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Historic Facade Restoration – From Vinyl to Clapboard

By Scott Newman

The discussion back and forth about plastic (vinyl) siding on historic buildings has been settled. Preservationists understand that plastic siding disfigures historic structures, builders know it can trap moisture and cover over problems needing maintenance and repairs, and real estate professionals advise clients to be wary of possible defects that may be concealed under the plastic and how that can affect property values. Why did the owner install that plastic siding??

While removal is typically the best option for historic structures, it can a little intimidating. How do I remove it? What will I find underneath? How much will it cost? Well, removal could not be simpler, requiring a hammer and an inexpensive “unlocking” bar available at most hardware stores. Before jumping in with both feet, I recommend carefully removing and reinstalling one or more test sections of the plastic on less visible walls, about 4-feet total height for each. Make sure at least one test section abuts a building corner and window frame so you can check out the building trim. You may also want to look at the cornice if it’s covered over. If working at height is not your thing, you should call a pro. This testing process will give you an idea of conditions underneath and allow you to plan your next moves.

Test section removal: Unlock the upper horizontal joint of your test section by sliding the bar up into the joint, then sideways to disconnect the upper section. Working downward, slide the hammer behind the nails fastening the siding panels to the wall and remove the siding until your test section is complete (there are YouTube videos showing the removal and reinstall process). Under the plastic you may find a combination of wood strapping, house wrap, and insulating board – all of this should be carefully removed with hand tools to determine the presence and condition of the historic wood siding. Remember, you will probably be reinstalling the test area siding while you plan for the big day.

What did your test sections reveal? Chances are you found wooden clapboards and trim with peeling paint. Older (pre-1978) paint will typically contain some amount of lead, but you or a qualified contractor can safely repaint the building following VT Dept. of Health guidelines (see sidebar). And depending on what your tests reveal, you may need some limited replacement of siding or trim. If in doubt about what you’ve found, have a trusted builder inspect the areas to help you develop a strategy.

If you find decayed wood, then you did yourself and the building a big favor by identifying it and forming a plan for repairs! A major benefit of wood siding, unlike plastic, is it telegraphs maintenance issues that need your attention. If you discover the historic wood siding has been removed, you can stay with the plastic siding, or remove it and install new clapboards. The work can often be done over time by do-it-yourselfers, but don’t hesitate to call your builder to talk about it – maybe you can share the work to save money.

If you have de-plasticized your building, congratulations and time to throw a party! Don’t let painting dampen your enthusiasm. When approached with care it is not the maintenance issue that some purport. A good paint job will last 15+ years, and using colors outside the plastic-appropriate palettes of faded whites, greys and blues will add a character and vibrancy that will make it (and you) the envy of the neighborhood. Check PTV’s Website for Painting Best Practices, or give us a call!



For an eye-opening take on vinyl siding, check out this link:

Find Painting Best-Practices at this link:

Dept. of Health Lead paint regulations, a must-read:





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