Several weeks ago at pretty much the same time the mercury in the thermostat, like a migratory bird took that fateful wintertime dive to the south, I embarked on a type of endeavor that I always seem to be undertaking at inopportune weather periods. However, the project is one that I truly love as an old home owner. The project in question? Double hung window restoration and repair.
My hope, as with the Plaster Repair series we recently wrapped, is for these window restoration posts to be equal parts informative and enlightening, giving fellow old home enthusiasts the courage, information, and hope they need to keep, save, and restore their old windows. At the very least, hopefully you'll just enjoy seeing just how these old windows work, how to maintain them, and why they should be saved.
Before I go rambling on, I don't intend to give an indication that I am in any way "all knowing" when it comes to this topic. Instead, we are sharing the tips, tricks, and techniques that have worked well for us now and in the past. If you have experience in this realm, especially some that exceeds our knowledge or is something we leave out, we'd love it if you chimed in as well.
If you're not familiar with my frequent old window stance, I firmly believe and agree with countless experts that old windows are not only worth saving, but will easily outlast any modern replacement windows many times over. Additionally, when properly weather stripped, maintained, and protected with storm windows, a home's century old windows will likely be more efficient and economical than tearing through the house like a Tasmanian devil and replacing all of the original sash with "high efficiency" counterparts. I think I've alluded to this fact many times in many places over the years, such as during our recap of our master bedroom efforts.
The window I'm dealing with for this project is the lone double hung sash that occupies our master bathroom. To say it's seen better days, well, that's putting it more than mildly.
When we bought the house this window already sported a broken sash cord, BB hole in one of the panes of glass, poor weather stripping, flaking paint, and an upper sash painted completely shut. Over the years bugs, dirt, life, and the elements have had their way with this poor sash, leaving it in a torn and tattered state that allowed cold air to pour in through massive gaps surrounding the sash and lumpy/chipping paint.
Tough shape, sure, but the flaking paint and all of the problems aren't nearly enough to scare me away. The key here is a solid plan of attack to address all of the issues one step at a time. It doesn't need to happen overnight, but it does need to happen. In order to take on this window restoration I need to tackle it several distinct phases.
- Frame Paint Removal
- Frame/Component Repair
- Restring Sash Cord
- Storm Window Installation
- Sash Removal and Repair (this is a multi-step one on its own)
My ultimate goal is to end up with a completely stripped and repainted window, clad in spring bronze weather stripping, with functional upper and lower sash, new glazing, repaired wavy glass panes, and a storm window hung on the exterior. Today I'll be primarily covering items one and two.
The interesting thing about this window is that it's original to the house but its six over six configuration is unlike any other original window we have. All of our other windows are the more typical two over two configuration...
...But somehow this window ended up in the mix.
In discussing with old home buffs and preservationists, they believe it was likely a scab or overstock item, used to save cost after the intended window was broken or possibly just missing from the original builder order. Sounds pretty reasonable, especially since builders then most likely had similar production and job site problems as builders today. I guess little has changed in 125 years.
Rather than try to "correct" a possible mistake, we're embracing this misfit window and will make sure it can stick around another 125 or more years. To accomplish this, our first step was to remove all of the window casings for stripping. It's not a necessity when it comes to window restoration, but we've been doing it through our whole house.
This step in the project actually took place more than a year ago. When we first bought the house I decided to strip the various casings and trim without removing them from the wall. My reasoning was spurred on by my irrational fear of breaking a piece of moulding, primarily because I didn't know what I was doing. What a terrible idea that was. It made the projects far more messy than necessary and essentially unbearable. Today, if I need to strip a piece if moulding you had better believe it's coming off of the wall.
What I've learned is that moulding removal is not difficult and one can do it without breaking any precious wood as long as one takes they time and doesn't lose their patience.
It requires only a few tools. Typically an utility knife with sharp blades, one or two pry bars, a flat bar, and a pair of nail pullers.
Usually the paint that's been caked onto the moulding over the years simply needs to be scored with the utility knife along the line where it needs to separate. This score line gives the paint all of the encouragement it needs to break at the right spot when removing the wood. Without the score you are likely to end up with splintered wood somewhere thanks to the ridiculous tensile strength of many layers of old paint.
The next step involves slipping the pry bar behind the first bit of the moulding and gently applying pressure. Sometimes you need to give it a little more encouragement, possibly with a hammer, to get the prybar in, but anything to separate the moulding from the wall needs to be done using gentle force by hand, nothing more.
With the moulding separation beginning, insert pry bar number two just above the first location and do the same thing, gentle pressure to free the moulding. Don't try to take off the whole thing from one spot or it will surely break. Instead, slowly work your way up a little at a time. If you work slow and steady you'll remove all of the moulding in single unbroken pieces.
If you do end up with a break or two, sometimes you just need to grab the clamps and glue to fix it up. With old trim it usually just ends up looking like a little more character.
Our next pieces in the removal sequence are the window sash stops. Sash stops come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but serve the same purpose no matter the window.
They install as the final piece between the window and the room and they keep the lower sash firmly in place. We have two styles of sash stops on our windows, one smaller and more intricate, and the other a simple round over bead.
Removing the sash stops is a fairly simple undertaking, but they are delicate pieces and need to be handled with care or they will easily break. Like the moulding, just start gently prying a little at a time until you break the nails free enough to take the whole thing off.
With the sash stops removed it's time to get into the real work on the windows. The lower sash should be relatively free at this point and can even be removed. In our case it was very easy to slide the lower sash out since the sash cords were both broken. We just had to life it up above the weather stripping and remove the sash from the window frame.
Once I had the lower sash out I started to remove the old zinc weather stripping.
This weather stripping was added sometime after the house was built and it's not my favorite thing in the world. It requires the sash to be routed with a groove to accept the weather stripping and it makes the window difficult to maintain, and almost impossible to fully shut (as it sits in the way of the top and bottom of the window). Not to mention the fact that it was held in place by only three nails on each side, and several on the lower section, essentially making it useless in keeping the breeze out of the house.
I spent a lot of time making sure I took it out carefully and then removed all of the tiny nails left in the window frame. This is where the awesome new nail puller I recently picked up really came in handy!
Besides the weather stripping there was this weird rubber and metal thing nailed into the parting bead on either side of the window. I'm not sure what it is, but it seemed to be getting in the way of the window's ability to move, so I had to take it out.
The final item I took care of with the lower sash was the removal of the sash weight pocket doors on either side of the window frame. The photo below is of the top of the door, where a beaver or some other woodland creature seems to have gnawed it away.
These little doors are typically held in place by a single screw. In our windows these doors extend all of the way to the base of the window and ultimately cause an issue when water gets into the window's pockets. I'll be resolving that in a later step.
Removing the window weights is very easy. Just reach into the filthy dirty cavity that looks like a place where Dr. Jones might be hiding some ancient scrolls and pull the weight free. When when I take them out I immediately label them with a chalk pencil so I know where they will eventually need to be reinstalled. This is important as different sash sometimes have different size weights. Check out what 100 plus years of spiderwebs and dirt looks like.
I don't know how I did it, but the entire time I was working I only dropped one tool out of the window, which is really something given my tendency to somehow spastically throw things involuntarily while working in situations like this.
While the lower sash was easy to remove, the upper sash is a whole other issue. In order to remove it we had to first free it from its painted shut state, then remove the parting beads that keep it in place (similar to the way the sash stops keep the lower sash in place). It had been painted shut many times over, so we started by scoring the paint with a utility knife where we could.
Since this is a second floor window and there's no real way to reach the upper part of the outside of the window with just my reach, I used my tried and true trick of taping my Fein oscillating tool to the end of a long piece of wood...
...and hanging out of the window to make the necessary cuts. It's a surprisingly effective approach and works quickly and easily. If you do this, WEAR SAFETY GLASSES!!! I mean, I almost poked myself in the eye with my thumb at least four times.
Once the paint bonds are broken all of the way around the sash you can usually fit a pry bar in at the top of the upper sash and begin gently working the sash until it starts to move.
Even though there's still a tremendous amount of work left, getting the upper sash moving feels so great.
Removing the parting bead is one of the most difficult parts of the disassembly. The wood is so small and has likely been exposed to weather for so long, it's really difficult to get it out in one piece without breaking. On our window I was able to remove two of the three pieces without issue, but one broke in half on its way out.
I'll need to cut a new parting bead from some salvaged wood to replace the broken piece. The old parting beads aren't the same size as the ones you can buy at the store, not to mention the fact I don't want to put some new soft pine in there, as it will likely fall apart in a few years.
Once the bead was out and the upper sash was moving free, I was able to pull the sash down and out of the window opening. Among other things, I realized just how much I hated a previous owner of the house who apparently had the upper sash not only painted in place, but also caulked. Seriously?
The sash cord for the upper sash was still intact so I had to cut it with some scissors to get the upper sash completely free from the window. However, if you're trying to save the sash cord you have you can just remove it from the sash as it's probably held in place by a few nails or a screw.
When the sash is totally free you have yourself a giant gaping hole in the side of your house. Congratulations. It's about at this point in the project where it undoubtedly begins raining, no matter if the forecast stated a 0% chance of rain. Sorry, don't have any advice on that, it's just the way it is.
At this point you also have a clear view of your sash pulleys. Our pulleys are a small version of what I've seen in salvage yards, but they're pretty easy to remove. They're held in place by a single screw at the top and the angle of the mortised opening at the bottom, so removing the screw and adding some downward pressure with an inserted screwdriver usually does the trick.
Like the sash weights, I always mark the pulleys with a chalk pencil so I know where to reinstall them in the window when I'm putting them back in. They're all just a little different and it's important to put them back where they came from or you won't necessarily get a good fit.
There are two things I love about these pulleys. First, they're stamped with a patent date of Feb. 1879. After finding so few dated items in our house, I just love seeing it. And second, since these pulleys are a bit minimal, there's very little paint to remove from the face. A little paint stripper and a run on the wire wheel and these four pulleys are clean and ready for another century of service.
On our windows the paint has been built up so many times over the years that it's beginning to interfere with the operation of the windows. Before we move into the next phase of restoration and reassembly, I like to strip all of the paint on the interior of the window frame. It's a great time since all of the sash, parting beads, sash stops, and pulleys have been removed. I'm using the SmartStrip stripper that requires about 12-24 hours, so I put on the first coat, cover it with peel away paper (wax paper), and let it be for the night.
While allowing the stripper to work, I went ahead and put up a sheet of plastic over the window. This is not required, but apparently my spouse has some requirement that windows can't just be open holes when you're not actively working on them. It's a weird job site rule, but who am I to argue with the GC?
I do have to say, she's probably right. When I took a break for lunch while paint stripping a bird flew into the house through the open window and pooped a few times on our wainscoting. On one hand, that's gross, but on the other, at least he knew it was a bathroom.
The plastic also does a great job at keeping the cold out when, in the middle of your project, it suddenly drops from low 50s overnight to "frost warnings" and the low 30s. Remember my poor timing issue? Perhaps not, this has been an inordinately long post.
To strip the window frames you can use a simple flat scraper for pretty much everything, as there aren't typically any special or intricate areas to worry about. In our case, there were so many layers of paint that we needed to do two applications of the stripper. However, this did give a great glimpse into the many different colors our house's trim had seen over the years. Green, pink, and 20 shades of beige, just to name a few.
Once completely stripped the window frame is ready for our next steps, wood repair, paint, and reassembly. We'll be covering those items in coming weeks as we give a blow by blow of each step necessary to tackle this project on your own.
What do you think so far? Does it seem like something you could handle to this point? Or does it seem a bit overwhelming? I do have to say, doing one window at a time rather than a giant house with 30 plus windows definitely makes it more bearable.