Q&A / 

Paint or Stain the Exterior

DEAR TIM: The cedar siding on our modified A-frame house needs to be re-stained. But a neighbor suggests that we paint the house. Can you paint a house that has been stained? Is it a good idea? To add further confusion, a different neighbor says that painting the house will stop the wood from expanding and contracting leading to possible structural damage. Who is right? What would you do? Robert L., Lake Geneva, WI

DEAR ROBERT: Neither of your neighbors is 100 percent correct. Neighbor number two's advice is the least accurate in my opinion. Even if painted, the wood siding will absolutely continue to expand and contract. In fact, that is why paint often peels and flakes from wood siding. The seasonal expansion and contraction of the wood breaks the bond between the wood siding and the paint.

What's more, there is no connection between structural failure and expanding and contracting wood siding. The wood siding on a house is not supposed to act as a structural component. It is simply a skin that protects the structure from the elements. Keeping the skin of your home in good condition is necessary and you must maintain it with one of the two coatings you are contemplating.

Even the best paint put on by the best painter will fail. But semi-transparent water repellents also wear out. Photo credit: Tim Carter

Even the best paint put on by the best painter will fail. But semi-transparent water repellents also wear out. Photo credit: Tim Carter

A high quality paint or an epoxy fortified synthetic resin water repellent applied to the cedar siding will stop water from entering the wood. Minimizing or eliminating water penetration into the siding should be your primary goal. The aesthetic look of your home should be secondary. A house that has strong curb appeal does add value, but beware of making this your primary objective.

Water repellents and paint are coatings. A paint is considered a film that lays on top of the surface. Many water repellents soak into the wood and do not leave a film at the surface. Some water repellents do create a film or skin at the surface. The problem with films or surface coatings is that they eventually peel. When this happens, you are forced to scrape or strip the loose and peeling film off before you can apply a second coat. For this single reason, I try to avoid coatings that are films.

Penetrating water repellents do not peel, but they wear out. When it is time to re-coat the wood, you simply do not have to scrape the wood. This can save a tremendous amount of work. No matter which coating you choose to use, you will still be faced with lots of other work. You will still have to carefully and thoroughly wash the siding with soap and water and then do what is necessary to apply the coating of your choice. Scraping or stripping loose films is simply an additional step to a process.

If you really want to be confused, just look at my home. It is redwood siding and painted! My wife and I love Victorian style architecture and I built a Queen Anne Victorian home. These painted ladies just don't seem to look good with semi-transparent stains, so I painted the home for Kathy. Did I know I was going down the high-maintenance highway when I popped the lid off the first can of primer? You bet I did. But I also decided to use a paint that contained a blend of water-based urethane and acrylic resins. These are very sticky and I am confident it will be many years before my paint film peels or blisters.

Keep in mind that painting your A-frame home may significantly change its appearance. Certain architecture styles lend themselves to a certain look. When I think log cabin and A-frame, I see in my mind a rustic wood look. If you say two-story colonial or Victorian, the image in my brain is paint. If you paint your A-frame, will it lower it value to a potential buyer? That may not concern you, but it could be a factor in another person's mind.

If you do decide to paint instead of applying the epoxy fortified synthetic resin water repellent, be sure you hand wash the siding as you would your car. Avoid pressure washing this delicate wood. You need the wood to be perfectly clean. Read the label of the finish paint and follow the directions to the letter with respect to any primer they say you must use. Never forget that paint is simply a glue with color added to it. Both the primer and the finish paint must be the best glues and they stick best to clean surfaces.

Semi-transparent water repellents for wood come in many different formulations. Unfortunately a majority of them are made from natural oils that are food for mildew and algae. The best water repellents are ones that are made from synthetic resins. Do a search on the Internet for epoxy water repellents and you will quickly discover good ones.

The urethane - acrylic resin house paints are also readily available. They are sold at national chain paint stores as well as several major retail stores that have tool and paint departments. Look at the label and when you see the words "urethane and acrylic", you know you have a winner. Be sure to pay strict attention to the temperature ranges when the paint can be applied. Do not stray outside of these ranges.

The best weather to apply paint is when the temperature is near 70F and the winds are calm. An overcast day is much better than a sunny day. It is best for paint to dry slowly.

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