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Investing in Old Windows

The windows on Christian Nolen and Susan Denny's 1886 Victorian were in pretty good shape.

<p>This Old House TV's Watertown project</p>

This Old House TV's Watertown project

Unlike, say, its rotted porches or crumbling chimneys, the windows on Christian Nolen and Susan Denny's 1886 Victorian were in pretty darn good shape. Large double-hungs, with those on the rear bay graced with curved sash and panes, they probably dated from around 1915, when the house underwent an extensive expansion and renovation. "We thought about the energy savings we might have gotten from replacing them," recalls Christian, "but for us, there really was no question. They were too beautiful to just tear out."

Their beauty was obscured by aged triple-track storms, so down those came—and in came David Liberty, whose company specializes in rehabilitating old wood windows. David is one of the many people, including show friend and wood repair expert John Stahl, who believe that the strong, tight-grained wood found in old construction makes preserving it a better investment than replacement with today's softer wood. Properly repaired, claimed David, the Watertown windows would last another hundred years.

As David and his crew inspected each window, they found the good old wood, without exception, still solid and sound. The joints were still strong. The main problem was rattles and air leaks. The solution: weatherstripping. First they carefully pried off the stops—vertical strips of wood that keep the sash in the window. Setting them aside, they removed the lower sash. At the same time they opened up the sash weight ports to remove the weight and cut off the rot-prone cotton weight cords, which they would replace with indestructible copper chain. The delicate parting beads, which separate the two sash, came out next, followed by the upper sash.

Each sash was sanded to remove any paint ridges that might be impeding their smooth sliding. David cut a groove in the meeting rail of the lower sash and slipped in a nylon weatherstrip (supplied by John Stahl). Into the upper half of the window frame went spring bronze weatherstripping which, when nailed in place and scored with a putty knife, kicked out its unattached edge to provide a positive pressure seal for the upper sash to ride against. The upper sash went back into the frame, followed by the parting beads, another set of bronze weatherstripping for the lower sash, the lower sash attached to its new copper chains, and finally the stops, positioned carefully to allow the sash to slide but not to rattle. New locks at the meeting rails sucked the two sashes tightly together, and the old windows were ready for a new life. Cost: $175 per window.

In love with the historic look of their restored windows, Christian and Sue decided to skip new storms and their obscuring effect. They had heard that only about 10% of a window's heat loss is through its glass, so with the new weatherstripping and properly caulked window casings, they figured they might be OK. And, for the first winter, they were. No rattles, no drafts, beautiful sunlight streaming unobstructed through wavy old glass.

The following winter, bothered by the drying effect of the hot-air heating, they added a humidifier to the system. Good for their skin, bad for their windows, whose single-thickness panes immediately frosted up, some with up to a half-inch of the stuff, melting during the day and threatening to ruin the paint and even the underlying wood. So much for romance and history—storm windows have been ordered and will be installed this spring. Christian and Sue found a manufacturer whose units come with low-e glass, rounded edges on their aluminum frames, and baked-on custom color. Per unit cost: $250.

Had they tossed their old windows and used modern replacement units that slip into the existing frame, Tom Silva estimates they would have spent around $650 an opening. The new units would have been mechanically smooth, but so are the reconditioned old ones. The new would have provided the insulation of double-pane glass, but so do the old windows with their new storms. Aesthetically, the new would have looked, well, new. By taking the route they took, even with its unexpected bump, Christian and Sue got what they needed and even saved some money. But more importantly, they saved some of the best things about their old house.