Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Repair or Replace? Maintaining and Restoring Wooden Windows 1: Print and Online Resources

I have several threads going pertaining to wooden windows, wooden storm windows and wooden window screens. There is healthy debate going on at the moment about the reasons to repair rather than replace old windows. Also, there are three books I've found that are good resources for much more detailed information on repairs than I can give in a blog, so in the interests of helping out other DIYer's, here is the info:

Working Windows: A guide to the repair and restoration of wood windows. Terry Meany. 3rd Edition. 2008.

This is a very, very helpful book, very simply and clearly written for the average, contemporary homeowner, like me, who wants to keep, repair, restore and maintain their old wooden windows. The first chapter covers all the names of the parts and how they are put together, what they do. I found this to be totally invaluable in trying to understand the workings of an old window with layers and layers of paint obscuring the individual parts. Also, there are lots of line drawings. There is one chapter on repairing and making window screens and storm windows. Unfortunately, that chapter is a bit light. I don't know if it would've been enough for my specific needs, when I wanted to figure out how to make screens. I found the book after we made our first screens, so ... uh, thus the detailed blog posts on making screens.

Modern Practical Joinery. George Ellis. 1987 reprint of 3rd edition, 1908.

I love this book. It covers so many details, and was written in an era before power tools existed, so everything feels very contemporary to the handiwork and hand craft of the actual windows in my house. There are tons of line drawings with old names for things. My exact make of windows aren't in the book. Not a huge deal. The bigger issue, from a window perspective, is that George is dealing with all of cabinet making and building related to wood, so windows are covered in one short chapter. Still, its a fascinating book and worth consulting.

Save America's Windows. John Leeke. 2013 edition.

I've just ordered this. When I've read it, will of course provide a review. Leeke has a website, John Leeke's Historic Homeworks, and this book is one of his Practical Practical Restoration Reports. It can be ordered here.

Renovating Old  Houses. George Nash. 2003.

This is also an excellent, helpful book. There is a chapter on restoring and repairing old wooden windows. It deals with epoxy and explains how to reglaze a window, instructions I have already used so often that that page of the book is falling out.

Repair or Replace?

Also, Nash's book deals head-on with the question of whether to replace old wooden windows with modern replacement windows and comes down squarely on the side of repair rather than replacement. There are several paragraphs looking at this issue of whether new double-glazed windows are more energy efficient than old single-pane wood windows.

The upshot, according to this book and numerous authoritative sources online, a single-pane wooden window in good repair with a sturdy wooden storm window and good weatherstripping can be comparable in energy efficiency to a vinyl or aluminum clad replacement and will probably outlast the replacement.

A quick consult today on the web seems to indicate that the balance of opinion is beginning to shift to repair rather than replace. I'll add a few links below on the topic:

National Park Service Bulletin

NPS Preservation Brief, urging preservation over replacement

Community Preservation Coalition

Cambridge Historical Commission


  1. Dear Pugsley, We are thrilled to find your blog and to follow your journey through the restore vs replace question. And we are delighted you have chosen to restore. I and two partners were so distressed to see the beautiful, hand-crafted, windows that were being thrown into dumpsters, for no reason other than the homeowners had been convinced by the window replacement companies that old was bad and replacements were good, that we started our own window restoration company, Open Window Restoration. And while we are out to restore and repair original wood windows for homeowners, we also support DIYers like yourself. We hope you will spread the word among your contemporary homeowner friends that windows from before 1960 are almost always worth saving, and with just a little care every couple of decades, will outlast replacements by many generations.

    Good luck with your projects. If you ever have a question we might be able to answer for you, please give us a shout.

    Marybeth Robb

    P.S. You might be interested in a new study from National Trust for Historic Preservation which shows retrofitting original windows produces energy savings comparable to replacements at a fraction of the cost. And it says replacement windows never pay for themselves. http://www.preservationnation.org/who-we-are/press-center/press-releases/2012/new-windows-study.html

    1. Dear Marybeth - Thank you so much for your comment and the link to the new study. It verifies the other reading I've done and the instinctive feeling I've had for years--and that you mention too-that, sheer aesthetics aside, old windows are more sturdy and as energy efficient as new windows, if cared for and combined with other measures like storms. I've lived in Victorian-era rentals where the "new" replacement windows were already failing after less than a decade in place.

      I'd be curious to know what paint removal methods you use, especially for muntins.

      Thanks for writing. Sherry

  2. Windows, as much as houses, are a mirror of our history. Most of the most antique ones can give us information on the ways people lived in the past. I like that you further the readings about whether we should replace or restore our old windows. I say, do what you see fit. Don’t be swayed just because other people say that replacements are the ‘in’ thing now, or that restoration and preservation is a greater act. Anyways, good luck on your future projects!

    Barrett Elmore

  3. what a great article you have, i love it specially you have posted a great information..

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    1. Elina - Thank you. It's great to hear what is helpful to readers. Take care, Sherry

  4. If I'm to choose between a repairing my window or replacing it, I'd be sticking with replacing. Why? It's because it will improve the ventilation and also increase the property value.

  5. I say if the door is still in a good condition but looks battered, a fresh coat of paint plus some minor repairs would do the trick. But if it is already badly damaged or rotting in some areas, it might be best to replace it outright rather than fight a losing battle with the rot.

  6. Hey there! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about restoring wooden windows. I am glad to stop by your site and know more about your personal blog. Keep it up! This is a good read. You have such an interesting and informative page. I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well

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