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siding, exteriors

5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners, Part 3: Siding

By The Craftsman on Dec 20, 2011

Vinyl siding covering up original cedar shiplap siding

“No Maintenance.” These two words scare the heck out of me when it comes to home improvement products, especially when it pertains to historic homes. So, let’s dispel a myth…

There is no such thing as a “No Maintenance” product for your historic home. Not a one! No car will last very long without an oil change, your lawn needs water to stay green, and your house needs painting to stay healthy. But many people search for products to sheath their house that will last decade upon decade with no upkeep. The unfortunate news is that these products don’t exist and many of the ones that claim to be such are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The Problem With Siding

The problem with siding is simple. It’s outside! It gets rained on, snowed on, tortured by hail and sleet, and the sun is constantly beating down on it and baking its protective layer of paint off day by day. It’s no wonder that folks look to “solutions” like vinyl or aluminum siding to “protect” their home’s exterior. The problem is that they cause more problems than they solve.

Vinyl siding is touted as a no maintenance product. It is rot proof, insect proof and comes in a variety of colors so it doesn’t need painting. But the problems begin almost immediately. First, vinyl siding doesn’t allow the house to breathe. Most of the time when I remove vinyl siding from a historic house I find wet, spongy, and rotted wood siding. Inevitably, the vinyl siding got some moisture behind it sometimes from rain seeping in and sometimes just from water vapor trying to escape the house. Since water vapor can’t get through the vinyl is just sits on the wood siding and turns it into a mushy mess that termites love. But don’t worry, you’ll never know that you have termites because while they munch away at your home the evidence will be completely hidden behind your perfect vinyl siding. Vinyl siding hides all kinds of ills which, along with it’s inexpensive price, is what makes it so popular. Unfortunately, you and your inspector will never be able to know there is a problem lurking beneath until it’s far too late.

Hail Damaged Aluminum Siding

Aluminum siding is another enemy of old houses. Not so much because of the damage it can cause but because it’s just plain inferior to historic materials. We actually came upon an aluminum sided house once that was built with brick! After a little show and tell the homeowner was thrilled to have us remove the siding and reveal their beautiful brick home. More often than not aluminum siding gets dented by any number of things like hail, strong storms, and the occasional baseball. The bottom 3 ft. of aluminum siding is usually covered in dents after only a couple years from its biggest enemies…Mr. lawn mower and Mrs. weed eater.

There is one product that I don’t mind, and actually use occasionally on our projects, that is not historically accurate. James Hardi siding products are top quality, long lasting products that, in my mind, can be a good fit for historic homes. If you’re not going to use the original materials they are a fine substitute. You see, I’m not a blind purist! I simply appreciate quality products and they do a good job.

The Solution

Cedar siding and shingles, especially if they are old growth, are extremely long lasting and resistant to rot and insects. When properly installed and cared for they will protect your house for well over a century. Problems arise when they are installed poorly or neglected. So here’s some helpful hints when it comes to repairing your real wood siding. Follow this advice and your siding won’t need to be replaced until your great grandchildren can swing a hammer. And remember there is no such thing as no maintenance. Just like any relationship needs quality time and attention to remain healthy so do our homes.

  • Always leave at least a 3/4″ gap (though we leave 1″) between siding and roofing materials to prevent rot.
  • Always prime the ends of boards with an oil-based primer before installing.
  • Follow the very specific nailing processes using only the approved nail types for your type of siding.
  • Always caulk siding/trim joints.
  • Inspect your siding at least once a year and touch up any chipped or missing paint.
  • Repaint your house as needed to maintain your siding.
  • (Optional) I always prefer to prime the back of any siding with oil-based primer prior to installing them just for added security. That way if there is a leak or moisture build-up behind the siding you’re still protected.

And one last parting thought about historic materials…”They’re not good because they’re old, they’re old because they’re good!”


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