Feature: Side JobTips and tools for installing vinyl siding.

  • By Mike Guertin
  • Source: TOOLS OF THE TRADE Magazine
  • Publication date: 2005-11-01

Photos: Mike Guertin

The only time I used to touch vinyl siding was to tear it off an old Colonial or Victorian I was hired to rescue, or to hang it on unremarkable buildings like strip malls, multifamily units, or a shotgun ranch. So, I was shocked when a client asked for vinyl on a new $700,000 custom home.

Now more than half my clients request it, and I shouldn't be surprised. Vinyl replaced wood as the predominant siding choice a few years ago.

The No. 1 reason people want it: low maintenance. It may not be as perfect-looking as cedar or redwood, but never having to paint makes it attractive.

Applying vinyl siding is easy, requiring just a few tools. While this article focuses on basic installation tips for new construction, many principles transfer to re-siding; however, that work presents its own obstacles and creative details beyond those I can cover here.

Before You Start

Because vinyl siding systems have many places where water can get behind, proper weatherization is vital. First, install housewrap or building paper with care, especially with regards to flashings and proper drain-plane detailing. Vinyl siding leaves an air space behind it, so it performs better than wood nailed against a wall. Water that gets behind vinyl siding can drain.

Fascia, Soffit, & Frieze Trims

Leave room for thermal expansion at corner posts and window openings. Using different color trims and panels provides more texture.

The trim pieces for vinyl basically go by the same names as wood siding parts–soffit, rake, and fascia–but that's where the similarity ends. Installing vinyl is different than wood, and once on the building, the materials perform differently. Vinyl siding panels install faster than wood siding, but the all-important planning and prep can take longer. Vinyl's thermal expansion and contraction is much greater than wood, so every edge of the trim and siding must overlap or insert into a receiver, like a J-channel. Receiver channels conceal ends, allow for movement, and route water.

Start High. As with wood siding, the soffit is the starting point. Work from the top down so corner posts and frieze butt the soffit. Then butt the corner with the starter strips before installing panels.

Soffit Prep. On rafters or truss tails, I install 2-by sub-fascia so it hangs 3/4-inch below the tail. Then I nail 1x3 on the house wall, level with the bottom of the sub-fascia.

Next I cut the vinyl soffit material to length–1/4 inch shorter than the soffit span to allow for thermal expansion. I then install the interlocking pieces using a squeeze stapler. Next I wrap the sub-fascia with aluminum coil stock bent into an "L" on my sheet metal brake. I tuck the long side of the L under the roof's drip edge. The 3/4-inch return leg on the aluminum permanently hooks the front edge of the soffit material. Bending it a little past 90 degrees creates a crisp edge between the metal and the vinyl soffit.

Along the house, I nail J-channel with the nailing flange on the sidewall butted up against the soffit, permanently trapping it in place. The J-channel is also the receiver for the last course of siding, which I detail later.

Sometimes, instead of J-channel I use a wider window and door casing (which has an integral J-channel). This wider piece, especially in a different color, can serve as a frieze detail.

Corner Trim

Inside and Outside Corners. Typical vinyl outside corner boards (called corner posts) have integral J-channel. It can be difficult to nail them up straight because the middle of the post is hollow. Snap chalk lines on both sides of the corner to ensure that the corner post remains straight. Use a corner post scrap to mark the top and bottom of each corner with a pencil, then snap the lines.

Begin nailing the corner post at the top. Drive the top two nails (one on each side) into the top edge of the nail slots. Unlike the rest of the nails you'll set, drive these home. The corner post hangs from these nails, which drive expansion downward rather than into the soffit. Space nails 12 inches apart and in the middle of the slots to permit that expansion. Leave them about 1/16-inch proud.

Splicing. There are two ways to splice corner posts for tall walls. One: Notch the end of the lower section so it inserts into the upper section; or two: Glue or pop-rivet a splice cut from a scrap of corner post on the inside of the two sections. I like both methods, which work equally well.

Receiver Channel

Corner posts can be tricky to lay out straight. Use scrap to get control points.

Minimize J-channel. Window and door openings must be surrounded with receiver channel to accept siding panels. Typically this means wrapping them with J-channel, but I like to minimize J-channel whenever possible. For example, many window models have integral channel extruded into the frame or a pre-formed slot to receive an applied cap, creating a receiver channel. These windows save time and look better than those wrapped with J-channel.

An alternative is using vinyl window and door trim–essentially wide J-channel. You can get it in 2-1/2-, 3-1/2-, and even 5-1/2-inch widths, and you can use it anywhere you'd use standard J-channel. You also can use it to separate vinyl siding types, like clapboard from shingle. You can use contrasting colors if you like, but that's an aesthetic decision I leave to the homeowner. The wider width nicely dresses a window or door.

Install starter strip level all the way around.

Wrapping Windows with J-channel. There's no need to measure, just hold a length of J-channel in place, mark, and cut. Start with the bottom piece cut to the window width. Fasten it into position and cut the sides to reach from the bottom of the J-channel to the window head. Form tabs in the bottom ends of side J-channels to interlock with the bottom J-channel by making 3/4-inch cuts in the corners of the J. Fold the tab into the bottom channel. With the sides attached, cut a top J-channel to span to the outsides of the side channels. Form tabs in both ends of the top piece to lock into the sides. Before nailing each J-channel in place, I back-bend the center section of the J-flange where the wall leg meets the bottom of the J. This bends the corner angle beyond 90 degrees so when a piece is installed the bottom of the channel presses tight against the window or door. I'm not so much concerned about water intrusion as about improving appearance by minimizing the gap between the J and the building element.

Flexible J-channel. Flexible J-channel bends around elliptical and round-top windows. The difference between installing flex-J and standard-J is that flex should be nailed tight to the wall; because they're made from rubber, not plastic, there's no need to leave room for expansion.

Back-bending this flange pulls the bottom J-channel section tighter to the window for a clean look.

Roof/Wall Intersection. When a roof meets a wall as in the case of an attached garage, run J-channel on the wall along the roofline to receive the mitered edge of the siding. Space the J-channel 1/2-inch off the roof shingles before nailing. The space minimizes the chance that the J will buckle from contact with the hot roof surface.

Small Penetrations. Smaller openings are easier to handle than those for fenestration. Exterior power outlets, light fixtures, and even electric meter sockets and ventilation exhaust ports can be accommodated with pre-formed J-boxes. Several manufacturers make accessory boxes with integral J-channels or snap-on J-surrounds to make detailing the penetration faster, weather resistant, and more attractive than fabricating something on site with aluminum and J-channel.

I roughly locate the J-boxes on the wall but wait to attach them until the siding goes up so I can orient the top of each box to the bottom of a course butt for a cleaner look. To install a J-box, slit the housewrap and slide the top J-box flange beneath it. Tape the housewrap to the plastic box for a better seal. This is the only time I use the flange of a vinyl accessory as the primary flashing. After the hole is made in the wall behind the J-box for a wire or pipe to pass through, caulk the penetration to the housewrap for added water resistance.

Starter Strip. The bottom edges of the walls receive starter strip onto which you hook the first siding course. Align starter strips level around the building so the siding courses match at corners. On new construction I use a laser to lay out my level lines for the top of the starter strip. On old, out-of-level houses, it's more of a judgment call between snapping level lines and going with the building.

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