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Paint It Right!

Historic HouseReplacement siding can seem like a really great way to make your house look better and avoid the hassles of painting. That’s the big lie.

Replacement siding is almost always nailed right onto the original siding after all of the original architectural features are stripped off. Visually this removes all of the texture the home has and replaces it with a flat, generic, cereal box look. Although I believe this is a primary consideration, others may not.

If aesthetics are not a primary concern for you, consider that more and more, the well-maintained, original fabric of a home brings a premium price when a home is sold. I always wonder why someone puts up synthetic siding and so do appraisers. What kind of nightmare is hiding under that stuff? If the home was not maintained well in the first place, siding will only make the problems worse.

In most cases, replacement siding creates a vapor barrier on the outside of the house, trapping moisture that can’t be seen. These siding materials have a very low permeability rate (moisture cannot get through them). This means that as the warm, moist air inside the home is attracted into the cold exterior walls, the extra layer of siding acts as a vapor barrier preventing it from venting out of the wall.

On the other hand original wood sheathing and wood siding has a much higher permeability rate and there are small gaps under each piece of wood clapboard that allow the moist air to escape. This, as well as rain water, somehow always finds its way behind the siding, continues the rotting problems, and may well damage the structural integrity of the house. Since replacement siding is always a retro-fit, it is difficult to get the siding on tight enough to stop even rain water from entering behind the siding.

Insects of all variety just love replacement siding; it gives them a moist place to do their damage, sight unseen. Termites are especially attracted to the dampness between the layers of siding.

Nothing is maintenance free or permanent. Within 15 to 25 years the factory paint on the metal products begins to break down and chalk off. At this point the only thing that can be done is to re-paint. Re-painted metal siding starts the painting cycle all over again. Once re-painted, metal siding will need it again in half the time painted wood will. Vinyl siding tends to warp and look distorted over time and will fade. It is very brittle and susceptible to all of the same moisture problems as metal siding.

You may even hear that replacement siding has great insulating qualities. Don’t believe it. The Federal Trade Commission states that replacement siding has little or no insulating value.

So, if the standard for most paint jobs seems to be three to five years and re-painting is needed, what’s a homeowner to do? With the tools we have today, you or your painter can achieve a paint job that will last 12 to 15 years cost effectively.

When there are too many coats of paint on the wood exterior of a house, they cure at different rates. Oil and lead based paints actually never stops curing while latex/acrylic based paints cure quickly. A new latex top coat contracts and expands at a different rate than the old paint under it, which in turn causes the old paint to pull away from the wood.

The most important thing to consider when prepping an old house is lead paint. Today, safely removing lead paint from exterior siding and trim is not only easy, it should only cost about 10% more than a cheesy scrape and power wash job. Removing all the old paint gives you a fresh start on bare wood and the ability to achieve a 12 to 15 year paint job. Accomplishing this on an average two-story house used to take 4 to 6 of my painters 6 to 8 weeks. The labor involved in hand scraping, using heat guns and chemical strippers made this method way too expensive for any homeowners I’ve ever known.

Today, total paint removal can be accomplished without lead paint issues utilizing two tools, The Paint Shaver and The Speed Heater. Thanks to these innovative tools, this task can now be done with 2 workers in 5 to 7 days

The Paint Shaver is like a planer with carbide blades. It takes all the paint off the face of the clapboard and the butt edge of the piece above it in one motion. This pulverizes the paint, puts it into a hose, which is attached to a HEPA vacuum (HEPA is an Environmental Protection Agency term that essentially means that once the debris gets into the vacuum no dust is put back out into the air). The planer head adjusts in and out in thousands of an inch. Always play with it in an out of the way area to get the hang of it and to be sure it’s adjusted properly.

Even though the HEPA vacuum takes the lead dust, I still wear a double filtered respirator with filters that are rated for lead dust. Never use this tool without a HEPA vacuum or a shop vacuum with all the fine dust filters available. The Paint Shaver costs between $500 and $600 but you can see very quickly how it pays for itself.

The Speed Heater is the size of a loaf of bread and works with infrared heating elements. These elements won’t heat the paint over 640 degrees, which is the point that lead paint becomes a dangerous vapor, yet removes paint at a very fast rate. The paint is warm and soft when it drops onto your drop cloth and so does not create lead dust. Traditional heat guns warm the paint way over 640 degrees and can start fires so don’t use them. Also, never drop lead paint onto the bare ground (your kids and pets play there).

In areas that must be hand scraped, never dry scrape the paint. Lightly mist the paint with a spray bottle and this will eliminate lead dust.

This is the point where it is best to finish all the prepping on one side of the house at a time. We don’t think about it here in the Midwest but if you clean, prime and caulk sides 1, 2, 3, 4 and then begin painting side one with topcoats, the air born pollution that attaches itself to the house can knock as much as 5 to 7 years off the life of the paint job.

All bare wood should be hand washed with TSP and water. Use ¼ cup of TSP for every gallon of water and scrub the siding. Hand scrubbing forces you to get up and look at all the areas of your house. This should then be rinsed with a hose without a spray nozzle.

Never let a painter power-wash your house. A painter on the ground water blasting your house at 2,200 pounds per square inch (about the same pressure as sand blasting) will not see a rotted eave board but they will cause your paint job to fail. In most climates exterior wood with moisture contents over 15% will not hold paint. In tests we did for my PBS show we found that power washed wood siding and trim had a moisture content of over 30% even after sitting in the sun for 5 days. The high pressure drives moisture deep into the wood and it can take as long as six months to dry down to 15% moisture. All house painters should have a moisture meter.

Once the wood is clean, its time to repair or replace any rotted & cracked siding and trim.

Replacement should be with similar materials but most rot can be repaired using architectural epoxies. It is usually cheaper to do the epoxy repairs than replacing rotted wood.

All primer should be oil based alkyd primer. Latex primer does not bite into the wood and condition it properly for caulk and topcoats. This should be applied by brush, not spray. Spraying does not adequate adhesion and puts the paint on too thin. Brushing will always give a thicker coat that will wear longer.

Caulking will help stop air infiltration into your house. Always caulk after priming and use an acrylic/latex caulk with silicon. Imagine your house under Niagara Falls. Caulk all areas the cascading water can penetrate but don’t caulk where it can’t.

Use the highest quality acrylic latex topcoats you can afford. With paint you get what you pay for. Painting contractors have accounts with paint stores and often want to sell you paint for $12 to $15 a gallon. This is no bargain as the paint is always inferior with low solids content. $25 to $40 a gallon is the correct range. Apply two coats with brush only. Check Consumer Reports Magazine for the highest rated paints and use them!

Finally, a paint job must be maintained on a yearly basis. Look around your house to see if any paint is failing. Paint failure, on a properly painted house, can be caused by things such as exhaust fans not sealed properly, leaky gutters or roof problems. If you’re hiring all the work done, buy a yearly maintenance contract from the painter. This will cost between $100 and $200 a year but well worth it.
In truth, you can hire a contractor to paint your house, as described above, twice in 24 to 30 years, never lift a finger and pay less than installing plastic siding that will last maybe 18 to 20 years.

The Paint Shaver, American International Tool, 800-932-5872,

The Speed Heater, 703-476-6222,