Replacing Your Old Drafty Wood Windows

In many older homes, the windows still have the old style sash weights and pulleys and are single pane glass units. Not only are these type windows inefficient against heat loss, most are glazed with glazing putty that has cracked and dried from age and is most likely missing. Take a good look at the your windows and check the sash weight cords to see if they are broken as well. Missing or badly frayed sash ropes can be dangerous as it makes the window difficult to open and close and by using a prop stick to hold the window up in warm weather, you are inviting an accident when someone accidentally knocks out the stick and the window comes crashing down on tiny fingers perhaps or even worse a neck!

If your survey shows the windows to indeed be old style single pane windows it is time to replace them with new thermally efficient and much easier to operate units. Replacement windows come in all shapes and styles today. Most commonly seen are white or brown vinyl types as these are also the cheapest to buy. Many manufacturers will make custom colored units for your project. All brands are not the same however. The cheapest units feature one piece vinyl extrusion frames that will allow the exterior cold to transmit directly through the frame materials and emit cold into to the inside of your home. The inside of the frame is about the same temperature as outside. Brrrrrr. A better quality window will have what is called a “thermal break” located approximately halfway through the frame made of insulating material that will stop the cold at that point. Much better idea. Glass types. Again there are many choices. Insulating glass which consists of two panes of glass with an inert gas in between is far better than single pane windows anytime.

A step up, is when the inside of the glass is coated with what is called a “low E” coating. This lets the suns heat radiate into the home but won’t let it go back out. It is a few dollars more but with today’s energy costs for heating fuels, it is well worth it. Down side? Most vinyl windows are manufactured only in white or brown colors. Some companies produce custom colored vinyl but again these are more money. A second type of replacement window is made with a vinyl clad exterior and an exposed wooden interior. This provides a maintenance free outside that you do not have to paint and allows painted interior side that you can match the color or perhaps stain, to match the decor of your room. Some companies produce these types in colored exteriors as well and I have seen red, green, blue but remember the windows will be there for a very long time! You cannot change the outside color once they are installed. Lastly, there are all wood replacement windows available but with all the other options, unless you love to paint outside on a ladder they are not the best choice. An exception would be a historic restoration where matching the window style is critical. Even wood windows come today with thermal breaks and low-E glass. Vinyl replacement windows fit right into your existing window openings.

Another great advantage to replacement windows is the window sashs tilt inside for easy cleaning. No more hanging out windows or balancing on ladders. Most windows have two slide type locks on the top of each sash and by simply sliding the sash up a few inches and pushing on the locks, a slight tug on the sash top, tips it into the room for cleaning. When done, simply push the sash back into it’s track. HINT: When cleaning these windows, pull and tip the lower sash inside first but clean the top window first and replace it into it’s frame. This helps prevent dripping your cleaner on the bottom window. All vinyl windows I have found so far also feature a pull out tab lock on the upper sash on each side to prevent the lower sash from being lifted more than a few inches when the tabs are in the open position. Their use is twofold. Windows can be left open a few inches for ventilation without worrying about someone getting in from the outside. Of course if they really want in, they will simply break the glass. These tabs are not burglar proof. The second and more important reason for the tabs to me, is to allow you to leave the window open for ventilation but small children cannot climb out the window and suffer a nasty fall. All windows also come with one or two sash locks for home protection. Depending on the width of your window, the manufacturer decides how many locks the sash requires for the best protection. Lastly, many windows also feature an adjustment screw that allows you to stiffen the amount of pull the window requires to slide it up and down. The window is adjusted in the factory and seldom needs further adjustments.

ORDERING WINDOWS- Ok, we have decided to replace the windows. With a writing pad, pen and measuring tape making up you order is quite easy. You are going to take a minimum of 5 measurements for each window opening. HINT: Do not assume two windows are the same size because they look the same. Measure them all! Older windows were hand built and can vary 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch. If your too big, you wasted a window, if you are too small, you will have to re-trim the opening and end up with an unsightly finished product. Ok, you must measure the width of the opening three times. Once at the bottom, once in the middle and once at the top. You measure inside the wood parting bead where the old sash rides against the frame. DO NOT measure parting bead to parting bead. You want your new window frame to slide into the old frame. Hence three measurements. This will tell you the narrowest part of your old frame and this will be the size you order your window. Example:

Bottom = 32 1/2″

Middle=32 1/4″

Top = 32 3/8″.

You would order your window to fit an 32 1/4″ opening thus allowing the window to slide into the opening. The same idea works for the height as well. Measure the left side and right sides of your opening from the high point on the sill to (where the bottom sash sits when closed) and the top (where the top sash sits when closed).Take the smaller measurement of the two and that is your height Number the window openings as you measure them so if there are different sizes, you will know where they go when you get them. With all the measurements is hand, your off to the store. Once you have picked the style, color and price you want, the salesman will take the order. HINT: Ask the salesman for a delivery date. Try to get him/her to put in down on the receipt so you can keep track of the order. Depending on the time of year, windows can take weeks to arrive. No one will guarantee a date but this gives you some idea of when to start checking on them. Check the order form very carefully before you order or give a deposit check. Once ordered, they cannot be changed. Look for quantity, color, sizes and style. If your existing home has what are called 6 over 1 windows (6 small panes in upper sash, one large pane in lower sash), you may want to match that style. Windows do come in 1 over 1, 4 over 1, 4 over 2, 4 over 4, 1 over 1, you get the idea. There are countless combinations to choose from. I ordered several windows for a customer once and specified 2 over 2 style. The windows came with the muttin bar (the piece that separates the panes of glass) in a horizontal position not vertical. I had never seen that before but since I had not specified it exactly, the company would not take them back. Whatever type you order, make sure your order slip says that is what you are getting. Now sit back and wait for the windows.

PREPARATION-Tools required-Measuring tape, pencil, 2′ and 4′ levels if possible, razor knife, pry bar or “cats paw'”, caulk gun, Phillips screwdriver, paper towels and nail punch. SAFETY GLASSES AND WORK GLOVES! Materials required-Windows, 4,6 and 8 penny bright finish nails, small tube wood putty, approximately 2 tubes of high grade exterior caulk in a color to match your window per window (depending on size), small Phillips wood screws, loose fiberglass insulation.

Remove all interior window blinds, shades and curtains and put to the side. Very carefully, using your razor knife, cut along the interior window trim and the wall if necessary and along the trims on the inside of the window frame. This will help prevent cracking the wood when you remove it. You are going to re-install these trims. Carefully and slowly, pry the trims loose watching for concealed nail heads (especially common style with a big head) that will crack your trims if you pry too hard. Most of the time the finish nails will simply pull through the trim and you can remove them later. Lay each piece of trim directly to the side of where you removed it. You cannot use it elsewhere. It won’t fit! Remove or pull all the nails out at this point in time. We don’t want a nail injury from a rusty protruding nail. With all the trims removed, look in the bottom corner of the frame and you will find a small wooden “door” held in place with a screw. The screw may be covered with paint so you may have to dig around a little. Doors are usually 6-8″ high so start there. Remove the screw allowing you to pry the door out and reveal the inside of the window frame. Now lift the lower sash all the way up. Look inside the door, you should be able to see the end of the sash weight. If not, don’t worry, the sash cord is just short.

Now using your pry bar, remove the wooden parting bead holding the sash in place. It runs the entire height of the opening and looks about 1/2″ square. You will more than likely break it into a million pieces. You are not going to use this again anyway. Once one side is out, the sash will slide out of the opening. Hang onto it! Carefully remove the sash cord embedded in the pocket on top of the sash. The rope may be held in place with a small nail. Just remove it. You can let go of the cord as the knot will stop it at the pulley. Lay the sash to the side. It is junk. Now remove the second parting bead. Again, carefully pull the sash cord in far enough to cut the knot from the rope. When you let go this time the sash weight will crash to the bottom of the little door you opened. Reach in and remove it. Also junk. Continue until you have removed the inside parting beads (do not remove the outside two as the new window will rest against them as a stop), four sash weights, four pulleys, etc. leaving you a clean opening. Scrape any loose paint or gunk built up in the openings. Here’s where you get to install some of that loose insulation. Stuff the pockets and any openings in the frames. The use of the expanding foam products is possible but be very careful. It does have the ability to actually bend or bow the wood when it expands. There are now non-expanding types which you could also try. The goal is to leave no openings where outside air can infiltrate into your home causing drafts and loss of heat!


It is helpful if you have a helper at this point to work outside while you work inside. Test fit your window unit. It should slide all the way into the opening, stopping at the outside parting bead. If it fits, you measured correctly! Now after removing the window, place a good bead of exterior caulk on the inside of the exterior parting beads on both the sides and the top piece. This will seal the new window to the existing frame. Make sure the vinyl window expander is sitting on top of the window before putting it into the opening. It looks like a piece of channel, the same length as the width of the window and is usually shipped in place. Carefully slide the new window into the opening making sure it makes a tight fit against the outside stops. Once in, using your levels, check to make sure the new window is level and plumb in the opening. This is important! If it is out of level or plumb the window will not close or lock properly.

In each side of the window jams, the manufacturer leaves a small window to allow you to insert the screws that will secure the window in the opening. Use the screws that come with the window. Be careful when installing the screw you do not pull the frame out of level or square by inserting the screws TOO TIGHT! Use some paper towels to remove any caulk that squeezed out of the exterior parting beads. You don’t want caulk all over you. Have a garbage bag handy for used towels. Check out the window. See how it looks. Is it straight, level and plumb? Operate the sash to make sure they slide up and down easily, lock and tip in as they should. Some windows have side jamb adjustment screws that allow you to add a little pressure against the sash to “tighten” them up. Do so slowly. You will also receive 4 small plastic covers to go over the holes for the mounting screws. These are always a bear to install but put them in. It makes the opening cleaner and keeps out small hands. Next we will finish the exterior. In your window kit, you also received a metal trim piece approximately 3/4 x 3/4″ angle that matches the color of the window. This piece will close the opening between the new window and the sill. Remember there is no parting bead located here. Fill the space with some loose insulation and place the angle into the opening sliding it under the window. I have seen them installed angle in or out and it is really whatever looks best and fits the sill the best. Screw the angle in place on the window and the sill with 4-6 screws. Caulk the angle neatly to assure no rain water may enter. Now slide the top expander channel upwards until it is in firm contact with the house exterior trim. Screw this to the window frame on each side. Again, neatly caulk the channel to assure no rain, drafts or critters may enter. The outside is done.

The interior trim is slightly more work. Make sure all the nails have been removed. Starting with the top interior head piece, place the trim in the opening and see if it still fits. Most often, the vinyl window is deeper than the original windows making the trim now too wide. Carefully mark the trim and cut to the correct width making sure that when the face or casing trim is installed it provides a tight fit. The window sill comes next and the remaining two sides. Now the casing pieces can be reinstalled. These should fit right back where they came out without cutting. If you are careful you will have a neat finished opening with only the nail holes to putty and touchup the paint. Once again operate the window to make sure nothing has changed during trimming and if it works right, move on to the next window! There are many types of accessory vinyl windows available today that can be ordered to fit in an existing opening. For example a Mini-Greenhouse unit that can be ordered to fit in your existing window opening ca provide a great place to raise herbs in the winter time..

Words of advice:

1. In many building department jurisdictions, if you are installing replacement window in the same size framed openings, a permit is not required. Always check with them before you start.

2. Old glass can be very brittle. Handle it with great care. It can shatter and splatter when broken. Place all broken glass in a secure container. Not in a plastic or paper bag. Always wear a pair of good heavy work gloves and safety glasses when handling glass.

3. Dispose of the old sash as soon as possible. You do not want it sitting around where a child or pet might come in contact with it.

4. Always wear safety glasses when working with power tools or when flying chips or debris can cause an injury. Enjoy your new windows!

Your Friendly Building Inspector
BICES-Building Inspection & Code Enforcement System Software

Pete Ackerson is a 30+ year building inspector with expierience in both public and private construction industries. From schools to treatment plants, from private homes and condo projects, to large residential landscaping projects, he has worked both in the building design areas and field construction in the Eastern US. In 2006 he formed along with two other building inspectors, Wagsys LLC which produced software for municipal agencies in the fields of building departments, planning boards and Zoning Boards of Appeals.

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