A step-by-step guide to how I painted my 100-yr-old cedar siding
Cedar siding is a classic, durable option for protecting the exterior of your home. If you have old cedar siding, you don’t need to replace it! Resist the urge to strip it off or cover it up with Hardie Plank or, worse yet, vinyl siding. Cedar can stand the test of time. Heck, there are still some 100-yr-old cedar stumps working hard to support the foundation of my house.
For the most basic cedar siding paint job, you’ll need just four steps: 1) Carefully pressure wash the dirt off the siding, 2) thoroughly scrape off the peeling paint, 3) prime the bare wood with an oil-based primer, and 4) paint the siding with an all-in-one exterior paint and primer.
If you want a more pristine finish—one that doesn’t show the hills and valleys where you scraped the peeling paint—you’ll need to sand the siding after scraping it to level out the paint ridges. If you went overboard on pressure washing the cedar and bored into the wood (more on this later), you may also want to sand the frayed wood or apply an exterior spackling compound like DAP Platinum Patch, let it dry, and sand it smooth. I tried the latter method on a few pieces and it turned out beautifully, but I didn’t have the desire or patience to do it everywhere. Maybe in the future!
Disclaimer: As always with any paintwork on old homes, check for lead first!
Step 1: Carefully pressure wash the dirt off the siding
Use a lower-pressure washer with a max PSI of 1600 or so. I used this Stanley model. You want the pressure to be low because wood is softer than many other materials you would pressure wash, and it will fray if sprayed too intensely. You’ll want to modify the spray on the nozzle to spray a flat stream, NOT a pinpoint spray. This will further diffuse the pressure and prevent wood fraying. I made the mistake of using the pinpoint spray and gouged my cedar siding in several spots. Learn from my mistakes!
Pressure washing the siding may remove some of the loose peeling paint, but don’t get too excited—this won’t replace the scraping step for you. However, it will help you clean off all the dirt, grime, mildew, and spiderwebs that are inevitably clinging to your siding. I recommend that you start spraying from the top of your siding and work your way down. Otherwise you’ll wash dirty water down onto the areas you’ve already cleaned.
Be careful not to spray water directly onto your soffit vents, as you’ll end up forcing water up into your attic spaces. No bueno.
Step 2: Thoroughly scrape off the peeling paint
This step is undoubtedly the most time-intensive, depending on the state of your siding’s last paint job, but it’s also the most important. If you do not scrape off peeling paint, your new paint job will peel off immediately. This is not an optional step. If you’re going to spend top dollar on premium paints, solid prep work is absolutely necessary!
For this step, you can use a painter’s multitool, a stiff scraper that can be attached to an extension pole, or even a fancy carbide scraper if you want to get really serious. Because my siding is on the thinner side and I didn’t want to buy a new tool, I ended up using a tool I already had in my kit: a window glazing tool. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a sharp scraping edge and the width of the blade comfortably fits the width of your siding. Trying to scrape 3” siding with a 5” blade will not be a pleasant task.
Then, break down your siding into sections, grab a ladder, and get going. I used my Werner 20-ft extension ladder to be able to reach all the way up to the top of my siding — about 16 feet off the ground. I also used and loved this ladder stabilizer, which made the entire process feel much safer and also provided a nice buffer between the ladder and siding so I could reach more areas to scrape.
I started from the top of each section and worked my way down, then moved the ladder to the next section over and started from the bottom and worked my way up. This allowed me to move the ladder as little as possible while simply adjusting the length of the extension. But you can really do this however you like. Just make sure you have a system that works for you and that you don’t miss any areas.
This process will take forever. I recommend listening to a good long audiobook (or four, or eight) while you do this relatively mindless task. Some of my favorites while I scraped were Daisy Jones & The Six and The Silent Patient. Find something engrossing to help the time fly by.
Step 3: Prime the bare wood with an oil-based primer
The oil-based part is key. To really seal in and protect the raw wood that you’ve exposed now that you’ve scraped the peeling paint, you’ve gotta use oil-based. It stinks something awful and you don’t want to breathe it in in an enclosed space, but for outdoor use it’s fairly tolerable. It’s also going to muck up your tools unless you choose to invest in mineral spirits to clean them, so I’d suggest using paint brushes or rollers that you don’t mind throwing away once you’re done priming.
Pro Tip: You can wrap your brush or roller in plastic and stick them in the fridge in between priming sessions. This will keep the primer wet and the tool usable for up to a week or two before it dries out and will save you a lot of trouble. If you’re using the tools every few days with this method, the same ones will last you for the full project. For this step, I prefer Zinsser Cover Stain primer — it’s what my carpenter always uses for exterior bare wood, and I trust his judgment.
I recommend following the same process here that you used for priming. Shuffle your ladder around the house as you prime various zones. I used a cheap angled paint brush so I could really pile on the product. A roller won’t give you the same instant coverage without a lot of drippage. Again, audiobooks will be your best friend for this stage.
Technically, you could also spray the primer on with an airless sprayer, but I’m really hesitant to do this just in case the mineral spirits don’t fully clean out my machine and gunk it up for good. However, if you’ve done this before and are comfortable with the cleanup, it will save you loads of time.
Step 4: Paint the siding with an all-in-one exterior paint and primer.
Now for the fun and satisfying part: Painting! After the long emotional journey of tedious, unfulfilling work that slowly makes your house look uglier and uglier, you finally get to make it look beautiful. Now that you’ve put in all of this time and work and saved yourself buckets of money, I highly recommend taking some of those savings and investing in the highest quality exterior paint that you can find. Preferably something with a lifetime warranty, and definitely something with primer included. For this step, as I was using the Benjamin Moore shade Creekside Green, I purchased their highest-end paint, Benjamin Moore Aura Exterior in Low Lustre.
The sheen can be up to your preference, and generally the thought is that the shinier it is the easier it is to clean, but with super premium paints like Aura, apparently even the Matte/Flat finish should clean easily. The flatter your sheen, the fewer imperfections will show. Because I didn’t take the extra step of sanding my siding to get it perfectly smooth and uniform, I chose the Low Lustre sheen, which is kind of the equivalent of eggshell. I later paired this with a Satin sheen for the trim, which again helped to hide imperfections more than a Semi-Gloss would (or as Benjamin Moore calls it, Soft Gloss). I did, however, use Soft Gloss on my black accent paint to help it pop more with the extra shine.
For the painting process itself, I prepped first by masking off my windows. You can simply use tape and painter’s plastic, or if you know you’ll be doing a lot of masking and painting around your home, you may want to invest in a hand masker. This is a tool the pros use and will help you mask so much more quickly. I knew that I’d be hand-painting the window trim after I sprayed the siding, so I didn’t worry about fancy Frog Tape and went with good old-fashioned Scotch blue tape.
While spraying, I also had a paint shield on hand to block off areas of trim or corners where I knew there would be tons of overspray. You could also just use a nice stiff piece of cardboard that you tote around and throw away at the end of your paint job.
To spray, I used my Graco Magnum X5 airless sprayer. I’m sure you could use other Graco sprayers or airless sprayers out there, but this is the one I have. It works really well for large paint jobs. I’ve also used it to paint my garage and my front porch ceiling (more on that in a future post). For smaller projects like furniture or my front porch columns, I use my Graco TrueCoat 360. Technically, you could also use the latter to spray your entire siding, but it will take quite a bit longer, which means you’re more likely to get lap marks on your paint job.
With siding, I recommend angling the spray tip up from below to get the underside of the siding as well. I failed to do this in a few sections and had to go back and paint the underside lip of the siding by hand when I went back to do touchups. Definitely also do two coats. I again made this mistake in an area where I thought I had thick enough coverage and had to go back with hand touchups. Wait for the paint to be dry to the touch between coats so that it doesn’t sag or drip.
I didn’t want to deal with moving around an extension ladder that would touch the siding itself, so I maneuvered my 10-ft A-frame ladder around the house. The base is wide enough to provide a lot of stability and can also straddle bushes and shrubs. I also bought a 20-inch extension for my spray tip to help me reach the higher parts of my siding. This will also serve me well when I paint ceilings in the future. The further away you stay from the surface being painted, the less likely you are to be covered in overspray.
When spraying, try to overlap your previous line by 50%, and move quickly so that the paint doesn’t have time to dry and create lap marks. The lower your paint sheen, the lower the chance of seeing lap marks. You should also always paint in the shade to keep the paint from drying too quickly. Certain paints also have preferred temperature and humidity levels for application—check your paint can for details.
Trim & accent paint
If you’re using an airless sprayer, the siding will be the quickest part to paint for you. Fortunately, it’s also the largest. Unless you’re very gung ho on masking, I’d suggest using a roller or brush on much of your trim and accents. Just a little bit of wind will direct your overspray onto your freshly painted siding, and it’s going to take extra time to hand-paint all of those touch-ups anyway. I only sprayed the trim that was either far away from my siding (like my front porch columns) or where I could use a paint shield to protect the siding, and even then, there was still overspray. Once I realized that wasn’t working in my favor, I switched to a brush and roller. As a bonus, this process also helped me get better at cutting in with a paint brush.
You can do this.
But the moral of the story is: This is absolutely a project you can DIY! There were so many points in this process when I felt overwhelmed, when I thought, “There’s no way I can possibly do this on my own. What was I thinking? This is taking forever. I wonder how much it would cost to hire the rest of this project out. I’ll never finish this.” But… I did it! All by myself. And I love how it turned out. Sometimes you’ve just got to power through all that negative self-talk. Renovation has challenged me so many times with hurdles that seem overwhelming, but I’ve made it through and become a better, stronger, more confident homeowner because of it. I hope you’ll feel the same way.
Total DIY savings: $5,000+
P.S. Painting your house yourself can save you tons of money. I received whole exterior paint quotes for $6-7K+, and I’m sure many of them wouldn’t have done the same extensive prep work that I did.
Even with the costs of my airless sprayers, primer, super premium paint, and paying some pros to do the hard-to-reach dormers and soffits areas, I ended up saving well over $5K.
It was a long process but, in my opinion, absolutely worth it.