How To Caulk Windows (2024 Guide)
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Leaky windows can lead to drafts and increased energy bills as your HVAC system struggles to keep the indoor temperature consistent. Many times, leaks around a window’s frame can be sealed with caulk. In this guide, we’ll break down the project and provide tips for getting the neatest results. We’ll also review window replacement costs to help you determine whether a more comprehensive solution is necessary.
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Why Do You Caulk Windows?
Caulking a window gives it a more finished appearance while also sealing any air leaks or drafts. It also improves the window’s insulating properties and protects your home’s energy efficiency. You’ll know it’s time to use caulk when you detect a leak around your window.
Here’s what to do if you suspect a window is leaking:
- Close and lock all of your windows to get the tightest seal possible.
- Turn off all fans, air conditioners, furnaces, and any other appliances that circulate air.
- Create a small stream of smoke with a lit candle or an incense stick.
- Move the candle or incense around the sides of the window, carefully avoiding any drapes or window treatments.
- Anywhere the flame flickers or the smoke blows away from the window, there’s a leak.
Types of Window Caulk
A few different types of caulk are used around windows. The right caulk for your project depends on where you need to apply it. If you plan to caulk both exterior and interior windows, you’ll need two different types.
How To Prep for Caulking Windows
Make sure you have the right conditions and tools for the job before beginning to caulk.
Picking the Right Day to Caulk
Wait for a day with mild weather and low humidity, especially if you’re caulking your windows’ exterior. The weather should be at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the forecast should be free from rain for at least 24 hours. This allows time for the caulk to dry and set properly.
Tools Needed for Caulking
You’ll need the actual caulk plus the following tools and supplies:
- Caulking gun
- Caulk-smoothing tool
- Cleaning rag
- Foam backer rod (optional)
- Painter’s tape (optional)
- Putty knife
- Small nail or pin
- Utility knife
How To Caulk Your Windows
Trying to apply new caulk over old won’t create a durable seal, so start by scraping off the old caulk with a putty knife. You may also need a utility knife to cut out stubborn caulk fragments. Make sure to remove as much as possible.
Scrape or wash away dirt or other debris from the area where you intend to apply caulk. If you skip this step, the caulk may not adhere well to the window. Repair any rot or damage to the window frame first. Also, remember that caulk works best as a sealant of gaps of one-fourth inch or less.
Fill any larger cracks with foam backer rod before applying caulk. You can also apply a border of painter’s tape parallel to the cracks about a one-eighth inch away so that you’ll get a straighter line and have an easier time with cleanup.
Caulk tubes are often sold separately from the gun used to apply it. It’s easiest to choose a manual caulking gun with a smooth rod rather than a ratchet rod. Smooth rod guns are a little less common and more expensive, but you won’t have to use as much force to apply the caulk. Additionally, these guns have a thumb release that stops the caulk from flowing immediately, preventing pooling and creating a neater end result.
Whichever type you choose, load the tube into the gun as instructed. Make sure the rod is fully extended and the plunger cup rests securely against the back of the tube.
Tubes of caulk come sealed, so you must cut the opening for the caulk to flow through. The winder the opening, the larger the bead of caulk that will come out, so take care when making this cut. Use the utility knife to cut off the last one-fourth inch of the tip of the nozzle at a 45-degree angle. You might also need to insert a small nail or pin to break the seal on the inside of the nozzle.
Starting at the corner of the window, press the tip of the nozzle firmly against the surface. While holding the gun at a 45-degree angle, apply pressure to the trigger and drag the nozzle steadily along the crack or joint, creating a smooth, continuous bead of caulk in the gap. When possible, slide the nozzle along the smooth window edge rather than any siding or textured walls. If this is your first time using a caulk gun, you may want to run a test bead on a sheet of scrap paper to get a feel for it first.
Use both hands on the gun, with your dominant hand on the trigger and the other supporting the barrel near the nozzle. Keep your wrists straight and move your elbows or upper body as you go to create the smoothest line. Although you can caulk the window edge from corner to corner, you’ll often get a neater line if you caulk from each corner to the center of the window, joining the beads in the middle.
After applying each line of caulk, take your caulk-smoothing tool and drag the tip lightly over the bead, which will remove excess caulk and make sure it fills the entirety of the gap. You can also use a popsicle stick or even your finger covered with a wet rag. If you used painter’s tape, remove it after you’ve smoothed the caulk but before it has time to set. Wipe away any remaining excess caulk with a clean, damp rag.
A skin will form over the fresh caulk within a few hours, but most caulk needs about 24 hours to fully set. Check the manufacturer’s instructions on the caulk tube to see if it needs any longer. These instructions should also tell you when you can safely paint over the dried caulk.
Areas To Avoid When Caulking Windows
Don’t become overambitious and start applying caulk to any parts of your window. Here are some areas to avoid.
- Weep holes: Some windows have small weep holes along the bottom exterior frame to allow moisture and condensation to drain out. If you seal them, your window may become compromised by mold or wood rot.
- Trimmed-out windows: Some windows have extra exterior trim that sits on top of the siding to make them appear larger. You shouldn’t apply caulk around the outside of these frames, as it won’t offer any extra protection and may end up sealing moisture in instead of out.
- Movable parts: If you get carried away, you may end up accidentally sealing your windows closed. Keep caulk away from sashes, casements, and other moving parts. These areas often have rubber gaskets to prevent leaks. You should replace the gaskets instead of using caulk if leaks develop.
- Above the window frame: The ledge above the window frame should already have a drip edge to direct precipitation away from the window. Applying caulk could prevent it from doing this job.
Caulking Windows vs. Replacing Windows
If your windows are relatively new and still in good condition, some caulk might be all that’s needed to plug up air leaks. Caulking is an easy do-it-yourself (DIY) job that can improve your home’s energy efficiency, and it’s far less expensive than even the most affordable window replacement options. Applying weatherstripping to sashes and solar control films to window panes can also improve efficiency. However, these methods have their limits, particularly if your windows are uninsulated or in poor condition.
Energy-efficient windows typically cost $320–$2,000 for materials plus installation, according to Angi. Here are some situations when it may be better to upgrade to new windows.
- Your windows are more than 20 years old.
- You have single-pane windows.
- You have aluminum or uninsulated vinyl frames.
- The window frames are rotten or water damaged.
DIY vs. Professional Window Caulking
Most homeowners can caulk windows with little more than a trip to the hardware store. However, you may want to consider calling a professional window contractor for windows that are difficult to access or located above the ground floor. A professional will have the right experience and safety equipment to do the job quickly and neatly. You should definitely call a professional if your windows need more than simple caulk and account for labor in your window repair budget.
Applying caulk is a good first step for small leaks around a window frame. You can typically do this yourself with a few simple materials and tools. Sometimes this will solve the problem, but it may be time for an upgrade if your windows are old and inefficient. Consult our guide to the best replacement windows to see your options. The Department of Energy estimates that 25%–30% of home heat loss happens through leaky windows, so you stand to save money by caulking or replacing your windows.
FAQ About Caulking Windows
Do you caulk the outside or inside of windows?
You can and should caulk both the interior and exterior of your home’s windows, though you’ll need different types of caulk for each.
Should I caulk or replace a window?
Caulk can seal small air leaks in windows that are in otherwise good condition, and replacing old caulk can help improve your home’s energy efficiency. However, replacement may be the better option for old, inefficient windows or windows that are in poor condition.
What happens if you don't caulk your windows?
If your windows’ caulk is old and cracked, treated air may leak out of your home or drafts will come in. This causes your air conditioner or furnace to work harder, leading to increased energy bills.
Where should you not use caulking?
Caulk shouldn’t be applied to weep holes, trimmed-out windows, moving parts, or the ledge above the window frame. If your windows are extensively damaged, consult a professional to see if caulking will be enough or if it’s time for a bigger repair or replacement.