Replacing Old Wood
Siding and Trim
With Low-Maintenance Materials -
A Quick Tour
Bruce W. Maki,
Old houses with wood siding require frequent repainting. This is
accepted as a fact by owners of old homes. There are a few
purists who resist the lure of maintenance-free vinyl siding. Vinyl
siding installers have a really bad habit of breaking off all
that intricate exterior ornament, or just covering over many of the
subtle trim details. For many years old house owners had two
choices: keep the wood and all the maintenance chores, or switch to
vinyl and lose most of the original detail and character.
But now there is a third way.
There are new materials available that can reproduce all the
detail found on old houses yet drastically reduce the maintenance
work. Granted, remodeling an old house with these new materials is
more expensive than either a simple paint job or covering the house
in shinyl-vinyl, and there is still some maintenance, but in
the long run the cost is lower than frequent painting and the
appearance is much closer to original than any vinyl siding product
There is an irony to old houses and their maintenance: old houses
that have been neglected often still retain their original
millwork, gingerbread and siding materials, thus they can be the best
candidates for accurate restoration. While these buildings
require a lot of work to bring them back to a good appearance, they
also preserve the original design intentions. It's the original
design ideas that attract many people to old Victorian houses.
With these new materials and a little ingenuity, an old house
owner can re-create the original idea and reduce or eliminate much
of the maintenance work. This may or may not qualify as true
historic restoration... but if you reduce the maintenance effort,
you can preserve the building even better. Replacing old wood with
new wood is just asking for more maintenance headaches.
From a distance, this house looked
reasonable, just a little worn and ragged.
But when you got closer it was obvious
that the siding needed to be painted... again.
Lower sections, like this water table
trim, were among the worst parts of the exterior.
The above photos show two views of a small section of water table
trim after it was removed. The ends of the boards were badly checked
(small cracks), which makes the material look weathered (or rustic)
and also speeds up the deterioration process.
This is a picture of a corner on the west
side. Everything was a MESS!
Notice the rust spots from the non-galvanized nails
that were used a hundred years ago. Repainting would
hide those spots for a couple of years, maybe, but
they'd come back.
There were dozens of these plugs in the
siding, from blown-in insulation installed back in the
Later, after the siding was removed these holes in
the solid wood sheathing remained.
It Only Needs Paint,
So Why Replace The Siding?
Painting a house every 5 to 8 years is a lot of work. If we left
the siding and simply repainted it, we would only be addressing the symptoms,
not the disease.
There are two products available today that are better than wood.
But like many home builders and remodelers, I am reluctant to use
new, unproven materials. Contractors worry that new materials may
not last very long, creating a warranty expense and/or marring their
reputation. I'm concerned more about keeping a nice old house in
good condition, and keeping future owners from turning to the vinyl
siding salesmen for a solution.
Fiber cement siding has been on the market for about 25 years,
though it is new to my area. I understand that fiber cement siding
products were invented or developed by James Hardie Building
Products, which started in Australia.
Fiber cement siding is a combination of wood fibers and Portland
cement. It is heavy and solid, about 5/16" thick. It is almost
fire proof. I have tried to burn scraps in a bonfire and I can
attest that fiber cement won't burn by itself, but it will crumble
after exposure to very intense flames. Fiber cement siding can be
cut in ways similar to wood siding or plywood, so it can be made
into complex shapes often found on old houses. Fiber cement siding
can be installed with a roofing nail gun, so it can be
installed quickly. Fiber cement plank siding costs about twice as
much as vinyl siding (per square foot) and about half as much as
bevel cedar siding.
Most importantly, fiber cement holds paint very well. Wood
expands and shrinks with changing humidity levels, and this movement
is apparently the primary reason why paint peels off exterior wood
after only a few years. Fiber cement does not expand and contract as
much as wood (if at all), so it holds paint very well.
Fiber cement siding still needs to be painted, but the paint
lasts far longer, as much as 4 times longer than paint on wood
siding. Fiber cement can be painted dark colors, while vinyl siding
is generally not available in darker colors for technical reasons,
such as the excessive thermal expansion caused by heavily-pigmented
vinyl. Look at subdivisions of new houses... they are usually all
pale, muted colors: tan, gray, yellow, pastel blue... maybe a pastel
pink or green.
In short, fiber cement is a very promising material, and its
similarities to wood make it an ideal material to replace the old
wood siding on this house, especially since there are some curved
ornamental boards that we want to reproduce.
Cellular PVC Trim:
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) has been used for decades in plumbing
pipes. One recent innovation involves changing the way they make the
wall of the pipe: the inner and outer surfaces are the same dense,
non-porous PVC, but in the middle of the wall the plastic has tiny
bubbles or air pockets. Some technical people call this foam,
but for most of us the word foam conjures up images of weak pathetic
Styrofoam, something you can crush in your hand. The plastics
industry calls this cellular, because like foam it has cells.
But the cells are tiny and the plastic is stronger.
Cellular PVC plumbing pipe feels just like older non-cellular PVC
pipe. It cuts the same, or maybe it's even easier to cut, because
PVC tends to grab cutting blades. I'd guess that cellular PVC is
lighter than regular, but I can't say that I've noticed a
A few years ago somebody decided to make flat, rectangular pieces
from cellular PVC. The first brand I'm aware of is called Azek®,
though it started out as another name. Cellular PVC lumber can be
cut, drilled, and routed with the same tools used for wood. It can
be glued with PVC pipe cement, and it can be nailed with the same
fasteners used for wood. Cellular PVC can be painted, but it does
not need painting. It is truly water proof... totally unaffected by
We decided to use HardiPlank® siding from James Hardie Building
Products to replace the old wood siding, and Azek trimboards to
replace parts of the old trim. James Hardie makes a trim product
that could work very well, but it is thinner than our original
lumber and creates some complicating factors. Azek can be a simple
one-for-one replacement of wood, as long as the wood is not a
Removing the old wood siding took less
than a day on each of these gable-end walls.
Preparations For New Siding:
We made several improvements to the walls,
such as foam insulation to increase energy efficiency.
New Water Table Trim:
This trim is called the water table,
and it resides on the lowest point on the outside wall.
This is Azek® cellular PVC trim. It can be cut just
With Azek, forming tight, accurate corners
The new water table trim formed a good
starting point for the new siding.
Fiber Cement Siding:
After the water table was installed, the
siding went up quickly.
Working close to the ground is easy... no
It only took about 10 minutes to hang this much
Unlike any other type of siding I've used,
fiber cement can be installed with a roofing nail gun.
That really speeds up the job.
When we reached the window we simply ran
the siding up one side, and then the other.
Then we re-shingled that awning over the window, and
continued up the wall.
We installed the siding to this point, and
then we had to install the frieze board.
Even though we weren't done, I painted the siding
because warm weather was becoming scarce.
I nailed the frieze board in place with a
finish nailer, then I drove in some siding nails.
Towards the top of the wall the original
carpenters had cut siding into wavy boards.
We were able to reproduce those wavy boards with
pretty good accuracy.
Here we've installed the first of three
"bands" or groups of wavy boards.
Dealing with the angle-cut ends and getting
the wave crests to align properly was actually quite
tricky... kind of a brain teaser.
This view of the west side shows the wavy
Painting the siding was the easy part.
Painting is relaxing compared to installing siding.
I had painted the lower part a few days earlier,
because... I felt like it.
Normally it's best to install the siding completely
before any painting is done. Of course the painting is
always done from top down (unless there is a good reason
to do otherwise) so you'll paint over the drips and
smooth them out. And there will be drips.
I'm going to do a second coat when the weather gets
warm next spring.
James Hardie Building Products recommends using a
good quality latex exterior paint to cover their siding.
Before we decided to use fiber cement siding, we had
already bought about 10 gallons of Sikkens Rubbol Solid
Tone Stain for covering wood siding and trim. Solid tone
stain may not last as long as latex paint, but it
doesn't peel like latex, so recoating is easy: just
power wash, let dry, and apply another coat.
A sales representative from James Hardie said that
either type of coating should work, and the paint dealer
said that it should work, so we went ahead and
"painted" the siding with Sikkens Rubbol Solid
Tone Stain. While they call it "stain", it
looks just like paint. This coating is oil based so it
applies smoothly, but it has its quirks. You must
maintain a "wet edge", meaning that you need
to paint each board from one end all the way to the
other. You can't paint a vertical swath and then move
the ladder and paint another swath, because there will
be very obvious overlap marks. Rubbol takes a day to
fully dry. While latex may be dry in 30 minutes, the
skin is still soft and takes 3 weeks to fully harden.
The HardiPlank siding readily soaked up the stain. I
applied the stain with a 3 inch sash brush, and each
wall section took about 2 hours. I don't know if the
stain will last 20 years (as latex should), but I am
confident that the fiber cement will hold the stain
longer than wood. I suspect that the color will fade
before the coating wears off.
Sikkens Rubbol also seems to adhere well to Azek.
The north wall with new siding. We still
need to paint some trim and rebuild the gingerbread, but
the big job is done.
Why Exterior Wood Is Inferior:
Wood expands and shrinks considerably with changes in
humidity. All this movement causes paint to lose its
grip on the surface of the wood. Eventually, painted
outdoor wood will need to be repainted.
When you use wood on the outside of a house, you are
establishing a repetitive maintenance expense in labor
and material. From a financial perspective, any increase
in a repetitive cost creates a reduction in the
value of the enterprise. Compare two nearly identical
houses where one has much higher annual expenses, such
as fuel, maintenance, insurance or taxes. You'd be a
fool to pay the same price for the house with the higher
Of course, the housing market is not all that
rational. Around here there are lots of high-end homes
with wood siding... in fact most of the higher-priced
houses use wood (such as rough-sawn cedar) for exterior
finishes. The rationale is that people who can afford
these premium houses can also afford to pay to have them
painted every 5 to 8 years. Vinyl siding makes financial
sense but it's still a mid-brow and low-brow siding
product. Wood is authentic, and authenticity is
valuable these days.
But I contend that fiber cement siding and trim
products are just as authentic. So is cellular PVC trim.
These materials have many of the properties of wood,
such as the ability to be cut and shaped. They are
heavy, thick and solid. Vinyl siding is a thin sheet of
plastic roll-formed into the shape of clapboard siding.
Vinyl can twist, fold, buckle, and pop out of place.
Vinyl becomes disconnected and flaps in the wind.
Hurricanes rip vinyl and aluminum siding off coastal
homes and send the pieces flying like litter. Fiber
cement doesn't do that.
Is This A Project For "Weekend
I don't see why not.
When we did this project I was working on a big long job for a
client, and the homeowner drove up from downstate on
weekends. There were a few days when I did a little work in the
morning (like painting) before going to work for 8 hours.
My records show that we started one of these wall sections on
August 26, and the other was started on September 18. In northern
Michigan we can get some nasty cold and wet weather in September,
but we lucked out... September of 2004 was one of the warmest and
driest on records here. I wrapped up the siding around the middle of
October, a time when exterior painting is very dicey. I had to watch
the weather forecasts and steal every possible warm day so I could
get the siding painted without having cold or wet weather ruining
the paint job.
If you ask me, a do-it-yourselfer needs these qualities to be
able to successfully complete a major project like this:
- Possess a track record of actually getting projects done. If
you're a "King of Unfinished Projects" then your
spouse, children, and neighbors will begin to hate you, as
nobody likes the sight of a house with the siding ripped off or
partially replaced. If unfinished projects gnaw on your
conscience, then maybe you'll do okay, if you can find the time.
- Actually have the time. If your evenings and weekends
are already over-scheduled with soccer chauffeuring and music
lesson motoring, this will add a whole new degree of stress to
- Have some experience in large multi-weekend projects, like
re-roofing a house, complete room remodels, building a garage,
etc. If you gravitate towards all those "easy one-weekend
projects" shown in magazines, this might not be for you.
- Not be overly afraid of heights. Some fear of heights is
healthy. I get a little bit of anxiety when I first climb a
ladder, though it goes away after a few hours or days of working
- Be comfortable with power tools.
- Have enough money to buy the tools needed. I often see people
who are too cheap or too broke to buy the right tools, and their
work usually looks amateur.
- Be able to resist the lure of weekend TV sports. Get a Tivo,
watch it later.
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