Restoring Window Sashes
Yes, they're worth fixing. Those old windows were built better (and from better wood) than anything you can buy today.
Synopsis: A restoration carpenter argues that old windows are often worth saving, then provides detailed instructions for stripping, repairing, painting, and glazing the sashes. A sidebar offers tips for removing old sash.
Other than a lighted match, nothing will ruin the charm of an old house faster than ripping out the original double-hung windows. But if your windows are old enough to have sash cords, pulleys, and weights—and especially if they’ve fallen into disrepair—you might be tempted by those ads that promise huge energy savings and no maintenance if you replace the windows. What they won’t tell you is that energy-wise, you’d get a much better return on your investment simply by repairing existing windows and adding high-quality storm windows.
From my perspective, it makes no sense to remove window units that have survived for a century or more and to replace them with something that may not last a decade before the finger-jointed wood frame rots or the vinyl cladding deteriorates or the double glazed seals rupture. Why not spend a little time, and a lot less money, to help your existing windows last another century?
They don’t make them like they used to
Materials vary by region, but most of the old windows that I see are crafted from first growth, vertical-grain pine. This remarkable stuff is dimensionally stable and highly rot resistant, far superior to anything available today. Old-growth pine is so durable and forgiving that even though they may look bad, most of the windows I’m asked to repair (or replace) generally require little more than minor touch-ups and a bit of reglazing.
If your house is 100 or more years old and if you’re lucky, you still might have the original hand blown glass. This important feature denotes early windows. Depending on when they were made and what raw materials were used, some window panes are rippled like the ocean, and others are bubbled or scattered with bull’s-eyes. Each pane, though, is unique. On the rare occasion when I find a window that’s not salvageable, I always save the glass.
If you’re seeking sources for old glass, check first with salvage contractors in your area or with window-replacement contractors, most of whom will be happy to let you haul away the old sashes that they take out.
Window frames rarely need fixing
I inspect the window frames as well as the sashes. Like a dentist with a pick, I use a scratch awl to poke around rotted areas to determine the extent of damage. Fortunately, unless the house in question has suffered from serious moisture problems, the frames are almost always rock solid, which is why so many manufacturers have come out with replacement window units that fit within existing frames. If I find some frame rot, it’s usually confined to the end grain where the side jamb meets the sill or to the top portion of the sill itself. These infestations are cleaned out and repaired easily with epoxy.
For more photos and details on restoring window sashes, click the View PDF button below.