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Unsiding will bring an older home out from under the covers

In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, many homes that had wood shingles or clapboards as siding were covered in “skins” of vinyl or aluminum. The reasoning behind this was that the upkeep of wood siding was too time-consuming, and newer materials were more resilient.

While it is true that wood shingles or clapboards require fresh paint every few years, a growing number of homeowners are now stripping away the skins of siding to restore the original wooden clapboards beneath. Some do it for aesthetic or historical reasons, trying to restore their homes to their original and intended appearance. But many others recognize that aluminum and vinyl siding is not as impenetrable as it seems, and still requires unexpected upkeep.

Make no mistake, restoring the historic siding of your home is an intense task, and certainly isn’t as easy as removing the vinyl siding and throwing on some fresh paint. Sally Zimmerman, the senior manager of preservation services at Historic New England, recommends that the unsiding process ideally be completed over two building seasons. The wooden clapboards of your home are most likely either too dry or too wet from being trapped under other material for many years, and it’s important to allow the wood to return to a normal level of moisture before painting.  Therefore, her recommendation is that the old “skin” be removed in the spring, restoration occur over the summer, and painting happen in the fall.

What you may find underneath

Between the process of initially putting the vinyl on the building and the years of trapped moisture and lack of upkeep, the wooden siding may not be in the best of shape. Expect damage, chips, and perhaps some rot. Sally says that, if an 1890s house is sided with asphalt (the covering favored in the 1930s), asbestos (1950s), or aluminum (1960s), the original siding would not have been very old, and thus not very deteriorated, when it was covered. “If the house was built before the 1890s, the chances that its early siding may have been well worn are greater." But, regardless, owners should not have to replace all of the early siding once it has been uncovered. "Often, 60–70% of early siding can be kept,” she says.

Additionally, ornamental pieces of wood may have been removed when the siding was installed. Many homes originally had wooden trim, particularly at windows and doors, that jutted out from the wall’s exterior. When artificial siding was installed, it is likely that these pieces were removed to make the siding installation easier. To ensure that your home is weatherproof, and to truly restore it to what it looked like before its artificial siding, it’s a good idea to try to recreate as many of these additional wooden pieces as possible.

From Charles Sullivan, Eileen Woodford, and staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission, Maintaining Your Old House in Cambridge (1988). Steven B. Smith, illustrator.

From Charles Sullivan, Eileen Woodford, and staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission, Maintaining Your Old House in Cambridge (1988). Steven B. Smith, illustrator.

“Remember, the goal of your unsiding project is to get your house back to its historic appearance,” says Sally. “The house should be the only guide to its finishes. Once unsided, missing trim elements and shadows of removed details will be obvious in cut marks on the house. Use those as the basis for replacing those elements, and resist the urge to add trim or details that would be “nice,” but were never there to begin with.  Let the house speak for itself. The house will always tell you what it is!”

It isn’t possible to know how much damage is lying underneath the “skin” of your home until it is removed. Remaining clapboards may have residue, dirt, or chalk on them that needs to be cleaned off. The holes from nails need to be filled with caulk or putty, and then the surfaces need to be sanded, washed, and rinsed.

Choosing a contractor

When choosing a contractor, Sally recommends that you “make sure that the contractor has worked with old houses before, is familiar, for example, with using five-quarter, full-dimension lumber, and has worked with restoration millwork before.” Ask for contact information for the owners of houses where similar projects were done so that you know how things turned out and can see how the finished work looks.

While the siding will have to be painted every few years, your home will now be restored to its initial appearance and construction, complete with quality wooden siding.

Additional resources

—Sean Yarolin