Your Historic Home’s Windows Were Made to be Repaired, Not Replaced

by Kelsie Gray

If you’re fortunate enough to be the steward of an old home that still has its original wood windows, then there’s a good chance you’ve spent at least some time wondering what to do about them when they are painted shut, have broken panes or sash cords, suffer from failed glazing or paint, or are just downright rattly and drafty. And in a culture that seems to revolve around an “out with the old, in the with the new” mentality, there is a woeful shortage of skilled tradespeople with the knowhow and patience to bring your home’s old windows back to life. That lack of knowhow often leads to many invaluable windows sashes being tossed into landfills and replaced with deceptively cheap and “maintenance-free” vinyl windows.

So why shouldn’t you fall for the replacement salesman’s spiel? And more importantly, how can you renew your home’s original windows and give them another 100 years of service?

For starters, if you have a pre-WWII home, you must know this:

Everything made of wood in your home—the framing, the doors, the floors, the woodwork, and yes, the windows—was custom-made by artisans and craftsmen specifically FOR YOUR HOUSE. Furthermore, chances are very good that all the wood pieces of your home were milled locally from wood harvested in your region. And that wood was almost undoubtedly old growth.

Do you know what would happen if you walked into a big box store or even a local lumber yard and asked for some old growth, locally harvested wood? They would either laugh or look at you like you’d grown an extra head.

Old growth lumber doesn’t exist anymore in any significant quality. After years of knocking down every old forest we could get our hands on, we finally recognized the irreplaceable value of that particular resource. We won’t see trees that old or that plentiful ever again. Nor will our children, nor will our grandchildren. Every piece of wood you buy new off the shelf now is grown on tree farms. It’s grown fast, harvested small, and shipped a long way to reach your store shelves. If you know anything at all about selecting wood, you probably know the agony of standing in the lumberyard trying to find just ONE piece of lumber that’s not bowed, cupped, warped, or loaded with knotholes.KCWorkshopFlier

Old growth wood is from trees that grew big and did so slowly. Those trees survived fires, floods, drought, harsh winters, and scorching summers. And that’s why your home’s original wood windows, despite probably years of neglect, are still there. It’s why they haven’t rotted into oblivion or been eaten by insects. Before it ever became a window, that wood knew how to survive everything mother nature could throw at it. Why do you think we set up entire preservation areas and national parks honoring ancient trees? Because we’re utterly in awe of things that have lived for hundreds of years. Newsflash: your windows have already lived a hundred years. If you take care of them, they will live a hundred more.

A well-maintained, operable historic window will last far, far longer than any replacement window available on the market today. When properly weatherstripped and/or paired with a good storm window, it will also be every bit as energy efficient—if not more so—as a shiny new plastic window you’ll be throwing in the landfill after a decade. Vinyl windows are made to deteriorate and be replaced. That’s why we call them “replacement windows.” Because you keep replacing them every 15 years. There is absolutely nothing “green” or “eco friendly” about throwing away an irreplaceable resource (old growth wood) and replacing it with a petroleum-based product that’s built to fail. Do you know how long a vinyl window takes to biodegrade in a landfill?

Probably longer than the earth will be around.

That said, there are parts of your old windows that have a much shorter lifespan than the good wood they’re made of. Ropes get brittle and break. Glazing fails after a decade or two of exposure to the elements. Hardware wears out. Kids throw baseballs and glass gets broken. Hapless painters paint sashes shut. But the whole point of those handcrafted windows was that they were put together, piece by piece, of simple materials. Cotton rope, metal hardware, hand crafted glass, linseed oil putty, and wood. They were designed to be repaired by the homeowner. And they can be. With a little education and minimal investment in some simple tools and materials, you can return your home’s sashes to “like new” condition and operability.

There is a huge disparity between the number of historic wood windows in this country and the number of full-time, professional window restorers able to do the work. That’s why, as a preservationist, it is my goal to educate as many people as possible and send them back home equipped to do the work themselves. If you’re in the Kansas City area and have looked at the wood windows in your own home and realized they need TLC but are nervous, intimidated, or just downright mystified as to where to begin, I will be teaching a hands-on, weekend window restoration workshop geared specifically towards homeowners in Kansas City, September 7-9. This class is geared towards all skill levels and will cover the methods, materials and philosophy behind wood window repair and restoration.

For more information or to sign up, please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/historic-homeowners-wood-window-restoration-and-repair-workshop-tickets-48420135930

I hope to see you there!