Restoring old windows can be a pain.
It's messy, awkward and labor-intensive, and it's hard to find anyone to do it for you. Contractors don't like working on old windows because it's time-consuming and the customer will still be stuck with an old window that may be drafty, heavy and a little hard to operate.
But it may be a beautiful or historic old window, and that's the main reason anyone would want to tackle the job.
Before you get out the heat gun and sandpaper, however, find out if any old paint on the window contains lead. Lead is a dangerous substance that can cause serious health problems, especially in fetuses and young children.
There are two ways to check the paint. For small areas (if, for instance, you're just doing a couple of windows), chip off some of the paint clear to bare wood and send it out for chemical anal
ysis. For larger areas, you need to hire an industrial hygienist to test on site with an X-RF (X-ray fluorescent) device. Look in the phone book under industrial hygiene or environmental consultant. In some parts of the country you may be able to call the local health department or department of the environment to find out where to go for paint analysis.
If you are concerned about lead levels in the house, you might want to have the air tested for ambient lead levels. There is also a "wipe" test that measures lead in dust. Whatever test you get, have it done twice -- before work starts and after it's finished.
If you discover there is lead paint on your windows, find out what local regulations are on lead-paint removal. The stringency of such regulations varies widely from place to place.
However, none of the traditional methods of cleaning off wood surfaces -- heat stripping, chemical stripping, scraping or sanding -- are considered to be safe for removing lead paint.
Even painting over it will not remove the hazard, especially on windows and doors. Windows and doors rub against their jambs, abrading the paint and possibly exposing older, lead-bearing layers. That's why windows and doors are considered prime lead exposure sites.
You may be able to get the lead paint stripped by having the item sent out to a commercial paint-strip ping operation that takes precautions against exposure.
There is a real conflict between lead-paint abatement concerns and historic preservation. Removing doors, windows and their trim and sending them out for chemical stripping is generally more expensive than replacing suspect parts with historically sensitive new materials. Plus, very old and fragile items will not survive the removal process, never mind the chemical bath.
According to lead-paint abatement experts, there are only two ways to deal with lead: removal and replacement of all items or, in the case of window and door jambs, encapsulation. That means covering all of the exposed surfaces with aluminum and sealing all edges.
It's hard to do a little bit of lead abatement. If you only want to save a couple pieces of historic trim, you may be able to get away with having those those objects commercially stripped and using more drastic measures for other potentially hazardous areas. But if you have a wide array of lead-bearing surfaces, you
will probably have to treat them all.
Certified lead-abatement contractors are reluctant to remove a lead problem with windows, for instance, if there are other sites where lead might be present. If someone in the house later develops a high blood lead level, there is no way to tell where the exposure came from.
Contractors are also reluctant to work around residents. You may have to move out while the lead abatement goes on.
Clearly the best time to plan your lead-abatement strategy is before you begin work on an old house. If there's lead in the house, the reality is that abatement will have to be a big part of your rehab.
By now you may be looking at those big, wonderful old windows in an entirely new light. Before you do anything drastic, get them tested. You may luck out and find them lead-free.
If you're a rehabber going for a historical look and you can live with less energy efficiency and less than smooth-as-silk operation, repairing and restoring old windows is a good way to spend more time than money.
Next: Fixing old windows.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.