How to Make Vinyl Siding Look Good

Let’s face it: vinyl siding often looks bad. At its worst, vinyl siding can appear cheap and impermanent. Because of this, it has developed a bad reputation with a lot of people, and they reflexively try to avoid it.

But vinyl siding has many benefits. It is relatively inexpensive to install, easy to maintain and easy to repair. It’s durable and comes in a wide variety of colors.

Vinyl siding is definitely not appropriate for all cladding applications. But for many homeowners, condominium trustees, and facilities managers vinyl siding can fill a need for a high-value, long-lasting easy-to-maintain wall cladding material.

If vinyl siding makes sense for your project in every way except for how it looks, then this post is for you. Over the course of several successful projects I’ve learned how to make vinyl siding look good. Now I’m going to share those tips and tricks with you.

Note: this post is generally focused on clapboard-style vinyl siding, but many of the tips are also applicable to other styles like those that imitate cedar shakes or shingles.

Existing wood clapboard siding.
New vinyl siding and PVC trim.

Reduce the impact of seams.

A telltale giveaway of vinyl siding is the vertical seams between panels. Vinyl siding is manufactured in panels that are two “boards” high. Since the vertical seams therefore go across two rows of “boards,” and the panels lap over one another, they stand out to the eye much more than single-height butt joints in traditional wood clapboards.

There are several strategies to reduce the impact of vinyl siding seams: create fewer seams, don’t stair step seams, and orient the seams properly.

Use Fewer Seams

To reduce the number of seams, use longer vinyl siding panels. Typical panels are 12’ in length, but panels up to 25’ are available. When specifying a project you can specify a percentage of longer panels which will allow the installers to maximize the panel runs and minimize the number of seams.

Don’t Stair-Step Seams

Where seams can’t be avoided, locate them carefully. First of all don’t stair-step seams. In other words, seams should be randomly offset at each course. The stair-step pattern that many installers use stands out.

Orient Seams Properly

When deciding where to seam vinyl siding, consider the angle it will be viewed from most often. Place seams so that the “open” end faces away from the side viewed most often.

For example, vinyl siding seams on the sides of the building should generally “open” towards the back since most often they’ll be viewed from the front.

Use Less J-Channel

J-channel is a clear giveaway of vinyl siding. It is a vinyl accessory that, when viewed from the end, looks like a ‘J’. It’s often used at window and door perimeters, corners, rakes and other edges of the main vinyl siding panels.

Vinyl siding needs to be installed into some type of “pocket” at its edges. But that pocket does not have to be J-channel. Instead of J-channel, use rabbeted cellular PVC trim boards or trim that is manufactured with an integral pocket to accept the vinyl siding.

Rabbeted trim or trim with a pocket creates a look that is much more similar to traditional wood detailing and it eliminates J-channel. It can be used at windows, corners, rakes and most places that J-channel would traditionally be used.

One note on using rabbeted trim: if the trim doesn’t include an integral back leg, you should also use some kind of protection layer for the underlayment behind the vinyl. The underlayment is likely sensitive to ultraviolet light (i.e. sunlight) and without protection it can be damaged from long term exposure. This protection can be easily created with a strip of sheet metal or UV-stable flashing tape.

Use High Quality Materials

Vinyl siding is available from many suppliers and in many different styles and grades. Key factors that go into creating a better looking installation are:

  • panel thickness (thicker is better)
  • color options (some manufacturers also offer multi-tone options)
  • panel texture (some are more varied and natural-looking than others)

The highest quality vinyl siding is still one of the most economical siding options overall, so it usually makes sense to upgrade from the “budget” options.

In addition to the siding itself, using high quality trim boards and other related materials (underlayment, tapes, sealants, etc.) will go a long way to making the overall installation look good and last a long time.

Allow for Movement

Vinyl siding moves a lot with changes in temperature. If that movement is restrained, the panels tend to buckle which looks terrible.

Avoid buckled siding by allowing the panels the freedom to move. The panels should be “hung” on the wall rather than nailed tight. This requires careful hand nailing.

There should also be gaps at the ends of panel runs, where they terminate at windows or corners. These gaps should sized carefully, with consideration for the season the panels are being installed. If it’s cold and the panels are likely to expand, leave more space. If it’s hot and they’re likely to contract, leave less.

Summary

Vinyl siding can be a durable, low maintenance and economical choice for exterior wall cladding. By installing it with care it can also achieve acceptable aesthetic results for many applications.

Existing wood clapboard siding.
New vinyl siding and PVC trim.

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