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How to Maintain Wood Windows and Make Them Fully Functional


Drama in the Kitchen -- Can't Save the Window Frames


A couple of months ago I left you all hanging on part one of my window restoration when I realized I'd mis-measured the sashes for my kitchen windows. After further discovery and texting with John, I realized even more bad news -- the exterior window frame under the face frame trim had also been removed. :/ So even if I was able to correctly fit the sashes, I would need to rebuild the window frame as well...a job best left to the professionals.


I only had a week left to get the window situation figured out before contractors started work on my kitchen, so I frantically called and emailed everyone I could think of -- window restoration companies, and all the big boys -- Marvin, Andersen and Pella.


Nancy at Lyons Historic Window, an invaluable local resource for historic homeowners, mentioned that even she would need to send the rebuild out of house to a restoration company in Florida. And it would run $2,500-$3,000 per window. If I lived in a historic home, I would absolutely do this. But given that we are going for period-appropriate renovation more than complete restoration of our Denver Square, we called it and decided on full-wood replacement windows.


Marvin contractors had a three-window minimum, and Andersen contractors claimed they could only do aluminum-clad. Since Pella sells direct-to-consumer, their prices were the best and they let us buy just two, all-wood windows. Crisis averted, our contractors were able to start on the kitchen remodel on schedule. I'll post photos of the windows to Instagram once they come in.


Even though I can't continue to walk you through the window restoration process using my kitchen windows, in the midst of repainting the trim in my living room, one of my sash cords snapped. So assuming you were able to dry fit your sashes and have a fully intact window frame and jamb (see steps 1-4), now you are ready to make your double-hung wood window fully functional.


There are lots of "simple" guides out there or video tutorials, but I find I'm a visual person and need way more photos of each step so I can follow along in real-time:



Step 5: Remove the Window Stops


The window stops are the pieces of wood that keep your lower sash in place. They may have decorative routed edges, or may be a flat piece of wood. In this window, our stops are flat.




Use a utility knife or putty knife to cut the paint and small finish prybar (meant for trim) to pop the stop out. I've had the most success starting from the bottom and working my way up, as the top of the stop is often mitered into the top stop.


Here's a great diagram from Jonathan Poore showing the anatomy of a double-hung wood window, in case you are having trouble following along.


Remove both side stops, and then the top window stop. Set them aside.



Step 6: Remove the Lower Wooden Window Sash


Once you remove the stops you may see a metal track that guides the sash.



If so, carefully raise the lower sash until it is free from the track then tip the bottom of the sash out. The weights will still counterbalance the weight of the sash making this pretty easy for one person to handle.


If you don't have a track, you can simply tilt the bottom of the sash toward you.


Balance the sash on the window stool. Pull out the knot from the side of the window frame and carefully lower the attached weight in the pocket. Don't let it crash! Set the lower window sash aside.



Step 7: Remove the Metal Track (if present)


Now you can carefully pry off the metal track along each side. Be really careful not to bend the track or it will make reinstalling the window a heck of a lot harder.



If you need to replace the cords on the upper sash as well, repeat steps 5-7, but removing the parting bead instead of a stop.



Step 8: Access the Weight Pocket


Once the metal track is removed, you should now be able to see the weight pocket. In all of our other windows this was only visible due to a small hole at the top and slits along the side. We had to use a screwdriver to actually break the wood on the bottom edge. Don't worry it is meant to do that. Simply insert the screwdriver into the hole to pry against the backside.


You should be left with a cover that either has an angled 45 degree cut or a stepped cut like this one.




In this particular window, the pocket had been accessed before so there were two screws (atypical) holding the cover in place.



It just so happened that one of those screws was inaccessible until we removed the lower portion of the parting bead, which has been nailed in place (also a no no). Since we only needed to replace the cords on the lower sash, this was a pretty big inconvenience to have to fully uninstall the stops for both sashes to get at the pocket. *sigh*



But getting to see the weights is always fun. This particular set had roman numerals for the weight (in pounds).





Step 9: Check That the Pulleys Turn Smoothly


This is the step that I forgot when we first replaced the sash cords in our upstairs windows. The cords lasted for a year or two before they began to snap. And it was all because there was paint on the pulleys that put extra friction on the rope.


Don't make my mistake. Sand, chip or clean off any paint or debris to ensure that the pulley spins smoothly. And clean off any wood that has splintered.




If you have the time and patience, strip the paint off entirely before reinstalling. My favorite method is a simmering pot of water with a squeeze of dish soap and a stiff brush.



Step 10: Remove the Old Sash Cord and Replace with New


I like to roughly measure the length needed (giving yourself a little extra) and then poke the new cord from the frame side down into the pocket. Feed the rope through until it's down near your weight. Tie a bowline or a poacher's knot around the weight.



I liked this visual reference for actually tying the knot. Some of his tips are pretty good too.


Hold a bit further up on the rope and drop the weight a few inches to ensure that the knot is snug.


Leave the cord dangling through the pulley while you close everything back up.



Step 11: Look for Any Areas That Need Sanding


Are there some gobs of paint on the side of the sash that's making the window squeak? Are there bits of paint behind the track? Sand or chip off anything that could cause the window to bind.


In my experience the sash will ALWAYS fit more tightly going back in than when it came out, usually because a track gets bent slightly or something is just a skosh out of alignment. Sand liberally to buy yourself some wiggle room.


I like to wet a coarse grit sanding block and go to town, before cleaning up with a shopvac.


If you need to completely rehab your sash due to rot or need to reglaze the window and you didn't get enough detail from my first post, read this guide from This Old House.



Step 12: Reinstall the Weight Pocket, Track and Window Sash


If you broke the bottom edge of the pocket cover, it should easily slip back in at a 45 degree angle and stay in place. If the pocket cover was held in place with screws, slide the cover back in and screw it in place.



If you took out both sashes, reverse the order that the came out (top goes back in first -- track, upper sash, parting bead, track, lower sash, stop). Reinstall the track with as much care as you can to keep it straight and aligned where it was previously.


Ask a friend or a partner to hold up the sash while you tie a square knot on the side you are going to insert into the sash groove (technically called a rope mortise). Put the knot in the mortise on each side. Have each person stand on a chair or ladder on each side of the sash while holding the rope in the mortise. Tilt the top of the lower sash toward you to align the sash with the metal track (if present).


Slide the sash back down the track, being carefully not to pull the cords out of the mortise or bend the track out of alignment.


In my opinion this is the single HARDEST part of repairing a wood window, especially if you have to reinstall the lower sash on a track. After completing this step, with a lot of cursing, we usually take a congratulatory beer break. :)


Unfortunately I don't have any photos of this step because we were both holding on to the sash.



Step 13: Reinstall the Window Stops


Now that the sashes are back in reinstall the stops. Start with the top stop, and then do each side.


I've found that it's easiest to slide in the mitered corner and then push the bottom part into place so that the stop bows slightly at the center, like an arc. This ensures the tightest fit as you nail the stop back into place.



Step 14: Sand, Caulk, Prime, and Paint Your Wood Windows


Oh, you thought you were done?!? While you can take a break after step 13, to get your window looking as good as new, you want to make sure your window is properly finished.


Sand any areas that have loose paint from the uninstallation and reinstallation process. Patch any gouges with wood filler and sand again. Tack cloth the area and caulk any gaps between the stops and the window frame. Prime any areas of exposed wood, then paint the window. I'm partial to Benjamin Moore's oil-based paint. It is extremely forgiving since it takes awhile to dry, and hardens to a practically undamageable finish over the course of a week. That said, it is stinky. So keep your windows open, bring in fans, and try to avoid hanging out in that room for a couple of days.



While painting, make sure that you don't get paint on your new cords or you will shorten their lifespan. Paint will make them more brittle and prone to breakage. You can tape them off, but I prefer to pull on them with my left hand, while painting behind them with my right.


Also make sure to continually move your sashes as you paint. Whether you go inside out or outside in doesn't really matter (just don't bung up your paint job!). But I always save the top rail of the upper sash and the lower rail of the bottom sash for last so I can more easily move the windows up and down so they don't get painted shut.


Now get out there and restore your wood windows!




Need help with your home restoration projects? Contact Denver Squared and we can point you to the right craftsmen or antique pieces to bring your project to life.



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