Last month, Minneapolis contractor Marty Schirber, CR, was working on the exterior of a home. The first floor was stucco; the second was sided with cedar shakes. The paint on the shakes was peeling and his painters, Schirber says, couldn't assure him that the new coat would stay on. For the homeowners, the choice in replacement was narrow lap vinyl siding or vinyl shakes. "They didn't even consider wood," Schirber says.

Shrinking wood

Wood. Natural, beautiful, elegant. As a siding material, or anything else. In siding, the woods of choice are West Coast species such as Douglas fir, cedar, and redwood or East Coast species like cypress and yellow pine. Nonetheless, contractors and the suppliers they buy from say there seems to be less and less wood siding used. "I think the market is shrinking," says Keith Buckley, proprietor of Buckley Lumber, a North Carolina supplier specializing in cypress.

In fact, it is. According to studies by the U.S. Census Bureau, wood siding was used on 10% of new homes in 2002, compared with 30% in 1970. So what remodeling contractors are finding is that there's less wood siding to replace.

Consumer desire for a maintenance-free exterior is one big reason. Government logging restrictions also come into play. Earlier this year, the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association launched a $15 million public relations campaign, targeting upscale consumers through ads in publications such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. The aim? To enable cedar -- with 4% of the siding market -- to maintain, not expand, its share. Harvesting restrictions limit the industry to 1.5 billion board feet annually. The old-growth forests that supply the best vertical grain boards for, say, redwood, are in many cases no longer open to cutting. And, as Paul Fisette, director of building materials and wood technology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst points out, companies that once marketed such products now feel the weight of public opinion and are under increasing pressure to cease.

Selling value

Though wood's share of the siding market is diminishing, it remains substantial. And high end. Though wood siding was installed on only 10% of new homes in 2002, wood was the siding of choice on 20% -- one out of every five -- of custom homes. There is, Buckley points out, "a very strong market segment that demands natural materials and wood siding. For a lot of people, wood siding is considered an upgrade." Among other properties, Buckley says wood is long-lasting and helps soundproof the house.

Brad Lessler, owner of Sustainable Homes, Chapel Hill, N.C., regularly installs cypress siding on the homes his company buys, lifts, moves to new locations, and resells to home buyers. For Lessler, wood is the siding of choice, and cypress the wood of choice, for reasons having to do primarily with aesthetics and green building. Wood decays in landfills. And cypress is locally grown and sustainably harvested. Buckley suggests cypress not only looks better than synthetic materials but that it resists moisture and insect infestation, qualities it shares with redwood and cedar. With the right stains -- he suggests semitransparent for a natural weathering pattern -- it's relatively low-maintenance.

Whither wood?

Wood, says Fisette, is "not in danger of disappearing. I think it will become more of a premium product, and higher priced." Many remodelers agree.

"People like wood," says Bob Button, owner of Symphony in Wood, a Portland, Ore., remodeling company. "It's not as practical as some other things, but it's not going away."