New fiber cement siding on an old house. Old House Exteriors:

Replacing Old Wood Siding and Trim
With Low-Maintenance Materials -
A Quick Tour

In This Article:

An overview of the steps in replacing old wood siding with fiber cement, and using cellular PVC to replace deteriorated wood trim.

Related Articles:

Skill Level: 3+ (Intermediate or Higher)

Time Taken: About 8 Weekends

By , Editor

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 available today.


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.

Paint peeling on wood siding.


Water table trim, paint peeling badly.

Lower sections, like this water table trim, were among the worst parts of the exterior.


Old water table trim, end view. Old water table trim, face view.

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.


Round plugs in wood siding from blown-in insulation.

There were dozens of these plugs in the siding, from blown-in insulation installed back in the 1970's.

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:

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 difference.

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 water.

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 load-bearing member.



Victorian house with wood siding removed.

Removing the old wood siding took less than a day on each of these gable-end walls.

Old house with solid wood sheathing.


Read the first article in the series: Removing Old Wood Siding.


Preparations For New Siding:

Applying builder's felt and rigid foam insulation to sheathing.

We made several improvements to the walls, such as foam insulation to increase energy efficiency.


Read the second article in the series: Wall Preparations For New Siding.


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 like wood.

Azek cellular PVC trim boards.


Azek water table trim.

With Azek, forming tight, accurate corners was easy.


The new water table trim formed a good starting point for the new siding.

New water table trim.


Read the third article in the series: Building Traditional Water Table Trim.


Fiber Cement Siding:

Installing fiber cement siding, first pieces.

After the water table was installed, the siding went up quickly.


Working close to the ground is easy... no ladders needed.

It only took about 10 minutes to hang this much siding.

Installing fiber cement siding.


Nailing fiber cement siding with roofing coil nailer.

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.

Nailing Azek frieze board below eaves.


Custom-cut wave pattern siding made from fiber cement.

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 boards.


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.


Read the fourth article in the series: Installing Fiber Cement Siding.



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 expenses.

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 Warrior"  Do-It-Yourselfers?

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 your life.
  • 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 at heights.
  • 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.


HammerZone's Recommended Siding Tools



Tools Used:

  • Basic Carpentry Tools
  • Roofing Nailer
  • Miter Saw
  • Dust Collecting Circular Saw For Fiber Cement

Materials Used:

  • Rigid Foil-Faced Foam Insulation
  • Fiber Cement Siding
  • Cellular PVC Trim Boards

Back To Top Of Page 

 Read our Disclaimer.

Search Page

Home  What's New  Project Archives  H.I. World

 Rants  Contact Us



Copyright © 2005

Written March 28, 2005