:12, 7:12, etc.

The angle created by the desired pitch is essential for figuring out the rafter length. After you determine this angle, commonly referred to as the ridge angle, you can use trigonometry to calculate the rafter length.

Step-by-Step Guide to Calculating Rafter Length

Follow these steps to accurately determine the required rafter length using the roof pitch:

Step 1: Calculate the Slope Angle

The first step is to calculate the slope angle from the pitch ratio. This slope angle, or ridge angle, is the angle the rafter needs to cut to achieve the desired pitch. Use one of the following methods:

Pitch Angle Calculator: Refer to a table or online calculator that provides the angle based on the pitch. For example, an 8 in 12 pitch has a 36.87 degree slope angle.

Tangent Ratio: Take the tangent of the pitch, which gives you the slope angle in degrees. For instance, an 8 in 12 pitch corresponds to a slope angle of arctan(8/12) = 36.87 degrees.

Step 2: Determine the Horizontal Run

The run is the horizontal distance between the outside walls that the rafters span. This equals the total width of the roof. Common run measurements based on standard house widths are:

  • 12 feet
  • 24 feet
  • 28 feet
  • 32 feet

For odd lengths, take an actual measurement of the horizontal rafter span.

Step 3: Calculate the Vertical Rise

Use the pitch ratio to calculate the vertical rise over the horizontal run length:

Rise (inches) = Pitch (inches per foot) x Run (feet) / 12

For example, for an 8 in 12 pitch over a 24-foot run:

Rise = 8 x 24 /12 = 16 inches

This means for every 24 inches horizontally, the roof rises by 16 inches.

Step 4: Find Rafter Length with Trigonometry

Use trigonometry to determine the rafter length based on the ridge angle and rise and run measurements:

Rafter Length = Rise / sin(Ridge Angle)

Plugging in the numbers from our example:

Rise = 16 inches
Ridge Angle = 36.87 degrees (8 in 12 pitch)

Rafter Length = 16 / sin(36.87 degrees) = 25.46 inches

This gives the net rafter length needed from birdsmouth to ridge.

Step 5. Add Overhang Extensions

If overhangs are desired beyond the walls, add the additional inches to overall rafter length:

Total Rafter Length = Rafter Length + Overhang

For 12-inch overhangs:

Total Rafter Length = 25.46 inches + 12 inches = 37.46 inches

Adjusting Rafter Length for Roof Features

Additional considerations may be necessary when calculating rafter spans for more complex roofs:


Valley rafters may need to extend 6-12 inches longer than standard rafters.


Rafter tails extending beyond the wall (eaves) should run past the fascia board by at least 3 inches.

Ridge Boards:

Rafter tails should extend at least 1 inch higher than the top of the ridge board.

Opening Allowances:

Add several inches to rafter lengths above and below openings to allow for headers and trimmers.

When to Use Variable Rafter Lengths

Not all rafters on a roof need to be the same length. Here are situations when variable lengths may be beneficial:

  • Hip roofs and intersecting rooflines
  • Roofs with bump-outs, dormers, or valleys
  • Long rafter runs where precise lengths are needed
  • Cathedral ceilings where top chords are full rafters

Variable lengths let you custom fit each rafter to eliminate gaps while maintaining visual symmetry in the finished roof.

How to Make Rafter Layout and Cutting Easier

Accurately translating your rafter measurements into precise cuts on lumber can be challenging. These tips will make your rafter layout and cutting easier and more accurate:

  • Build a rafter template out of plywood or OSB using calculated angles so each rafter can trace identically.
  • Use a rafter square and protractor to set angles rather than relying on math calculations alone.
  • Install a miter saw with a sliding fence and rotating table to handle long, angled rafter cuts.
  • Use a bandsaw with a fence to trim rafter tails and notches once initially cut.
  • Create cutting diagrams labeling each custom rafter cut (R1, R2, etc.) and length for the layout.

Taking advantage of purpose-built tools and templates will reduce mistakes and speed up construction.

Vernacular Terms Related to Rafter Framing

Some common roof framing terms relevant to rafter layouts include:

  • Birdsmouth Cut: The notch cut into the rafter that sits on the top plate of the wall.
  • Plumb Cut: The angle cut on the rafter tail that aligns with the fascia board.
  • Ridge Board: The horizontal member that runs along the roof peak and caps rafter ends.
  • Collar Ties: Short horizontal members connecting two rafters for structural support.
  • Rafter Ties: Long structural members tying together opposing rafters under the roof sheathing.

Learning the terminology around roof components will help in understanding layout diagrams and instructions.


Calculating accurate rafter lengths is essential for constructing a sound, high-performance roof. Mastering how to determine rafter length based on the desired pitch ensures rafters will be cut precisely to create a structurally sound framework. Taking the time to carefully calculate lengths will pay off with a roof that comes together cleanly and functions as a cohesive system.

With the formulas and techniques outlined here, you can reliably determine the lengths your rafters need to be cut to achieve any pitch you want over a given span. Understanding the complete process from start to finish allows you to apply the same methods to any roofing project and cut perfect rafters every time.

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What is the most important value needed to calculate rafter length?

The roof pitch, expressed as rise over run (e.g. 4/12, 7/12, etc). This pitch ratio is used to determine the angle of cut for the rafters.

How do I calculate the slope angle from the pitch?

You can either use a pitch angle conversion chart, or take the tangent of the pitch fraction. For example, tangent of a 4/12 pitch is arctan(4/12) = 18.4 degrees.

What trig formula is used to determine rafter length?

You use the rise of the roof over the run, and the ridge angle, in a tangent ratio formula:
Rafter Length = Rise / sin(Ridge Angle)

How much longer should I make a valley rafter compared to normal rafters?

A good rule of thumb is to make valley rafters 12 inches longer to account for the deeper penetration point at the roof’s low section.

When would I use variable rafter lengths instead of all the same lengths?

Situations like hip roofs, dormers, bump-outs, long runs, cathedral ceilings, etc. Variable lengths let you custom fit rafters.

What are some tips for easier rafter layouts?

Build a rafter template, use tools like protractors and rafter squares, create labeled cutting diagrams, and utilize specialty saws like miter saws and bandsaws.

What does “birdsmouth” refer to?

The birdsmouth is the notch cut into the rafter where it sits on top of the wall. This bears the weight of the rafter and roof at that connection point.

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