17 November 2015

Finding Physical Evidence: Original German Siding

With a 90-year-old house, even without all the historical research I have conducted, it would be clear to most anyone that the house has undergone physical and aesthetic changes over such a time period. Owners renovating historic and century-plus old homes find evidence of former floor plan configurations, old hardwood floors, and other old or original building materials all the time. One might think that the most likely time to find such physical evidence is during a significant renovation project. While that may indeed be true, sometimes finding a major score of an original building material is as simple as poking your head into an access panel in the attic...

The Current Asbestos Siding

As I have mentioned several times, my house is clad in asbestos-cement shingle siding. The word "asbestos" is a dirty word these days, as it should be since it is a well-known carcinogen. However, prior to this knowledge and up to the 1970s, asbestos fibers were used extensively in the 20th century as a major component in all sorts of building materials, touted for increasing durability and fire-resistance. In this type of exterior siding, asbestos fibers are embedded into a tile of portland cement. Since asbestos house siding is a non-friable ACM (asbestos-containing material), there is no great rush for homeowners to go to the expense of ripping old asbestos siding off of their homes. Left in tact, there is generally no hazard. Earlier asbestos siding can date back as early as the 1920s, with the material becoming more prevalent in the 1930s and hugely popular in the 1950s.

Asbestos-cement siding on the side of my house. At this area, a window had been covered over. The owner at the time mixed the wavy bottom style in, which is a mismatch to the earlier flat bottom shingles. This newer wavy bottom shingle may also be a more modern fiber cement product without asbestos.
Asbestos siding is also today seen by many as an unattractive siding material. It most often came in white or shades of grey (especially prior to WWII), with either a straight or wavy bottom profile, and many times has a faux wood-grain pattern on it. If painted to create a cohesive color scheme with the trim and other materials, asbestos siding can look just fine and even quite nice. I happen to think that the previous owners of my home did an admirable job with the previously-white siding, painting it an olive green and accenting with magenta shutters and a storm door.

Yet, I know for sure that this not the original siding to the house. Although asbestos siding was available in the 1920's when the house was built, wood siding still prevailed during that time period. My siding has the faux wood-grain pattern, which was not available until the late 1930's. This siding no doubt came sometime later on many years after the home's construction.

The Original Siding: Wood "German" Siding

Knowing that there was a major addition to this house, occurring no later than 1946 with the enclosure of a rear porch, it hit me like a lightning bolt one day a few months after moving in. Why not check the attic, in the unoccupied portion where the addition is? I have a walk-up attic housed above the original portion of the house, and there is an opening at the top of the attic steps, providing access above the ceiling at the addition. If I poke my head through the access opening and look back at the outside face of this wall, I would be looking at what was original the rear exterior facade of the house.

Looking up the attic steps, the exterior wall to the right was originally the backside of the house. The access opening is to the right of the window, sort of visible, with a board over it.
I grabbed my utility worklight and headed upstairs immediately, and found it:

Original German wood siding, on what used to be part of the exposed exterior rear wall of the house.
This is what is commonly known as German siding (also known as "cove lap" or "Dutch lap" siding). Whereas wood clapboards and beveled siding are installed by overlapping the upper course over a lower course and nailing through one or both boards, creating an angle to shed water, German siding is a type of "drop siding", milled from wood in a profile that gets nailed flat onto the exterior sheathing. German siding has a coved profile that creates an attractive relief pattern and locks adjacent courses together. It was widely popular in the late 19th-century, especially in the Northeast.

Diagram of German lap siding, courtesy of www.dictionaryofconstruction.com
Image of a building with German lap siding, courtesy of www.cranesiding.net
So now this has me excited. I now know what originally clad the exterior of the house. Don't forget, also, that the 1946 building permit for the rear porch enclosure indicated that this portion of the house too had German siding:

Clip from the 1946 permit application to enclose the rear porch-- notice the words "german siding" at bottom right under the section calling for building materials used.
Originally after making this discovery, but before I received the permit document, I assumed that the replacement to asbestos siding occurred on or around the time that the addition was built. However, the permit proves that this portion of the addition was also clad in German siding in 1946, and makes it highly probable that the earlier German siding was still extant at that time. Now it is more likely assumed that the asbestos was put on in the 1960s, giving it some temporal distance between the Cantlins' spending money on more new German siding in 1946. Asbestos began to become more regulated by the EPA in the 1970s, although sale of this type of siding did continue into that decade.

So, Is There More Underneath the Asbestos-Cement?

Short answer, I don't know, and won't unless I begin to take some of the asbestos siding off (safely and with proper precautions!) along with the building felt directly underneath it. I can, however, posit that it is likely that there is old wood siding there. First, removing an existing siding is an additional expense and was (and still is) often skipped when re-cladding a house. The Cantlin family probably did not go to this expense. Further, when vinyl siding is added over top of an existing siding, the additional depth it creates begins to cause window trim to become recessed within the vinyl trim (yuck). The same thing does not happen with asbestos-cement shingles, since they are only about 1/8" thick. Notice on pictures of my house that the original wood window trim still has a bit of dimension to it between the siding and the front face of the trim.

Window trim is not recessed as it is in vinyl cover-ups.
Diagram from Asphalt and Asbestos-Cement Shingle Residing, by James McCawley, published 1940.
Look also at this installation diagram above for this type of asbestos-cement siding from 1940. The likely method of installation included placing a building felt over top of existing wood siding, then nailing in the asbestos siding directly over that. Although this same method could easily be done over sheathing after wood siding is removed, it is quite possible that the wood siding remains. In areas on my house where asbestos siding has been chipped, cracked, or broken in a few areas, I see either black building felt or another asbestos shingle (i.e. at the bottom course). In a few areas, such as when i try to peek underneath the bottom course or look at gaps in these same locations, I do see wood, but this could easily be sheathing or a wood nailer.

Possibly some more older wood siding, exposed beneath the bottom course of asbestos shingle.
I THINK all or most of the original wood German siding lurks under there, but I can't be sure. Yet.


  1. I found this very interesting to read. I just had my electrical service updated. The electrician's routed my cable via the attic and told me I had 'German' siding behind my asbestos siding. Previous my wiring ran in my crawlspace under the house. I googled German siding as I've never heard of it and found your page. Years ago I upgraded to pre-insulated vinyl siding (better R-value). My house was built in 1954. I'm in Kannapolis, NC - just outside of Charlotte. It is not a "Mill' house. Cannon Mills used to be in this town, hence the area has many Mill houses. On a side note, I still find pieces of coal in the ground as I assume they heated the house with coal. Very small fireplace in living room with brick surround. The opening was filled closed with concrete prior to purchasing the house in 1996. Had the chimney removed when I got a new roof.
    I was lucky enough a few years ago, to have strangers knock on my door one day that had many a lovely time in this house when they were children,as their aunt,uncle and cousin lived here. I let them in and it was wonderful hearing their memories and so much more.

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