HardiePlank siding is a great investment

We bought a plywood house in Portland. It sounds worse than it is. In this temperate climate, houses covered with a single skin of painted plywood are not all that unusual. But what made sense in the 1970s doesn’t make sense in today’s energy-conscious environment, and we bought the house knowing we would be house-wrapping it and covering it in good siding before long. Our windows were all ’70s vintage too–aluminum sliders, with poor sliding action and terrible insulating quality–so replacing those was part of the plan.

I like to do things just once, and I hate maintenance, so we chose excellent Marvin fiberglass windows and HardiPlank siding, both rated to last many decades with almost no care.

What is cool about upgrading a single-skin plywood house like mine is that you can treat the house like new construction with standard plywood sheathing. Pop out the old windows, nail new ones onto the plywood, and then cover everything with house-wrap material and your siding of choice.

I wrote about the window replacement in an earlier blog, so now here is everything you need to know about HardiPlank siding. When it comes to siding, you have three basic choices, a wood product like cedar, which looks beautiful but needs regular painting or sealing to last; vinyl, which looks OK, lasts OK, costs the least, and needs only the occasional power-wash; and cement fiberboard, which lasts forever potentially and can be made to look like any type of shingle or clapboard. I’ve had vinyl before and didn’t like it. It feels cheap and cracks easily and melts when the grill comes too close (dumb move by me).

James Hardie is the leader in the fiber-cement field, so I went with them. Their siding used to have a so-so reputation for rot-resistance in rainy regions like mine, but now they formulate it differently for different climates, so those problems seem to be behind them. Builders also realize that HardiPlank needs an air gap behind it, so they either attach thin wood strips underneath, or this cool new house wrap called HydroGap, which creates its own air gap.

Here’s an important tip: If your siding installer hasn’t done a lot of HardiPlank before, get a new installer. There is a learning curve to this stuff, from the air gaps below to the expansion gaps between and the nails on top.

The HardiePlank website is amazing, by the way, letting you choose your house style, then cover it with whatever siding and trim styles you want, in endless combinations of colors. That’s how we designed our look.

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The other thing we did was choose HardiePlank that was already painted. Most people choose the primed product and have it installed and then painted, but the factory paint job is baked on and rated for 25 years (vs. 8-10 for hand-painted) so I went with that. It cost a few thousand bucks more, about the price of one extra paint job, so it will pay off in the long run.

The trim is real cedar, which we painted. Even though the siding was already that nice pewter grey we wanted, there was lots of stuff to paint grey, like the gutters and eaves! I hired a friend for that high-ladder work–no thanks!

The following pictures tell the rest of the story.

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Here’s the original house with T1-11 plywood siding and old aluminum windows.
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And here’s how the house looks now. We love it! It is quieter inside, better-looking outside, and our AC bill is already lower!
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Notice the shingle-style panels we put up in the peak areas for some subtle flair.

Now here’s how the siding went on, with some important tips along the way.

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Picking up from the window installation, the house wrap goes on, along with flashing over any trim and adhesive tape around the windows. Everything is overlapped so it will shed water, in case some gets below the siding.
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HydroGap housewrap has raised beads on it so the siding can not touch the house, ensuring an air gap behind the siding, and proper drainage of any moisture.
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HardiePlank siding gets a small piece of flashing at every joint.
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It is attached with a special air nailer.
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Nails are driven fully home with a hammer. Seems tedious but it goes quick.
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Every joint needs a small gap so the planks can expand and contract freely.
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The overlap on our clapboard-style siding is 7 in.
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Our siding was pre-painted by the factory, so it requires some extra care, like thin plastic sheets between each piece.
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The fiber-cement product is cut with a special blade, always good side down. A circular saw’s blade spins upward, so the bottom of the board gets the cleanest cut.
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The whole house looks so clean and buttoned up. Pay no attention to the deck and balcony–I’ll be fixing those up in future blogs!
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I even had the guys install a wood trim board for our hot-tub hooks! I also took the opportunity to install new lighting. That’s critical in any remodel. The trim is all cedar wood by the way, which we painted separately.

Welding is easier than you think, pt. 1

I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.

I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.

Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!

So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.

So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.

So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.

Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.

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Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.

You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:

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You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!

You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.

Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.

Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.

Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.

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Mark used some cool magnet clamps to hold the parts in place squarely while she tacked all the joints together. This leg assembly got joined later to another one to complete the table base.
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You work your way around the assembly tacking one area at a time.
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Then you return to each area to do the full welds. This equalizes all the forces in the assembly as you go, and lets heat dissipate.

As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.

 

You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!

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This is the angle and height you should keep the spool gun at, and this is about how wide a good weld should be. You can see the swirling action in the weld.
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A wire brush cleans say the slag off the weld, and 3M pads can do the rest of the polishing. A couple coats of paste wax completes the job. Then the frame is done!

Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.

 

After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.

Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.