Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation

July/August Newsletter Cover Story

Window Restoration Diary

By Jane Montanaro, Director of Preservation Services, Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, Connecticut Preservation News XXXVIII/4 (July/August, 2015).

Repairing and maintaining historic wood windows is not as intimidating as it might seem. With some instruction and proper tools, anyone can achieve impressive results, as I learned while attending a window repair workshop in March.

Greg Farmer, Connecticut Circuit Rider, and Judy L. Hayward, executive director of Windsor Preservation Education Institute in Vermont, arranged to bring this workshop to Connecticut, funded by a grant from the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office, Department of Economic and Community Development. The Connecticut Trust had been working with the Town of Waterford and town historian Bob Nye to plan for the preservation of its picturesque vernacular Nevins Tenant Cottage (c.1890), so this was a great subject house for the workshop. Instructor Sally Fishburn, of S. A. Fishburn, Inc., an historic preservation and custom cabinetry firm located in northern Vermont, brought her expertise and incredible passion for window restoration to the program. 

March 30, the evening before.

Attended the two-hour lecture at Shaw Mansion in New London. Historic windows are character-defining features, and with proper maintenance and TLC can be brought back to life. Lesson: you can repair windows yourself or at least be able to identify a contractor who can do it properly, rather than just install new windows.

March 31, morning. Condition assessment.

Overview of the cottage, window anatomy, the schedule for the three-day workshop, and Lead-Safe Practices. Lead-Safe Practices, in a nutshell, are designed to protect people and the environment from lead dust that will be created during the restoration process. It is assumed that the c.1890 cottage contains lead paint (tests later confirmed that a minimal amount was present in the window paint), so all participants donned protective clothing and the work area was isolated. No eating or drinking in the work area.

            The first task: condition assessment of all the windows at the cottage. Each participant was assigned one or two windows to inspect and evaluate. Each window received individual consideration and treatment. Areas of rot, broken or missing pieces, peeling paint or other signs of water damage were all noted. Comparing your window to another’s often offered clues, especially if seeking to identify original windows versus more recent, but still old, replacement windows. As a group, the windows were ranked to identify the worst ones, needing immediate attention. Eventually, the Town of Waterford will repair all the windows to the degree possible, replacing broken or missing components in-kind when necessary, per Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

March 31, afternoon. Remove the windows.

Remove the side stop by checking for screws or nails along the strip and extracting them. Gently pry the side stop loose with a putty knife, being careful not to split it. Bow it out at the middle, lift the bottom out, then the top. Label it. (Label everything!) With a partner, remove the lower sash by lifting it up and swinging one side out of the frame. Remove cord or chain, if present. Remove parting bead, which holds the upper sash in place—probably the most difficult task because of accumulated layers of paint and fragility of the piece of wood. Remove upper sash similarly to lower sash. Label both sashes and parting bead.

            Now you can get a better look at the condition of all the elements of the window. Plan repairs (which will be done by Sally). Clean the work area, by sweeping and vacuuming all the paint chips and dust. Board up empty windows with plywood.

            In the Nevins Cottage shed, Sally set up a custom-made steam box to be used to assist in the removal of paint and putty from the window sashes. Simply a large box with a garment steam iron attached to it, the steam box provides a low cost, portable, reusable, chemical-free, dust-free, way. If outside temp is too cold (like it was in Waterford that week, about 45 degrees) then it will take a long time for paint to soften. Commercially made steam boxes can be purchased.

            As we waited for the steam to take effect on the sash, the group visited with a reporter from The Day of New London, Tess Townsend, whose article can be found in the paper’s April 3 edition.

No real progress was made with the steam box that afternoon. We cleaned the work area, removed protective clothing and secured the site for the night.

April 1, morning. Remove paint and putty, clean glass.

In the shed, we fired up the steam box again. Wearing our protective clothing back inside the cottage, we worked with infrared heating units to soften the paint and putty. Success! The paint and putty softened quickly—so we had to be vigilant not to overheat the wood and scorch it, overheat the glass and crack it, and avoid fire dangers in general. As the paint and putty became soft and pliable, we scraped paint off the wood surfaces and removed putty from the window and glass, being careful not to break the glass. We labelled the panes to be reused and discarded broken, unsalvageable pieces. All of the pieces of glass were scraped clean and wet-washed, both sides.

            After several hours of periodically checking the steam box, the paint finally started to show signs of softening. However, as we worked to scrape the paint from the steamed sash, we discovered the downside to being steamed for that length of time. The wood fibers will begin to thread or rip during the scraping process, creating an uneven and unsightly finish.   

            Cleaned the work area.

April 1, afternoon. Make repairs, condition wood, construct easels.

Minor repairs were made to broken muntins, chipped or split bottom rails, or other needed repairs by Sally during the evening break. Replacement glass, where needed, was cut to size. Linseed oil was applied to the sash to condition the wood. When finished, we were careful to lay flat or hang all of the rags to dry—spontaneous combustion possible!

            Cleaned the work area. Assembled easels to be used the following day for glazing and painting. Removed protective clothing.

April 2, morning. Re-glazing.

Sally demonstrated glazing basics and different qualities of certain brands of putty. She uses Allback organic linseed-oil putty (from Sweden) for a number of reasons but basically because it’s environmentally friendly and easy to work with. Advantageously—you may paint with Allback linseed oil paint immediately afterwards without waiting for the glazing to dry. We applied shellac onto the glazing grooves before applying any glazing, to prevent the oil in the glazing from drying out.

            At the worktable, using a putty knife, we applied a thin film of putty to the muntin where the glass rests, set the pane of glass into the opening, and tapped in diamond points to hold the glass in place. Then we moved the sash to the easel to begin puttying along the rabbet using putty knives. We discovered that beginners tend to leave a lot of unnecessary putty on the window, as Sally trimmed a lot of excess material from each of our windows! To remove oily residue left behind by all the excess putty, lightly brush on small amounts of chalk (whiting) to soak it up. 

            Cleaned the work area.

April 2, afternoon. Painting.

Applied first coat of paint (Allback) being careful not to apply paint to sides of the sash (moveable).

            We cleaned the work area and then admired the handiwork of all the participants. It was extremely satisfying for a diverse group of homeowners, contractors, and other preservation-minded attendees to see how great the repaired windows looked knowing that they will be good for at least another 30 years.

Resources for Repairing Windows

Textbook: John Leeke, Save America’s Windows (Historic Home Works, revised 2013); available from www.HistoricHomeWorks.com .

Watch a video of the Window Repair lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVoc9HnHtCA&feature=youtu.be

Allback organic putty and paints, www.solventfreepaint.com

Connecticut contractors trained by John Leeke: R.J. Aley, Westport; Marlowe Restoration, Northford