Clapboard Siding - Captain Samuel Mather House, Lyme Street, Connecticut built in 1790 with graduated width clapboard
Captain Samuel Mather House, Lyme Street, Connecticut built in 1790 with graduated width clapboard
The method of
protecting the exterior of the house with clapboard boards has been used since colonial times. It has been the first choice of colonists to protect their homes from the weather using these overlapping wood planks on the sides of their homes. Clapboard houses were most prevalent in the New England States. It was considered "dressy" to use clapboard for exterior boards, especially when many of the earlier homes were of log structure and meant to be temporary dwellings for the colonists. Clapboard also kept out the winter winds yet allowed the house to breathe in summer.

Clapboard Siding - Prentis House, Shelburne Museum, Vermont
Prentis House, Shelburne Museum, Vermont
There are times in our settlement of lands when during the layout of the farmstead, the construction of the barn preceded the building of the house. This was evident in the Mahantango Valley of Pennsylvania when the 1806 date stone of the barn of a famous furniture maker, Michael Braun, preceded the date stone of the home by three years. Both barn and home construction throughout the colony were of similar design, but it was the clapboard that was first added to the home to give it a look of refinement.

It was a common practice in the late 1700's to not completely cover the entire house in clapboard. For cost factor, the front would be covered with the boards while the sides and the back were covered with rough shingles.

Some antiquarians in the 1950's thought the word "clapboard" originated because they boards used to cover clay walls. The derivation was also suggested to be from German descent, "Klappen Holz," Klappen meaning to place or fit while Holz is wood. More than likely the name clapboard originated from the Dutch word Klappen which means to split. Clapboard was originally hand split from logs of different type of woods, producing one edge thicker than the other where the board above overlaps the board below.

Clapboards today are also known as lap siding, wood plank, beveled wood siding and weatherboard. Clapboards and weatherboards were the most common sorts of siding. However in colonial times clapboards and weatherboards had different meanings. Clapboards were riven while weatherboards were sawn. Clapboards were cheaper to produce than weatherboards since they were rived out of a log usually four feet in length. Weatherboards came in long lengths since they were sawn at the mill.

Clapboard Siding - Eric Sloane's artistic rendition of the changing methods for cutting clapboards
Eric Sloane's artistic rendition of the changing methods for cutting clapboards
Since clapboards were riven up until the early 1800's, they were made of woods that split well such as oak, ash, and cypress. Riven clapboards are worked by hand, splitting them right out the the short length of log with a maul and froe in a radial pattern. First the log is split in quarters, then smaller and smaller until the split pieces are 3/8" to 1/2" thick. Then each surface is would have been smoothed with a drawknife on a shaving horse in colonial days. Riving clapboards produce no warpage.

In Colonial America, the riving of clapboard was a closely regulated trade. Clapboards were expensive. The price for clapboards was linked to a man's hourly wage. The cost set by Massachusetts Colony in 1641 was five feet length at three shillings.

Clapboard Siding - Meadow Farm Bed and Breakfast, Northwood New Hampshire, built in 1770
Meadow Farm Bed and Breakfast, Northwood New Hampshire, built in 1770
Many people don't realize that many early homes were clapboarded with different dimension boards, the widest boards at the bottom of the home and the less wider boards toward the top. The difference is usually so slight as to be almost imperceptible, but that subtlety makes the difference all the more important and the builder much more an artist. An effect of height is obtained by graduating clapboarding in this manner and many otherwise squat farmhouses have narrower boards toward the roof to give it a pleasing effect. You might need a ruler to prove the difference, for perspective is deceptive. It also makes the home look higher due to perspective deception. These different widths have often been mistaken for the "imperfections of primitive carpentry." Another way to achieve this visual affect is to change the exposure of each clapboard as they are being installed.

Since it followed the tree's natural structure, the grain ran parallel to its length and tangent across its edge. This straight grain, which runs vertically to the board, resists warping and twisting. Hence, the term vertical grain board was born.

Sawn clapboards were introduced about 1815 when The Industrial Revolution brought about clapboard mills. The bandsaw which could resaw lumber at a bias was developed around 1830. Beveled siding could easily be created. Resawing has remained a popular and quick way to make clapboards. In fact, most of today's mass produced beveled boards are made this way.

As the name implied, resawn wood required two operations. To get an idea of how it works, it helps to picture a log going through a machine like a meat slicer. Now, see each slice of hat log cut on a bias, creating two boards that form right triangles when viewed on edge. The grain in most of these beveled boards is generally curved on horizontal, which may cause wood to warp or twist over time. This type of wood is called flat sawn-resawn. The best type of board is quartersawn-resawn which is quarter stock that is resawn so that is approximates the grain orientation of rived boards.

The secret to their longevity and stability, like that of the early rived clapboards, lies in the board's perfectly cut vertical edge or grain. When viewed on end, a rift or quarter-sawn board forms an isosceles triangle with sometimes fine feathered top edge.

Riftsawing is a machine technique that duplicates hand riving. Patents were produced for riftsawing in the early 1820's, but they heyday when this technique was used was the late 1800's.

When it come to species, the premier wood used for clapboard making in the New England region was No. 1 Eastern white pine. You'll see clapboards made from this material still functioning on housed 200 years old and older. When pine wasn't available, hemlock was considered a close second, with spruce running a close third. Hemlock and spruce tended to erode between annular rings.

Clapboard Siding - Fairbanks House, Dedham Massachusetts
Fairbanks House, Dedham Massachusetts
The country's oldest timber frame house, the Fairbanks House built in 1641 in Dedham Massachusetts, still has the the original siding, beaded siding on the south-facing exterior, lapped cedar clapboards on the north and east side, and red oak clapboard on the west side. All siding is secured with hand forged nails. The age of the interior and exterior of the Fairbanks House has been scientifically established using dendrochronology.

With the age of the Fairbanks House, it shows that clapboards installed on homes with proper care were meant to last for many generations.

Source: Research and Text by Bryan Wright

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