Q: I am fixing up an older house, which involves some rewiring, replacement of bath fixtures, repair and repainting. The windows are the old-fashioned, double-hung wooden variety. Some are so coated with paint that they are permanently stuck shut. Others won't stay in the up position. I had considered window replacement but find that this will be too expensive at this time. Do you have any suggestions on repair and service for these older windows?
A: The older models of double-hung windows, those that operate with a weight-and-cord system, have far more problems than newer models. The most common problem is that a window doesn't stay up, the result of a broken cord. The other common problem is a stuck window. Fortunately, if the windows are not badly warped or full of dry rot, restoring them is relatively easy.
Before struggling with a stuck window, be sure that it is unlocked and that there are no hidden fasteners, such as security bolts or nails, to prevent the sashes from moving. Remove any such obstructions.
To free sashes (the frames that hold the glass) that have been painted shut, score the seams of the window along the tracks and the top and bottom of the frame. Use a utility knife or a tool called a paint zipper, which has a serrated blade. After scoring, hold a wood block against the sashes where they touch the seams. Hammer gently against it. Be careful not to break the glass and wear safety goggles as a precaution.
If hammering does not work, force a corner of a stiff-bladed putty knife into the seam, then gently hammer the end of the handle. While hammering, pivot the blade to embed the entire edge about an inch deep. Then wiggle the knife back and forth to widen the seam and break loose any paint inside.
If the window will still not budge, or if it binds while sliding in the tracks, get a block of wood about one-sixteenth of an inch thicker than the width of the window tracks. Gently tapping with a hammer, force this into each track as close as possible to the stuck window--this will widen the tracks by spreading their sides.
Another way to free a lower sash from the outside is to pry upward at the corners on the underside using a wide pry bar. Be sure to protect the sill with a piece of thin plywood; protect the sash with the blade of a putty knife placed between it and the pry bar. To free an upper sash, you must pry away the interior molding strips, or stops, at the sides and top.
If a window sash binds but is not stuck, scraping and smoothing exposed parts of the tracks usually cures the problem. However, a more thorough job can be done if both window sashes are removed, as described below. Be sure to remove buildups of paint and dirt from the corners as well as from the flat portions. If thick paint remains, use paint remover or a heat gun to soften it, then scrape the excess paint away with a narrow putty knife. After removing the paint, sand the tracks with fine-grit sandpaper.
To check and repair sash cords with the balance mechanism that operates the windows, you will need to start with the removal of the lower sash. Pry off window stops--the thin strips of wood nailed or screwed on the jamb--on the indoor side of the frame. If metal weatherstripping exists, carefully remove the nails holding it in place and save it.
With the stops removed, pivot the lower sash out of the window frame, resting it on the sill. In this position, remove the knotted sash cord or chain from the channel in the side of the sash. A nail is often driven through the knot in the end of the cord; it will be in a cross-drilled hole at the end of the groove. There may be a weight and cord attached to each side of both the upper and lower sashes so that both can be operated.
Use the same procedure for removal of the upper sash, except you will also have to remove the parting bead as well as the stop. The parting bead is recessed in a shallow groove in the side jamb and can be carefully removed by pulling it out with pliers.
If the sash cord or chain is still intact, tie the end of it to a screwdriver or similar weight. Otherwise, the counterweight on the other end will drop, carrying the cord or chain into the wall, where it will be difficult to retrieve.
To replace a sash cord, you will need to unscrew or pry out the access cover in the jamb to expose the weights. The plate has a lip on one side, so it must be pulled out at an angle. If the plate is painted and difficult to remove, score around it with a utility knife. If it's not painted and still won't budge, drill a hole in the center of the plate, attach a drywall screw and pull on the screw with pliers.
After the plate has been removed, pull out the weight on the end of the cord. If you can't pull it out entirely, pull it far enough to untie the cord--be sure to secure the weight so it won't fall down inside the wall. Buy a new cord the same thickness as the old for a replacement.
If a broken cord has allowed the weight to fall to the bottom of the wall cavity, see if you can reach far enough into the opening to retrieve it. Or probe for it with a wire or tongs. You need the weight. If you can't retrieve it, you can get another--however, you will need the right-size weight.
To install a new sash cord, slip it over the pulley at the top of the jamb and push it so it goes down the weight pocket, eventually appearing at the door opening. If this doesn't work, tie a nail to a string and slip it over the pulley, lowering it until it appears in the opening. Tie this string to the cord so you can pull it over the pulley and into the weight pocket.
If the pulley has a cover, you may need to loosen the pulley-cover unit for this procedure. Pull the rope through the access opening and attach the weight. Set the bottom sash on the windowsill in the closed position. You will see the grooves on the edge of the sash, ending with a slightly larger hole about halfway down. Thread the other end of the cord through the channel on the side of the sash and pull down the cord until the weight is touching the pulley. Then lower the weight about two inches. Knot the cord and place the knot in the slot of the sash.
You will have to use a screw to secure the chain, and some people prefer to insert a nail through the knot in the cord to ensure that it is secure. Reinsert the sash.
With the sash up, reinstall the access door. With the sash down, reinstall the side stop. When the window is disassembled, it is a good time to sand and refinish the sashes, as well as the tracks--removing all excess build-up of paint on sashes, tracks, pulleys, the stop and parting bead. Be sure to repaint with primer and paint where you've exposed bare wood. Lubricate the sash and the jamb by rubbing with paraffin wax prior to reassembling the window.
Because high humidity causes wood to swell, be sure to do any sanding and wood removal (planing may be required to trim sides of a sash for better fit) when humidity is low. Sealing and painting exposed wood on all six sides of each sash as well as the tracks will prevent excessive expansion and contraction and deterioration of the wood from the elements. Keep sashes and jambs lubricated as necessary with paraffin wax.
One caution: Paint on older windows may contain lead. You can check the content with a lead kit available at home centers and paint stores. If the paint contains lead, follow recommended procedures for dealing with the sanding and removal of lead paint.
If your windows also need new latches, weights or other hardware, a good source for replacement parts for all types of windows, patio doors, closet doors, screens, storm windows and doors is Blaine Window Repair Service Inc. Contact the company for its catalogue, or just send it one of your parts and the company will try to match it. The phone number is 1-800-678-1919.
Send e-mail to email@example.com or write to Here's How, Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, Calif. 92112-0190. Only questions of general interest can be answered in the column.