Repairing windows is worth the intensive effort


April 11, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Old windows always pose a dilemma in a rehab.

Windows get a lot of wear. If they're original to the house, they may be battered, broken, warped or cracked, and they're almost certainly drafty, energy-wasting monsters. But replacing them with new, energy-efficient designs will destroy a major element in the historic fabric of the structure.

And if you live in a designated historic district, you may not be allowed to replace them anyway.

So what do you do? You rebuild them.

At least that's what we are doing to the eight windows that adorn the facade of the 19th century townhouse we're working on. It's not just that the windows are old, they're also special. Each 1 3/4 -inch thick sash is divided vertically into two panes; on the top sashes, the inside edge of the top rail forms an arch, and the two panes of glass are curved to meet it. On the top floors, the top and bottom sashes are each nearly 3 feet tall; on the first floor, the top sashes are 3 feet tall, and the bottom sashes are 6 feet tall.

Repairing them is every bit as back-breaking, boring, time-consuming, confusing ("Is this the third-floor north-side top, the first-floor south-side top?"), and potentially dangerous as you might imagine.

The good news is, the finished windows look terrific.

The bad news is, you really have to do this yourself. It would cost a fortune to hire it out.

Fortunately, while there are a lot of steps, each one is relatively easy. Here's the process:

*Remove the sashes. From the inside, carefully pry off the narrow strip of wood that holds the bottom sash in (the inner stop). It's nice if you can save the piece, but it isn't always possible. Pull out the bottom sash. Put a nail in the chain or cord so it doesn't slip back inside the frame. Remove the parting strip that separates the bottom sash from the top. Remove the top sash -- it may be nailed or painted in; just be as gentle as you can in getting it out. If there are chains or cords, put a nail through them so you don't lose them in the framing.

It's a good idea to wear gloves and eye protection when you're pulling out the sashes. The glass may break or the rails may splinter.

*If you have a lot of windows to do, an assembly-line system is most efficient. Find a place to work where you can spread the windows out, performing the same step on a number of sashes at a time. If all the pieces look alike, devise a system for keeping track of which sash goes where.

*Remove any cracked or broken glass.

*Remove the old paint. You might as well bet that it contains lead; the only way to make sure it's never exposed is to take it off. Lead paint has to be removed using approved methods. Check with your local government; you may be forbidden by law to remove it yourself. If you can tackle it yourself, and really want to, be sure to take every precaution.

*Once the paint is gone, you may find the joints where the rails meet are loose. Work carpenter's glue into the joints and clamp them solidly with furniture clamps. When the glue is set, remove the clamps and countersink a galvanized nail on either side of the angle made by the joints.

*When the sashes are no longer wobbly, give them a good sanding with 60-grit paper. (A quarter-pad electric finishing sander does this job well.) Scrape off any loose glazing compound.

*Repair cracks or broken places, gaps, holes and missing corners with a good wood filler. (We like Minwax High Performance Wood Filler, which uses a two-step process to first harden then repair the wood. It dries enough to sand in about 30 minutes.) Sand all repairs with 60 grit paper; then sand entire sash with 100-grit paper.

*Prime the sashes with a good-quality, oil-based primer. Unless the weather is ideal, you may be driven berserk at this stage by how long it takes the primer to dry. We certainly were, but when we asked Larry Horton, general manager of Budeke's Paint of Baltimore, for a faster-drying product, he was reluctant to recommend anything. The fast-drying primers, he said, are surface primers only. The slow-drying primers soak into the wood more completely and hold up better.

*When the primer finally gets dry, give it a light sanding with 100 grit paper.

*Replace all the glass and glazing (the putty that seals the glass to the wood). We have to confess, this part we didn't do ourselves. We took our sashes to a local hardware store that finished them in a couple of hours. Not only was it faster, but we only had to pay for the glass once. (The glass in those curved-top sashes would not have been easy to cut in one try.)

*Finish the sashes with two coats of paint. If they'll be one color inside and another out, develop a system for keeping track (in our case, it's "Putty side out.") We prefer oil-based paint for its smoother finish and higher gloss, but it's hard to clean up and it's slow, slow, slow to dry in cold or humid weather. Acrylic latex paint dries faster and is said to be just as durable.

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