Book Review: The Window Sash Bible

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The Window Sash Bible: A Guide to Maintaining and Restoring Old Wood Windows
By Steve Jordan
Printed by CreateSpace
Softcover; 248 pages; more than 500 b&w images; $45
ISBN: 978-1505299144

Reviewed by Clem Labine

Wood windows in an older building inevitably pose the vexing question: Repair or replace? Too often the reflexive answer is “replace,” because that seems simplest. But this outstanding new book, The Window Sash Bible, makes a convincing case that replacing wood windows is often neither the most economical nor the most desirable solution.

In short, this book is the most comprehensive and useful volume on wood window maintenance and repair I have ever run across. The author, Steve Jordan, set out to put between two covers everything he has learned about windows in his decades of professional practice – and he succeeded extremely well. Jordan has a lot of expertise to share, which he does in a concise and easy-to-access manner. Now a professional window restoration contractor, Jordan is a graduate of Cornell’s Historic Preservation Program, and previously worked as a rehab advisor for the Landmark Society of Western New York and as an architectural conservator for Bero Architecture, Rochester, NY. During his long career, he has repaired and restored thousands of old windows.

Jordan’s central message is: Rejuvenation of old wood windows is consistent with the growing desire for global sustainability in all things; it is more earth-friendly to repair original windows than to get locked into a cycle of continually replacing limited-life replacement windows. As the author puts it: “Old windows were usually meant to last a lifetime when maintained; modern windows are designed to last 15 to 30 years – and most cannot be maintained to significantly improve durability.”

This assertion is demonstrated throughout the volume as, for example, his experience with a 1920s school building. Suffering from deferred maintenance, most of the school’s original wood windows were replaced in the 1960s with “maintenance-free” aluminum windows. The balances on these replacement windows began to fail within five years, so in the 1970s the worst of the 1960s windows were replaced with more aluminum windows. These also began to fail within a few years.

The school then shelled out for a third round of replacement windows – which were no more durable than the others. At this point, Jordan was retained to conduct a window survey. He discovered that a few original wood windows had been left on the school’s rear elevation. Though bedraggled from lack of maintenance, these windows were in workable condition and could be reconditioned and kept in service. The original wood windows also served as design guides for creating new custom double-hung wood windows that were double-glazed, weather-stripped and balanced with sash weights on durable bronze chains. If reasonably maintained, these traditional wood windows will last indefinitely. From this example, it’s easy to see why nearly half of replacement windows sold today are used to supplant failed modern replacement windows.

Having preached the gospel of maintaining and restoring original wood windows, Jordan’s Window Sash Bible goes on to furnish more than 200 pages of techniques and procedures that will extend the life of wood windows indefinitely. Starting with the history of window types, the manual goes on to cover these main topics: Window balance systems; glazing putty options; glass replacement; lead- and zinc-camed windows; weather-stripping; repairing frames, sash and sills; storm windows; screens and shutters; temporary window insulation; window hardware; painting wood windows; and finally – what to do when replacement windows are mandatory.

One of the book’s many strengths is that it gives the user a range of options for most problems. Not only does Jordan provide the optimum “preservation correct” procedures for each situation, but he also often gives a range of alternatives for those with limited amounts of time and money. For example, in his 24-page chapter on “Keeping the Weather Out,” Jordan gives a thorough review of his favorite methods for weatherproofing windows with bronze weather-stripping and silicone bulb seals. But recognizing that not everyone has the budget for these optimal solutions, he also reviews the range of less-expensive interim alternatives such as winter window films, removable sealants, rope caulk, sand-filled “snakes” and foams and tapes. In all cases, Jordan is happy to point out the pros and cons of the various procedures – and share with the reader his preferred approach.

The book’s clearly described strategies make it useful even for a novice old-house owner – while the range of techniques and situations covered provide hints and tips for all but the most experienced window restoration professionals. The book’s clarity of presentation is tipped off immediately by the highly detailed Table of Contents. Far more detailed than most tables of contents, Jordan gives the reader not only chapter titles, but also fine-grained sub-listings of the topics covered in each chapter. The Table of Contents functions like a website’s site map, almost rendering the nicely done index superfluous. The volume is copiously illustrated; its only shortcoming (and it’s not a serious one) is the reproduction quality of the black-and-white photos, which in general are rather gray and grainy. The line drawings, however, are clear and helpful.

Anyone who owns or manages a structure with wood windows – whether it be a small house or large commercial or institutional building – should have a copy of this book within easy reach. TB

Clem Labine is the founder of Old House Journal, Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines. He also launched the Palladio Awards program and has received numerous awards. He recently reviewed two other window books in the October 2014 issue of Traditional Building magazine.