Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses and the things in them that are supposed to work for us. An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can. We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience. Or sometimes, we just gab.
Good morning! Now that warm weather has settled in, it’s time to jump on those projects you’ve been staring down for the past six months. Right?
Well, here anyway, it’s the season to get a move on things that Just. Need. To. Be. Done. Doesn’t matter that I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes you just have to pick a place and start. This year, windows are on the menu.
I started with the worst one.
If you don’t know me, I natter on a lot about my house, RiverBank, aka Castle Dracula when I’m in a bad mood. I’ve bored y’all about it thoroughly. The tl;dr version: my house is around 230 years old, made of brick, was once abandoned, and has been under restoration (very slowly, as it’s just the two of us) for about the past twenty years.
For years I’ve known that we needed to address the “window issue”. Address in that we needed to work on them. Last winter, an unruly wind started blowing panes out of the windows in the unrestored parlor. The last real house renovation was done in 1850, with a few walls added, the staircase moved, and most of the Federal woodwork switched out for early Victorian. In the unrestored parlor and the bedroom directly above, though, we think the original woodwork was left intact, since it closely matches the woodwork in a house a few miles away that dates from the same time.
Well, fifty years of poor maintenance followed by twenty years of abandonment destroyed the gutters above the windows. Trees and poison ivy covered the house (we removed it twenty years ago), leaving a serious problem with water and...rot.
Fast forward to last week. Time to work on windows, which takes part one and part two. Part one this week: outlining the problem. Part two in a few weeks: I’ll post the fix. While examining the windows, I picked the best place to start—where the damage was worst. The windows had lost almost all their glazing, and a fair number of panes of glass were held in place by inertia alone.
Now, we knew the window frame was rotten. We knew it would have to be dismantled. We expected that. We didn’t expect the frame to fall out as soon as the windows were removed.
The windows came out, and the head (the top of the frame) fell out. About five years ago, I relaid the bricks over this window, inserting angle iron to hold the wall up. At the time, the frame hadn’t been that bad. But now, well….. The jamb on the right side came out with a little tug, leaving the badly-rotted sill. We cut half of it out, trying to determine how much of the sill had rotted (answer: most of it) and what was behind it (answer: not a lot).
Much of the ethic in historic restoration involves conserving as much original material as possible, but there are limits. Rot can’t remain. There are limits too in what we can accomplish, both budget-wise and expertise-wise. We know when we’re over our heads.
We’re over our heads.
The jambs were inserted into squared holes in the head and the sill that held them in place. The middle jamb is in good enough shape to be reused, even though the extensions have rotted, so we’ll have to secure them another way. The jamb on the left is still sound and wedged firmly in place.
We’ve been thinking through different ways to get the fix done, and we think we have a plan. One additional complication: we have is that the house is brick, and there are no nail-to’s in the wall. A nail-to is a block of wood mortared into a brick wall that provides a means to secure woodwork where you want it. Originally, back in the 1780’s, we think the windows were assembled on the ground, then lifted into place and secured by nail-to’s on the inside edge of the window, which is currently covered by that pretty angled woodwork on the interior. At the moment, we have no plans to mess with that woodwork (we have enough mission creep, thank you very much).
Right now, this is our operational plan: Because the left jamb is still in place and holding firm, we’re going to use it to build off of and secure the rest of the frame. We have to remove the rest of the head until we reach firm wood. Same thing for the sill. We’re having a sawmill cut a new sill and new head and jamb, and a friend who is a specialty woodworker has agreed to help us with the routing so we can replicate this:
The plan is to cut the original sill close to this jamb and at an angle so it’ll hold the new component sill in place, and then we’ll sand them even. The right jamb—we’ll have to pound it into place so it holds firm against the brick wall, and then the header should go into place without too many horror stories.
That’s the hard part.
The easy part: the windows:
And you thought I was kidding when I wrote that the panes were held in place by goodwill and gravity. No, the windows haven’t escaped unscathed, either. They’re dried out but, by some amazing stroke of luck, they haven’t rotted.
Old wood that’s dried out and in danger of rot can be revived by mixing equal measures of turpentine and linseed oil, and applying in successive coats over intervals of several hours. Essentially, you brush the mixture on and let it soak in. When it stops soaking in, the wood has had enough. I’ve saved old-growth shutters this way, and I have high hopes for these windows, mostly because I don’t want to re-create the mortise/tenon/pegging, considering that I can hardly nail two boards together. This should work. Once the wood in question has cured for a week or so, you can prime and paint them as normal. I’m going to paint the exteriors before glazing the windows.
Now, with the frames getting their new lease on life, I’m on the hunt for antique panes to replace the ones that broke out. About half are broken. We have a corncrib of old windows, so I expect this is the easy part—tedious but easy. In the coming weeks, we hope to get this window finished. There are two other windows whose sills need to be replaced, although the rest of the window frames are sound (I think). Yeah, I know. Famous last words. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
And what are you working on, now that the working season is underway?