The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows
By John H. Myers
Reprinted from The National Park Services Technical Preservation services for historic buildings.
Repairs to wooden windows are usually labor intensive and relatively uncomplicated. On small scale projects this allows the do-it-yourselfer to save money by repairing all or part of the windows. On larger projects it presents the opportunity for time and money which might otherwise be spent on the removal and replacement of existing windows, to be spent on repairs, subsequently saving all or part of the material cost of new window units. Regardless of the actual costs, or who performs the work, the evaluation process described earlier will provide the knowledge from which to specify an appropriate work program, establish the work element priorities, and identify the level of skill needed by the labor force.
The routine maintenance required to upgrade a window to "like new" condition normally includes the following steps: 1) some degree of interior and exterior paint removal, 2) removal and repair of sash (including reglazing where necessary), 3) repairs to the frame, 4) weatherstripping and reinstallation of the sash, and 5) repainting.
Historic windows have usually acquired many layers of paint over time. Removal of excess layers or peeling and flaking paint will facilitate operation of the window and restore the clarity of the original detailing. Some degree of paint removal is also necessary as a first step in the proper surface preparation for subsequent refinishing (if paint color analysis is desired it should be conducted prior to the onset of the paint removal). There are several safe and effective techniques for removing paint from wood, depending on the amount of paint to be removed.
Paint removal should begin on the interior frames, being careful to remove the paint from the interior stop and the parting bead, particularly along the seam where these stops meet the jamb. This can be accomplished by running a utility knife along the length of the seam, breaking the paint bond. It will then be much easier to remove the stop, the parting bead and the sash. The interior stop may be initially loosened from the sash side to avoid visible scarring of the wood and then gradually pried loose using a pair of putty knives, working up and down the stop in small increments. With the stop removed, the lower or interior sash may be withdrawn. The sash cords should be detached from the sides of the sash and their ends may be pinned with a nail or tied in a knot to prevent them from falling into the weight pocket.
Removal of the upper sash on double-hung units is similar but the parting bead, which holds it in place, is set into a groove in the center of the stile and is thinner and more delicate than the interior stop. After removing any paint along the seam, the parting bead should be carefully pried out and worked free in the same manner as the interior stop. The upper sash can be removed in the same manner as the lower one and both sash taken to a convenient work area (in order to remove the sash the interior stop and parting bead need only be removed from one side of the window). Window openings can be covered with polyethylene sheets or plywood sheathing while the sash are out for repair.
The sash can be stripped of paint using appropriate techniques, but if any heat treatment is used, the glass should be removed or protected from the sudden temperature change, which can cause breakage. An overlay of aluminum foil on gypsum board or asbestos can protect the glass from such rapid temperature change. It is important to protect the glass because it may be historic and often adds character to the window. Deteriorated putty should be removed manually, taking care not to damage the wood along the rabbet. If the glass is to be removed, the glazing points, which hold the glass in place, can be extracted, and the panes numbered and removed for cleaning and reuse in the same openings. With the glass panes out, the remaining putty can be removed and the sash can be sanded, patched, and primed with a preservative primer. Hardened putty in the rabbets may be softened by heating with a soldering iron at the point of removal. Putty remaining on the glass may be softened by soaking the panes in linseed oil, and then removed with less risk of breaking the glass. Before reinstalling the glass, a bead of glazing compound or linseed oil putty should be laid around the rabbet to cushion and seal the glass. Glazing compound should only be used on wood, which has been brushed with linseed oil and primed with an oil based primer or paint. The pane is then pressed into place and the glazing points are pushed into the wood around the perimeter of the pane. The final glazing compound or putty is applied and beveled to complete the seal. The sash can be refinished as desired on the inside and painted on the outside as soon as a "skin" has formed on the putty, usually in 2 or 3 days. Exterior paint should cover the beveled glazing compound or putty and lap over onto the glass slightly to complete a weather-tight seal. After the proper curing times have elapsed for paint and putty, the sash will be ready for reinstallation.
While the sash are out of the frame, the condition of the wood in the jamb and sill can be evaluated. Repair and refinishing of the frame may proceed concurrently with repairs to the sash, taking advantage of the curing times for the paints and putty used on the sash. One of the most common work items is the replacement of the sash cords with new rope cords or with chains. The weight pocket is frequently accessible through a door on the face of the frame near the sill, but if no door exists, the trim on the interior face may be removed for access. Sash weights may be increased for easier window operation by elderly or handicapped persons. Additional repairs to the frame and sash may include consolidation or replacement of deteriorated wood. Techniques for these repairs are discussed in the following sections.
The operations just discussed summarize the efforts necessary to restore a window with minor deterioration to "like new" condition. The techniques can be applied by an unskilled person with minimal training and experience. To demonstrate the practicality of this approach, and photograph it, a Technical Preservation Services staff member repaired a wooden double-hung, two over two window which had been in service over ninety years. The wood was structurally sound but the window had one broken pane, many layers of paint, broken sash cords and inadequate, worn-out weatherstripping. The staff member found that the frame could be stripped of paint and the sash removed quite easily. Paint, putty and glass removal required about one hour for each sash, and the reglazing of both sash was accomplished in about one hour. Weather stripping of the sash and frame, replacement of the sash cords and reinstallation of the sash, parting bead, and stop required an hour and a half. These times refer only to individual operations; the entire process took several days due to the drying and curing times for putty, primer, and paint, however, work on other window units could have been in progress during these lag times.
Published by the federal government, these preservation briefs are a great source of assistance to owners and developers of historic buildings. Prepared pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretary of the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historic properties.
MORE FROM THIS ISSUE
VIEW digital online version
Coronado Railroad Appeal of Designation, Lawsuit Goes Forward
Beyond Left and Right Field
Historic Preservation and Transportation Agencies Find Common Ground to Safeguard America's Heritage
Her - i - tage
Milford Wayne Donaldson Appointed as State Historic Preservation Officer
Tecate Depot Mystery Solved
Did You Know?
Ladies and Gentlemen of the 1860s - Clothing & Culture
Grants & Donations to the Whaley House
Volunteer Today at the Whaley House
Gifts of Real Estate to SOHO
Spanish Revival Addition Enlivens Annual Craftsman Weekend
Hillcrest Medical Center
Cliffs Notes for Tax Credits
Join Us for the James Hubbell Homes Tour
Letter to the Editor
The Joys of Being a Docent at
SOHO Home Tours
Mission Hills Walking Tour
Free "Arch in the Park" Family Event
A Search for San Diego Courtyards
The Mission Hills Garden Club
Old House Fair 2004
The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows
Strength in Numbers
Lost San Diego
VIEW digital online version
DOWNLOAD full magazine as pdf (4.9mb)