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FALL HOME IMPROVEMENT: Scavenge and shove to get old-house window fixed

AKRON, Ohio -- It doesn't look like much now. It just looks like a window, and in most houses, that subject would be somewhere near the bottom of the conversation barrel.

AKRON, Ohio -- It doesn't look like much now. It just looks like a window, and in most houses, that subject would be somewhere near the bottom of the conversation barrel.

It's like saying water comes in a steady stream from the faucet or the bulb overhead emits light when the switch is clicked upward.

But old-house people know that nothing is ever that simple. Sometimes the pipes clank and the stream comes out sideways. Sometimes the switch clicks down for "on" and sometimes the "on" happens to a light that doesn't seem to have any logical relationship to the switch.

And sometimes you have to answer the riddle:

Q. When is a window not a window?


A. When it's an old house window.

So let's focus on this one, a big set of 95-year-old double casement windows set in the overhang of a first-floor lavatory, with a chunky wood frame and antique latches. Hidden beneath the recently applied paint and the discount-priced miniblinds and the middle-class Target valence is a story of decadence and redemption.

It's also a story of why old-house people don't make a lot of sense to the general population, and why that's an entirely valid perception. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

When we bought our house a dozen years ago, it was a profound wreck. Everything was broken. Nothing worked. So this set of windows was right in keeping with the theme. The windows, their paint long since weathered away, were warped and shifted so that the nearest they would come to being "closed" was an inch or so from what a reasonable person (read: a non-old-house person) would consider "closed." The right window was badly rotten through the bottom rail and up one side. The glazing putty had long since dried and crumbled away.

If it's broken, fix it

Old wooden windows are notoriously inefficient, but this set elevated the notion. Not only could a draft enter through the gaps, but so could an industrious pigeon.

Despite the fact that this was January in Ohio, and there was an element of urgency, the notion of "replacing" the window unit never occurred to me. To my way of thinking, these were perfectly good windows, far superior to any modern craftsmanship. They just needed repairing. And repairing is simply a matter of time and pragmatic frugality.

The first issue to deal with was the rot. I needed to replace the bottom and side rails, and because they had a distinctive coping, I'd either need to do some complicated router work or try to find a match.


Fortunately, I'm a scavenger. I had kept a set of decimated windows that had caved in with part of the garage wall. (Scavenger's Law: If it is made of wood, it shall not be discarded.) Although they were double-hung windows, rather than casements, and generally in even worse shape than the set I wanted to repair, I regarded them as windows of opportunity.

I identified a stretch of rail that could be used to replace the bottom and part of the side. I determined that I could treat another stretch of rail, punky but not fully rotten, with a wood-rot epoxy. In that way, I could make the offending half of the window set whole again.

Which I did. The work took most of an afternoon. I then had something that looked like a window, which I screwed back onto its hinges. I hooked my fingers over the latch to pull it closed. It hit up against its sister window and stopped. Just a hair too big.

Push it, push it good

Well, now. This is one of those situations, I knew, where a power planer would be a dangerous thing. If I tried to shave down the window, I almost was certain to take too much wood and be left with a gap, which was exactly the problem I was trying to solve. Far better would be to apply a bit of force, which would get the windows shut and ensure a nice tight fit.

I got my big rubber mallet and set up a step ladder outside the window, swinging the two sides shut to the point where their inside edges were flush, forming a shallow "V" that wouldn't quite flatten shut against the inside lip of the sill. I'd just need to push hard enough to get them to meet the sill, maybe 4 inches.

I pushed. And pushed. And pushed. I pushed with my hands. I climbed up higher and pushed with my shoulder. I whacked it with the rubber mallet. I sat on top of the ladder and pushed with my heels. I got my large friend Steve to come over and push with me. Nothing. I went inside and pulled on the handle, with Steve on the outside pushing and hammering with the rubber mallet. Finally, we got the thing closed in a way that implied it would never open again.

The upside, I figured, was that the tight fit would ensure that this would be as efficient as any modern plastic window.


The next morning, the lavatory pipes were frozen.

But the window looked great.

And this, alas, is the truth of the old-house person. We go to great pains of preservation, recycling and historical correctness to ensure that our homes will be restored -- to their original inefficiency.

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