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Exterior Paint and Clapboards

I live in an old farmhouse in Vermont . The oldest part of the house still has it’s original clapboards that date to about 1830. The paint was in fairly rough condition here (peeling) as it gets afternoon direct sun. We had the wall scraped thoroughly, then primed and painted the wall. Much to my dismay, the new paint is already peeling rather dramatically on this wall. Do you have an idea of why this particular wall doesn’t seem to hold paint? – Mike in Vermont

The cause of your peeling paint appears to be heavy paint buildup, exacerbated by moisture. It looks like your fine old clapboards are not the cause of the problem. The main source of moisture is probably rain, seeping into the cracks in the paint film and at joints between wooden parts. Moisture from inside the wall or house may also contribute.

The only low-cost solution is spot paint maintenance. For a more costly long-term solution there are two approaches: complete paint removal down to bare wood then starting over with re-painting; or replacement of the woodwork.

Spot Paint Maintenance Program
This treatment “goes with the flow” in that the paint is allowed to peel off, mostly at its own rate. Full coating is not done since this would further shorten the cycle of coating and peeling. Appearance will be “variable,” but is not usually consider “shabby”. Every three to five years the paint surfaces are cleaned, loose paint is knocked off and the bare wood in these spots is primed and painted. There is no attempt to feather the thick edge of heavy paint buildup since it will do little to extend the life of the work. Relatively weak “oil-based” primers and paints are used. Matching the color and sheen of the surrounding paint is important. This is a relatively low cost treatment, but it must be repeated for as long as there is heavy paint buildup that is peeling off. Lead containing waste material does not usually require costly special handling and disposal since relatively smaller amounts are generated, although you will still want to handle and dispose of them responsibly. The continuing cost of this treatment over the long-term might be higher than complete removal. Typical costs are $5. – $11./sq.ft. with only 10-30% of the exterior needing treatment.

Complete Paint Removal and Recoating
All paint is removed down to bare wood. The surface is prepared and oiled if needed, primed, and painted with two top coats. “Oil-based primer is used and top coats are so-called “latex” with 100% acrylic binders. This is a very high cost treatment, but is only done once. Since it removes the basic cause of the problem (excessive paint buildup) the cost of continuing maintenance is much lower than the spot paint maintenance approach. Typical costs are $16. – $26./sq.ft.. This includes access, removal, consolidating oil, primer, 2 top coats paint, but does not include the cost of disposal of special or hazardous lead paint waste. In recent years the rising costs of safely removing and disposing of lead paint has made complete removal a choice of last resort. Usually Steam Paint Removal or chemical methods are used since grinding the paint off with sanders or “shavers” creates large volumes of lead dust, and dry-heat removal methods are a fire risk. We often limit complete paint removal to areas with difficult access such as towers where long-term performance is needed and on areas where appearance is important such as at front doorways. And then we do spot paint maintenance on the rest of the place.

Clapboard Replacement
If you go this route, use vertical-grain radial-sawn clapboards, which hold paint better than ordinary flat-sawn clapboards. The difficulty with replacing the woodwork is that you will have to pay top dollar for the best quality clapboards and knowledgeable carpenters to install them. Even then you may not get clapboards as good as the ones you have now. Old wood is often much better quality and more durable than new wood. Saving your old clapboards by doing spot paint maintenance or complete paint removal could cost less in the long run.

Clapboard Suppliers:

Ward Clapboard Mill
Moretown , Vermont · 802-496-3581
Patten, Maine · 207-528-2933

Stephen Jeffery
269 France Road
Barrington , NH 03825
603 664-9002

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail:; or log onto his website at:

© John Leeke

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