So…I kind of dove head-first into fixing the back of my house.
Quick refresh: it looked kind of like this after the big mudroom addition came down. Not adorable! After removing the vinyl siding, it became very clear that I needed to do something with the door and the window on the second floor, since they’re clearly later additions that are neither functional nor attractive.
So the plan became a classic rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme: I’d tear out the double casement window in the kitchen, replace it with a cheap stop-gap window (down the line it’ll get a nice, enlarged 6-over-6 to match the rest of the house), and split the casement sashes into two individual windows for the second story—one on each side of the chimney running up that wall. As you can see from the pictures, all of this would involve a lot of clapboard patching. Patching clapboard is kind of like patching wood floors or something—you don’t want to end up with an obvious patch, so you need to feather your boards so they vary in length and joints are staggered.
I was planning on re-siding just the top half of this wall to accomplish this, and leave the bottom half intact since the clapboards (especially the green parts) were in relatively good condition, just with a ton of old crusty paint that needed to be scraped and stuff before repainting.
I had this idea that I’d use Peel Away, which is a great chemical stripper that’s widely used in restoration projects. It’s basically a thick paste that you apply fairly liberally and cover with their special magic wax paper and leave for about 24 hours. I decided to do a test sample before committing to the whole wall to see how it would work.
After about 24 hours, you start, well, peeling away. The paste stripper binds pretty well with both the paint and the wax paper, so it all kind of sloughs off in chunks.
So, it worked…okay. Since the green part of the wall was inside the mudroom for so many years, it only seems to have a couple coats of paint on it and the Peel Away worked flawlessly there. The white part, though, has about a billion layers of paint…and caulk…and tar. I guess as boards began to split or rot, a previous owner opted to smear them with tar which is super sticky and probably not the greatest substrate for new paint.
Peel Away is very effective on paint but doesn’t really do anything to caulk or tar, so I was left with decent but not great results. I figured I’d do it anyway and then just scrape and sand a LOT to get things ready for repainting, which sounded like the opposite of fun but short of replacing all the clapboard I wasn’t sure what else I could do.
While I mulled over that, I shifted my focus to replacing the window. I told you, nothing fancy! The idea was to buy a replacement window that would fit in the frame of the old window so I wouldn’t have to do anything crazy like totally re-frame and redo the trim on the outside and destroy my kitchen on the inside and all that.
I found a window that was the right dimensions at Lowe’s, where somebody had special ordered it and then returned it. Since it’s a non-standard size, Lowe’s unloads these at a deep discount…I guess this window would have run about $175 for the person who bought it, but it was mine for about $25! Cool.
Even though I think of this window as temporary, it’s going to be on the house long enough that I figured I could put a little extra effort into making it look better, so I also picked up a can of gloss black spray paint (Valspar brand that said it would work on plastic), covered the glass with paper and tape, roughed up the plastic a little with a sanding block, and hit it with a few coats of paint. I think it looks WAY better and since the other windows on the house are already black, I think it helps it blend a little more even though it’s vinyl.
When it came to actually putting in the new window…I messed up. I measured wrong! So the window that was supposed to fit in the old frame to make my life easier did not, and I didn’t want to go out and buy a new window and eat the (small, but still) cost of the new window that I’d already spray-painted. Doh! So the old frame came out, the old exterior trim came off, and I furred out the framing so the new window would fit snugly. I also managed to install it 100% by myself (turns out it’s kind of hard to hoist a big window into its rough opening, make it level, and screw it into place with only two hands) which I was pretty proud about.
ANYWAY. As you can see, at this point I’d removed a fair amount of the old siding to redo the trim around the new window, and I was finding that taking down the siding intact wasn’t so bad.
I was also noticing more and more that the condition of the old clapboard was not good. This is an area under the window where the siding meets the cornerboards, which was so caked in old paint and tar that it didn’t really even resemble wood anymore. Argh. I actually kind of like when old clapboard houses have that scale-y texture from being scraped and repainted over the years, but this level of disrepair seemed a bit beyond that and not a good candidate for scraping and repainting.
So one thing led to another.
And I took down all the clapboard.
A couple of years ago, seeing the house like this probably would have sent me into major panic mode…but I gotta say, this was all kind of fun and thrilling. Like, oopsie! Now I just have to fix it! No biggie!
You’ll notice that my house doesn’t have any sheathing at all, which would typically be between the studs and the clapboard. In my case, sheathing either came later or just hadn’t really hit Kingston yet…I don’t tend to see it on houses around here that were built before about 1890. My house and a lot of others is just clapboard nailed to the studs.
You might also be wondering what the hell all that brick is about? Well I’ll tell you. It’s called nogging, and was a fairly common practice during the 19th century. Basically the frame of the house would be built, clapboard applied to the outside, and then the wall cavities between the studs would be filled with brick and mortar from the inside before the lath and plaster went up. Crazy, right? It’s not structural—instead it was a form of insulation and pest-proofing, since rats and mice aren’t super keen on chewing through bricks.
The problem with the nogging is several-fold. Firstly, as insulation it has an R-value of less than 1, so it’s not all that different than just having no insulation. Because the walls are already jam-packed with this stuff, there really isn’t any way to install better insulation without removing it all, but access to it is the obvious issue since tearing off all the clapboard sounds mildly insane and tearing out all the necessary plaster inside would be a huge amount of energy and expense and, to me at least—lover of plaster walls—super sad for the house. The nogging is made out of what are called “salmon bricks,” which are basically garbage bricks that weren’t close enough to the heat as they were getting fired, or broke during production or transport…stuff like that. The vast majority of them do not hold up to any kind of moisture—instead, they absorb it like a sponge and then break and crumble, which is not really the kind of thing you want lurking behind your walls!
ANYWAY. It’s the 21st century! We have lots of insulation options now that are better at insulating than garbage bricks. The nicest option is closed-cell spray foam, but it’s also really expensive, and would ideally be done from the inside in a larger application than this to make it worth it. Normal fiberglass bat is also an option but I was concerned about how it would fare on a wall without sheathing—it has a tendency to kind of compress itself and become useless when exposed to moisture and it’s no fun to work with. I read online somewhere about using a combination of rigid foam insulation and canned spray foam, and that seemed like the best option for here.
So I picked up some 4’x8′ sheets that are 2″ thick and supposed to have an R-value of 10. I know 10 is still fairly low but it’s a huge improvement, and I think one that makes sense for a house that will always be somewhat drafty no matter what. Each sheet was about $35 (I used 5 on this wall for both levels) so the price was also manageable.
The process of installing the foam insulation was really simple: measure the width (each was a little different), rip it down on the table saw, and put it in place. They fit snugly enough that no other fasteners were required.
After a bunch of panels were in place, it was time for the Great Stuff! Great Stuff is, well, pretty great for sealing gaps and cracks. I sprayed it around each edge of the foam panels and waited for it to expand and dry. It served kind of a dual function of locking the panels in place and really buttoning up the whole installation.
Before re-siding, I went around and used my handy flush cut saw to remove parts of the spray foam that had expanded past the studs. It’s also easy to cut this stuff with a box cutter. Just make sure it’s dry, because spray foam is a sticky nightmare if it isn’t.
OK! SO! Finally it was time for the magic to happen! I had my pile of boards that I’d removed from the house, and then more clapboards I was hoarding in the basement that came off of the mudroom when I tore that down.
I experimented with a few different methods of trying to safely and relatively easily remove the paint/caulk/tar special plaguing most of these boards, and all of them basically sucked.
Until…the planer!! I bought this DeWalt planer secondhand about a year ago for something else. It’s a really fun tool to own because the gratification is so instant and the transformation is so dramatic! I hooked it up directly to my ShopVac fitted with a HEPA filter (VERY important because there is definitely lead paint involved), put on a respirator and some ear protection, and started feeding boards through.
DUDES. SO EXCITING. Each board took about 2-4 passes, but being able to totally strip down 10 or 12 foot lengths of clapboard in about a minute? Awesome.
So the boards go in one side looking like this.
And out the other looking like this. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
The ShopVac set-up was very effective, by the way. Small paint chips still escaped but the vast majority got sucked right into the ShopVac and most importantly it was extremely good at keeping the really fine dust out of the air. No system of dealing with lead paint is perfect but I feel good about this one.
The final step in prepping the boards for installation was to run them through the table saw to shave off just the tiniest amount on the bottom of each board where there was still paint, since only the face of the boards got planed.
The actual installation went surprisingly fast and was totally fun and made me feel like a cool wizard. I used this DeWalt siding and trim nail gun (borrowed from Edwin…have I mentioned how great it is to live next door to a friendly contractor?) fitted with 2″ siding nails. The nail gun was essential since I was alone, but even with another set of hands I can’t really imagine nailing all of this by hand. It’s extremely important to use nails specifically for siding—framing or finishing nails will rust.
By the way, I considered adding sheathing and weather wrap but nixed it because I didn’t want to add thickness to the wall and then end up with my clapboards protruding past the elements of the cornice at the top of the wall. I know that might seem iffy but this is how the house was built and I guess it’s been fine so far.
To conserve as much material as possible, I laid out all my available boards in order of size (this was the area for small boards—there was another for medium-sized boards and another for the really long guys). That way I could easily find the piece closest in length to the one I needed and end up with a smaller off-cut. This project generated really little waste, which always feels good!
After selecting my board, it was over to the chop saw to cut it to length! A lot of the boards had really rotted or split ends but were fine in the middle, so I’d usually cut a little off of each end.
The boards are about 6″ wide (they vary) but the reveal is 5.25″. To keep the reveals consistent, I just ripped a piece of scrap wood down to 5.25″ and used it as a guide to correctly place each board.
With each run I tried to pay special attention to where the joints would fall in relation to the previous boards so that they’d look staggered and random. The disadvantage of doing things this way is that you want to get rid of any “bad” parts of each board, so I ended up with more butt joints than there used to be, but I’m OK with that if it means being able to retain the original boards.
Not bad for wood that’s been outside for 150 or so years, am I right?
I’m so happy with the way this project is shaping up! Wait until you see the top half…it’s not totally done yet (some painting and caulking still to go…) but I think it’s going to look great.
So, am I crazy? I honestly feel like I could do the whole house this way (maybe tweaking some parts of the process)—restoring the clapboard and insulating one wall at a time. Right?
This post is in partnership with Lowe’s! Lowe’s has kindly provided me with merchandise credit, but specific product selections, opinions, designs, and stupid ideas are all mine.