New Tools for Rescuing Wood Windows

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“Those crappy old windows can’t be fixed. They gotta be replaced.” Managers of old buildings have heard this bleak assessment countless times. What that glib pronouncement often means is that the person rendering judgment doesn’t know how to restore wood windows – or doesn’t want to be bothered. Most contractors find it’s easier, quicker and more profitable to slam in replacement units. But now two new books make it possible for building owners to avoid the hidden costs incurred by discarding historic wood windows that could otherwise be saved.

The first volume -- just brought to my attention by preservationist Bob Yapp -- is Window Preservation Standards, published by the non-profit Window Preservation Standards Collaborative (WPSC). The WPSC is a consortium of more than 150 professionals, experts in window preservation and energy efficiency, who pooled their wood window know-how to arrive at a consensus on current best practices. The resulting book compiles 34 step-by-step field-tested methods used to maintain, repair and weatherize old wood windows. In addition to the procedural standards, there are protocols for window project planning and energy-efficiency testing. The standards are presented in a clear, concise and consistent format. The compressed manner of presentation means the standards can be easily translated into a set of contractor specifications. One special aspect of the window standards is that for each procedure there are also brief criteria for judging “best work,” “adequate work” and “inadequate work.” The standards are more of a “what to do” compilation rather than a “how to do it” manual. It assumes you, the contractor or both are already familiar with the materials and procedures involved.

For a set of more detailed “how to do it” instructions, there’s the new expanded edition of John Leeke’s Save America’s Windows. Leeke is a well-known preservationist, consultant and educator – and is also the editor of the WPSC standards manual discussed above. He has put together a thorough discussion of 15 step-by-step treatments to repair weathered sills and deteriorating sash that also includes a lot of background information on historical wood windows. In addition, the volume reprints five window chapters from 19th- and early 20th-century trade manuals that illustrate many early window construction details. Leeke assumes no prior knowledge, so the book can be used both by ambitious do-it-yourselfers and professionals who need to get up to speed on historic wood windows.

Both volumes provide plenty of ammunition to refute overly aggressive window salesmen – besides the obvious desirability of preserving historic building fabric. One common argument - energy-conservation – is often specious. The WPSC manual presents testing data that show restored wood windows can deliver energy efficiency on a par with replacement windows. In addition, when you factor in the shorter life-span of replacement windows (15-40 years depending on material), repairing the original windows is much more earth friendly. Old wood windows are normally made of tight-grained first-growth lumber, which is much more rot resistant than today’s fast-growth wood. Finally, the simple construction of old windows means they can be repaired indefinitely. Case in point: the original wood windows in my 1883 brownstone have received periodic maintenance and repair. With similar care, they should be good for at least another 100 years.

The WPSC standards manual ($48.50) can be ordered online directly from the collaborative. John Leeke’s handbook ($35) can be ordered through his website. In addition, Steven Schuyler Bookseller has a discounted package price when both books are purchased together.