How to Restore a Wood Frame Exterior

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We are very excited to show you the exterior restoration of a wood frame house. Brownstoner commenter Williamsburgguys very generously shared photographs and all the details of his renovation with us. The house on Orient Avenue in East Williamsburg is one of several on the block neighbors are refurbishing.

Some are using real wood and others HardiePlank. The advantage of the latter is that is durable, non-flammable and looks identical to wood, according to our renovator. He used HardiePlank for his siding and also to rebuild his cornice.

“So it looks like it did in 1895 yet should hold up with less maintenance,” he said. He and his partner hired a siding and cornice contractor for those two jobs because “I don’t do heights and I know nothing about installing siding or building a cornice from scratch,” he said, but they handled other aspects of the restoration themselves. They built the porch canopies, refurbished and installed the salvage front doors and are stripping and repointing the brick base of the house.

The duo have plenty of construction experience: Williamsburgguys grew up helping his dad and uncles with construction, and he and his partner used to buy and flip a neglected property every summer when they lived in the south and Williamsburgguys had time off from his teaching job.

The house was built with two others to its left in 1895 to 1896. In the 1939 tax photo, the house was already covered in fake brick tarpaper. Luckily the double door entry enframement and 120-year-old wavy glass transom were still there, although hidden under Sheetrock. The fence and gate are original.

Rather than restoring the appearance of the house exactly as it appeared in the 1930s tax photo, they kept the picture window and, inspired by another nearby restoration at 124 Ainslie, used off-the-shelf components to create a credible period look.

“We made some choices to leave some things modern — like deciding not to go with the 3/2 windows and keep the big picture windows,” he said. “This house is 50 feet deep and with only two windows in the front and back, it would just be dark inside like our neighbors’. Everything we did we did with some forethought about how it would have looked in 1895 versus how we could use it today,” he said.

“We didn’t reproduce the window trim like original, but were inspired with this old trim style by another house that was also just recently done with Hardie on Ainslie. I liked the look of the larger split trim, shelf, crown, and brackets layout. We thought by keeping the more modern picture window that was shorter than the old windows, we needed taller trim at the top to bring it up to the level of the canopy and doors, and using the taller split trim allowed us to do that and maintain the old look. The trim also made the upper windows taller in appearance as well.”

The couple built the front and back porch canopies out of wood themselves “after simply walking around looking at other old ones on houses around the area. They’re not that hard to build out of 2-by-12s and some PVC trim from Home Depot (delivered free to your door), and the brackets from a place in Vermont, I think,” he said.

They found a pair of salvage doors that fit the opening that one of their neighbors had stored in his basement for decades. Williamsburgguys took them apart and reglued, stripped, and refinish them, then hung them on the existing frames. They cleaned the original transom glass and hired a professional gold leaf expert to redo the lettering.

They found the contractor, Premier Building, based on Long Island, from the HardiePlank website. They checked out other jobs the firm had done in Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights first. “They’re a great bunch of guys who worked all the way through this incredible winter and a few changes I made to get it done,” he said.

As for HardiePlank vs. wood, there’s “not really much difference in real wood versus the Hardie plank in appearance.” The HardiePlank came pre-painted with premium Valspar 20-year paint, and can be repainted. It will probably need repainting in 15 to 20 years, he said. “It has a very slight woodgrain appearance much like cedar planks.” It comes in three different textures from totally smooth to rough-hewn cedar. “We chose the middle texture which is slight grained. I was afraid the smooth, although the original wood would have been smooth to begin with, would look too much like vinyl or metal siding. So we got the very slight texture,” he said.

The cost was much more reasonable than we would have predicted. The duo spent $12,000 for the siding in the front and the back. Rebuilding the cornices cost an additional $12,000. The materials for the canopies they built themselves were about $400 for the front and $150 for the back. So the total spent was approximately $24,550.

“The cornices were a little higher than expected, but the siding a little cheaper than expected, so I was happy with the total price,” he said.

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The back of the house as construction was finishing up.

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The front of the house before the renovation.

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The back of the house before the renovation.

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How the house looked in its 1930s tax photo.

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24 Comment

  • It came out nice, although I have to admit I think the original fenestration looks a lot better than the picture window. I guess it is worth the trade off though.

  • williamsburgguys

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I also agree Mia – I like the look of the 3/2 myself, and we really did think hard about changing, however with the picture windows in front and back, the house is full of light inside. It has a Southern exposure. Our neighbor’s house that still has the 3/2 windows is really dark inside. It was a sacrifice we made to keep the light. Perhaps someday we might change it out to a more period looking picture style – a large single window with leaded details at the top, maybe a stained glass section, something like that. There are some original 1890′s single windows around to model from. Who knows. For now it will have to do. :-)

  • good job fellas. looks slick

  • daveinbedstuy

    Very nice job. I have HArdiePlank on two houses and love it. I used the smooth finish and think it looks great.

  • Justin Homes

    Nicely done. Way more attractive than a stucco facade

  • deano

    beautiful job!! didnt realise all your posts over the months have been about 43 Orient – I put in an offer on that sweet little house back in 2011; was so excited by its potential (and the feel of that street) that I ended up grumpy a long time that I didnt end up with it. But I’m glad I didnt now – you’ve done a way way better job with it than i would have even dreamt of. bravissimo!

    • williamsburgguys

      Oops! Sorry :-) There were 18 offers and we were not even in the top 5 highest, however she liked us and felt this earth-astral connection with many coincidences and overlaps in our lives, so she felt the stars told her to go with us. She also knew we were going to restore it and make it a single family and that had always been her wish as well.

  • Nice work!

    I have real wood on my front facade, and Hardie in the rear (we’re in an historic district).

    The thing about Hardie is that it really only looks identical to wood if you get the higher cost Artisan line AND you field-paint it. Artisan cuts and hangs more like wood – with regular Hardie, the trim and edges don’t look as good as wood. And the factory-applied paint on Hardie (whether regular or artisan), while cheaper and maybe longer-lasting than field-painting, in my view definitely doesn’t look as good as anything field-painted (doesn’t matter what kind of natural or synthentic material or surface finish you’re using, factory paint just doesn’t look quite right).

    Now, I’m really talking about aesthetics if you’re looking up close. Which happens when you walk by on the sidewalk next to my front facade. In the back where no one’s putting their nose up to it, no big deal.

    So if you’re looking for an identical appearance to wood, the higher cost of the artisan material and the painting offsets the benefits of lower lifetime maintenance costs that Hardie might otherwise provide.

    Also keep in mind, once you field-paint Hardie, you have to re-paint it just as often as real wood.

    And don’t forget that real wood — properly cut at the mill (look up quarter-sawn clapboard), treated, affixed by an experienced carpenter, and with a good paint/stain job — can approach the durability as Hardie without any meaningful extra material or installation expense (actually the wood is cheaper than Hardie).

    Of course, wood doesn’t have the fire properties of Hardie, so it’s a fine substitute where appearance isn’t critical.

  • premierbuildingny

    Thank You Brownstoner for featuring our work on this beautiful Brooklyn home. We were very pleased with the finished product. We here at Premier Building and Renovations were honored to complete this project and renovated this home back to its original style from the 1920s.

    Please visit us at http://www.premierbuildingny.com

  • Great job. And congrats on keeping everything beautiful even on a budget. Can’t wait to see the inside!
    And who painted the numbers on the door? Looking to get something similar done on my place.

    • williamsburgguys

      Thanks! Lawrence at ancient art did the lettering. They are real goldleaf, not paint. and he did a great job and free-handed them based on an old picture I showed him. He has a website. The inside is also 99% finished and also mostly original with a few modifications for modern living. For example we dont have the gas lights anymore :-) But it still has many of the original details and we were able to restore them or add them back with authentic materials where they had been removed. Luckily the former owners simply covered over rather than ripping out. We were lucky in that regard.

  • Whoa – $12,000 for replacing the siding in both front and back? That is… much less expansive than I’ve heard people talk about. It says they hired a siding contractor, but the post isn’t really clear: is that $12K just for materials, or is it the actual cost someone could expect to pay for this work?

    Because for $12K… would you guys do my house?? My house wants to look like that so bad…
    ( ^ serious)

    • williamsburgguys

      Nope. That was everything materials and labor. We did add a few things that were extra – front and back insulation, tearing off the old real wood siding buried under 3 other layers, re-sheathing, repairing rotten places around back, etc. As well as a couple last minute changes where they had to remove what they had already done, But that didn’t really add too much over the 24,000 price of the siding and cornices. Had we not done those extras the $24000 would have been the total price. Great guys too.

  • Beautiful. I would love to do this to my wood-frame as well. Would love to see photos of the interior!

  • This is EXACTLY what we would like to do to our house, thank you for posting! You said you used a separate contractor for the cornice, did you mention the name in the article, I didn’t see it. Would you recommend them?

  • mon7802

    Wow…..what an awesome job, you did. I just purchased a couple of houses, similar in style, to yours, and was wondering how to restore them. By seeing what you guys did, has given me the direction, I need to go in. And I would have never thought of using HArdiePlank, instead of real wood. Again you guys did an awesome job.

  • Wow, this is one of those before and afters where you see the sad ugly house in the before and can’t even imagine the beauty of the after … takes vision.

    I also like the windows much better in the earlier tax photo. I can get why you wanted to keep the wider window for more light inside, but agree the facade doesn’t look nearly as good with it as with the original windows. The picture window looks off also because the window opening is much shorter than that of the original windows.

    I like the idea of a later window with stained glass at the top – though I would definitely make it the height of the original windows, and make it divided into three parts. I’m thinking of the first floor windows on many of the apartment buildings built in Brooklyn as four flats … the upper floors have three windows, but the first floor (usually up a short stoop) often has a big wide window divided into three with stained glass above.

    I like that the window trim on the old photo echoes the canopy above the door. While I like the more restrained style of the door canopy you used, and don’t miss the woodwork and pillars of the original entryway, it would be really nice if your window trim also echoed your door trim. That’s the style thing that made the original look so great. I see why that wouldn’t work here with keeping the picture window, but maybe if you eventually redo the windows next to the door, you’d be able to add trim above all the windows that echoes the door trim style.

  • NeoGrec

    Beautiful job, guys! I’m always in awe of folks who do a lot of the work themselves. Congrats — not only do you have a lovely house to enjoy but you’ve improved the streetscape for everyone!