September 23, 2020

Wood siding and Maine weather: A high-maintenance combination

We spend a lot of time redoing old house exteriors here in Maine. Up to 50 years ago, most homes used some sort of wood siding in our climate. I cannot think of a more resilient material that is fun to work with and can create such a variety of different looks so easily.

And I can’t think of a more problematic material to maintain in our climate than wood siding. There are coatings that do work, and I know that this column might conjure up a ton of comments about wonderful paints and clear coatings that are the best thing since sliced bread. The reality is, however, that even with proper priming, back-priming and a great paint job, wood siding and trim just does not stand up the way it used to. The paint peels and flakes and requires annual maintenance. That tends to suck the fun out of wood siding – unless you are really into wood siding.

The kicker for me was a couple of years ago when Norm Abram from “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop” told us that he had replaced the wood trim on the New Yankee Workshop three times in 15 years. If Norm can’t keep wood trim in good shape on his TV workshop, what hope is there for us mere mortals?

The real problem is the nature of the wood we get today. It is newer, fast-growing wood that does not have the same extractives in it that older, slower-grown wood had. Those extractives are chemicals that offered some longevity to the slow-grown virgin lumber from years ago. I suspect that new wood is more susceptible to picking up moisture, being so fast-grown.

That is why so many builders like vinyl siding. Every time I talk about vinyl, many people groan and roll their eyes. The gigantic upsurge in vinyl siding use is an indicator of the wood siding problem. Wood and water do not mix well.

I believe – following Norm’s lead – that the exterior of homes should not use wood as a finish material, except in limited special locations, like fancy entry doors and places where an investment in long-lived species is warranted.

Fortunately, there are materials available today that are proving reliable and durable here in Maine. One of these materials is fiber cement siding. This product originated in Australia and has made its way to the U.S. It is a cousin to asbestos siding from the 1940s and ’50s, but leaves out the asbestos and replaces it with cellulose fiber.

It holds paint like crazy and is straight and pretty simple to install. And it looks like wood once painted. To my unsophisticated eye, it is a great substitute for wood. You can get it smooth or with a faux cedar grain. The two big manufacturers are the James Hardie Co. and Certainteed. They are available locally. Both companies make a range of sidings and some trim boards as well.

The clapboards hang, being nailed at the top of the plank, with few if any fasteners exposed to the weather. This makes nail touchup a minimal concern.

In my book there is nothing more green than wood, but when it comes to outside work, these new materials are far superior and using them will save a lot of trees and homework.

I guess if you love to perpetually paint, you can’t beat wood siding. I would rather spend summer doing something more therapeutic, like maybe learning the accordion.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be sent to homefront or mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of his practical home-improvement videos, reference material and a home-project blog are at bangordaily

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