Restoring A Quaint Old Window Preserves Money And History


October 05, 1991|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

If you are lucky enough to have old windows you can work on -- windows that are not contaminated by lead paint -- you can preserve money and history by repairing and restoring them yourself.

There are several reasons to restore, rather than replace, old windows: replacements are expensive and may require considerable changes in interior and exterior trim; old windows may be quaint or beautiful and deserve preservation; or you may live in a historic district that mandates keeping the old windows.

Well-maintained older windows may need only minor repairs to restore them to pristine condition. But even if the windows have suffered decades of neglect, you may still be able to salvage them. It may not be fun, but it will be worth it when you're done.

Keep in mind that old windows will probably never be as energy efficient as new ones. If your concern is preservation, you can buy interior storm windows and screens that are invisible from the outside.

Basically there are two areas where old windows go bad:

*The outside of the window unit, which includes the sill, jamb and any exterior casings (trim).

*The sashes and the parts of their "supporting cast," which may or may not be visible.

A lot of window problems start with the failure of some part of the exterior window, which lets rain into the structure or rots out a window part.

Some rotten window parts, such as sills, can be replaced, depending on how the original window was put together. Sometimes a rotten sill can be cut in the middle and then carefully pried away from underneath the jambs. (Use a hacksaw to cut any nails fastening the sill to the jambs.) Then the old sill can be copied in new wood and replaced.

Many windows in old frame structures were designed to shed water with a drip cap that was an integral part of the top jamb. The exterior siding of the house covered the cap so rain couldn't get behind the window and into the house. Subsequent siding jobs or inconsiderate remodelings may have covered over, hacked up or eliminated this system, allowing water to run inside. If interior sills are water-damaged, or plaster around the window is bad, it may be because the drip cap is bad.

Windows with no integral drip cap usually have flashing -- metal in older windows, maybe vinyl or aluminum in newer ones -- used to reinforce and waterproof angles.

Above a window, flashing is nailed to the sheathing -- the boards under the siding -- and lapped over the top of the window, so water running down the house or finding a way under the siding would hit the flashing and be diverted out and down the exterior of the window.

If a drip cap can't be replaced or repaired, the top of the jamb can be flashed; and deteriorated flashing can be replaced. Metal flashing is usually the easiest for do-it-yourselfers to work with, because it bends readily around all the angles.

You will probably have to remove the siding above the window to install the new flashing properly. Once the flashing is in place, all the joints and nail holes should be sealed with caulk. Once the siding is replaced, it should also be caulked at all joints.

If the house is brick, the windows are usually recessed enough that flashing isn't necessary. Interior water problems in a brick window may be caused by paint and caulk failure. If the paint contains lead, you'll have to remove it, or have it removed, according to local lead-abatement regulations. If it's not lead paint, you can remove it yourself -- carefully -- with a heat gun or chemical stripper. You may have to take the window out to strip it.

Old caulk can be dug out with a scraper or chisel -- if the old caulk is stubborn, it helps to warm it with the heat gun.

Another problem area in old windows is the glazing that seals around the glass. Over the years it may dry out, crack and fall out. You can scrape out all the loose stuff and reglaze it yourself, if the window is in place. If you've taken the sash out, reglazing is one task that an old-fashioned hardware store may do better, and do fairly inexpensively.

If the glass is broken, remove all the pieces, then remove all the old glazing compound. You can replace the glass yourself: Cut it or have it cut to size, hold it in the opening with glass points (small, sharp metal triangles), replace the glazing. This is another task we like to relegate to the friendly neighborhood hardware store. The bigger the glass, the harder it is to transport. If the sashes are huge, as they are in many older houses, taking them out and taking them to the hardware store may be a good idea.

Cracked, "alligatored" or peeling paint can allow water to get into the sashes, sills and jambs. Some people scrape and sand, then repaint, but we prefer stripping clear back to bare wood to get good paint adhesion. (Remember we're talking about paint that does not contain lead.)

Sometimes it's easier to paint if the sashes are out of the jambs. You can do a better job on the edges and corners, and there's less chance of painting something shut. If the windows have interior problems, too, like broken sash cords, you'll want to take them apart anyway.

Next: Interior window repairs.

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.

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