Old Window Replacement – what you probably don’t know

I have worked on old houses in my interior design career, but it wasn’t until I bought my own old house with original windows that I dug deep into vintage original wood windows. My wealthy clients preserved their old windows, while the less prominent older homes generally had already replaced their windows, or homeowners were at least thinking it needed to be done.  Why was that?   Did I want to preserve my windows, or should they be replaced?  My eyes told me getting rid of them would be a shame, and I did hours of research, then talked to my local suppliers and contractors and geeked out about the things ‘I didn’t know I didn’t know’ about old windows.  I hope this blog inspires you to not only make good decisions in your home, but to also educate others.  This issue is near and dear to me and my desire is to save old windows – a significant architectural element in your home that adds significantly to its beauty and value.

I want to begin by telling you a myth that has been perpetuated by window sales. Old wood windows last, can be as energy efficient as newer systems, and removing them and replacing with inferior modern day windows significantly degrades the character of old homes.  And finally, new windows will cost you so much more in both the short and long term.  Yes, I mean even the “inexpensive” vinyl windows.  

Let that sink in deep.

Vinyl windows have an average of 15 years life as they are often doomed with window seal failure – that fail looks like water, mist and clouding in your windows, and in more severe cases of poorly installed vinyl windows, this failure can also include rotting your sil and your house!   Some vinyl windows don’t even make it to 15 years, and this failure can happen as soon as 3-5 years.  Vinyl windows also off-gas as all vinyl and plastic products do.  This short life in your home is not only because of the manufacturing and material used, it is equally due to how it is installed by your contractor.  Good contractors are interested in the longevity of their work and want to ensure the labors of their efforts last for years to come.  Great contractors want their work to stay in place for many years to come, and will not sell inferior products, nor will they cut corners at installation.  When it comes to vinyl windows in an old house especially, let’s be completely honest with one another even if it hurts to admit it.  Vinyl windows look cheap even when they are expensive.  According to statistics at Angie’s list, vinyl window replacement ranges from $450 and $600 per window with installation.  How many windows does your house have?  Google says the average house has 8 windows.  I don’t believe it!  Let’s use my roughly 2600 square foot old 1916 Foursquare as a better example.  I have 32 windows between my basement, main floor, second story and unfinished attic.  At the least expensive window replacement the cost for vinyl windows it would cost $14,400 -$19,200 to tear the window charm out of my house.  How about new wood windows?  At an average of $800 to $1200 a window, using my house as an example that translates to $25,600 and $38,400.

Vintage wood windows were built for multiple generations.  They are easy to repair and revitalize.  They were made at a time when old growth wood was plentiful.  In most cases wood this hardy isn’t available today.  This hardwood is made to last well over a 100 years, and depending on the elements and maintenance they can last well into the 200 year range.   Simply put, you can’t buy this quality and material today exactly, and even if you could, most of us couldn’t easily make the investment. Thanks to the Old House Journal for such a wonderful illustration below showing the anatomy of an old window.

Anatomy Of An Old Window What are some common problems I see in old windows that need addressed so they operate like new again?  After decades of weather and wear it is likely some of your windows don’t open easily, glass might need replaced due to cracking or breakage, perhaps some or all of your windows are painted shut, or they won’t hold in the open position.  All of that is actually easy to address.  Your old windows are made to be taken apart in pieces, revitalized and put back into place.  All of this is impossible without disrupting or ruining your original casing and trim too!  Here are some common items that need readdressed in old windows, not including the more obvious painting or staining that might also need addressed for longevity and aesthetics.

Reglazing refresh to stop drafts and replace glass if needed

The glass in your old windows is held in place with glazing – a kind of putty alongside the wood and the glass that gets applied similar to a caulk.  If your windows haven’t had any TLC in a few decades, you might see a white like grout looking residue that is probably a bit crumbly and cracked around the glass.  In this case, the window probably needs reglazed.  This also helps with drafts.  Here is a good image from Old House CPR. As rough as this old window may look to someone novice, this window is very salvageable.  It actually looks worse than it is!  It is the glazing that needs removed and reapplied.  The divided lights or muntins (the wood that breaks up the single glass pieces) will be fine once glazing and paint are reapplied.

Saving old windows

Replacing ropes and pulley systems

Old windows use rope and weights to open and close.  If you old windows aren’t opening easily or holding open in place, your rope can be easily restrung.  They wear down and break over decades of use.  In my house I had some windows where one side rope was still working, but not the other – and other windows where both ropes had failed.  If you are handy or aspiring to be, this can be a DIY project for you.  There are so many youtube tutorials to learn the techniques and tools needed.  If you are like me and think this might be a too little far in the DIY universe, you can call someone specializing in restoring old windows.  Here in Portland, Oregon I use East Portland Sash – Old Window Restoration often on my projects, as well as a handful of others depending on timeline, location of project and so on.  Here is a short list of people I know that will restore your windows right in Portland.  Listed below are some of my colleagues from the Architectural Heritage Center, and a full guide of Portland old house help resources is here.

East Portland Sash -503-974-6801

Chosen Wood Window Maintenance, Inc. (503) 266-3830

Jeffrey Franz – Windows Woodwork Detailing (503) 234-9641

Green Window Restoration (503) 699-4912

If you aren’t sure how to find someone with this speciality in your area, contact organizations in your city that specialize in residential historic restoration. Here in Portland those resources might include the Architectural Heritage Center (mentioned above) or Restore Oregon.  Find organizations like this in your hometown and they will have a few referrals for you.  When hiring a professional in a busy remodeling market, as Portland is presently, it is best to give the contractor a significant amount of windows to address in your home.  It is hard to get someone to come out for a couple windows right now.  For me personally in my own project, I chose to phase the main floor and then the second floor.  The cost can vary based on size of window and the extent of the work to be addressed, but a ballpark of $150 to $400 a window works in most cases in Portland.

Just for fun, if you like to geek out like vicariously through contractors that know there stuff, this is from the Craftsman’s blog – a step by step process to revitalizing your windows and remove the sashes. (the sashes are the glass + the rail and stiles that surround the glazing and glass.)

How to insulate and cut energy costs

I think I know where your mind is going next.  What about old windows being single paned and driving up heating and cooling bills you might ask?  It is a consideration for sure!  Well, let’s first talk a little about the science of making a window energy efficient.  I am a designer, not a left brained engineering type, so this will be explained simply!

Glass radiates temperature inherently.  This means, assuming you mitigate drafts with good seals in your windows and framing in your old house, there will still be cool air or hot air that will radiate from a single paned glass window.  When your old house was built, the owners of the homes in the early 1900s and before would often use thick draperies that when closed would lock in this cool and hot air.  Have you also noticed old windows don’t have screens for insects?  Do you recall images of sheers and lace installed on windows in those days?  This was the way the lady of the house also kept most of the bugs out of her home.  A little primitive I suppose, but I find it fascinating.  Form often always following function!  Sheers and lace weren’t just a style of the time, they had a purpose.

The way windows today are manufactured today is with two panes of glass.  The cool or hot air moves from the exterior pane to the air between the second pane of glass that is located on the inside of your house.  This gap is simply an insulating air pocket that inhibits heat transfer much better than single pane windows.  The same science can be applied to your old wood windows.  They can be more energy efficient by adding a second barrier of glass in the form of a custom storm window placed in the exterior sil of the window that is removable in the summertime (or not at all like), or custom outfitted with a hinge that allows the storm to open for airflow like an awning window.  You will notice these often in high end homes.  I owe a sincere thank you to the Old House Guy and his informative website.  I have borrowed these great images from him of an old house window with and without a custom storm window:

No Wood Storm Window

Old Window without a storm window, note the hardware at the top of the window

Wood Hanging Storm Window

Old window with a custom storm, note the sil is protected within the storm window

old window insulation

Indow Window Insulation

Another option for creating a double pane of insulation in your single pane windows is using a company headquartered in Portland, Oregon called Indow Windows.  These acrylic window inserts are custom fit inside the framing of your window.  These are lightweight and snuggly apply into your window without hardware.

What about old windows that can’t be salvaged and need replaced?

Unless you have a really developed eye, you may not know all the geometry and nuances of an old window, but if you are like most people you know if something historically accurate when you see it.  Fortunately, there are companies that know these nuances and make historically accurate windows.  Here in Portland, Oregon I love using Versatile Wood Products.  A number of my projects have both refurbished original windows AND new historically accurate replacements.  Versatile is able to create double paned windows with their own patented opening system that brings the window mechanism into the 21st century – while still maintaining a visually correct historic window.   These new wood windows are easily a 50+ year investment.  I won’t lie to you.  These are expensive compared to vinyl and inferior wood windows, and still worth the craftsmanship and longevity they offer.  In addition to residential home work, Versatile Wood Products is also intimately involved in the restoration of many of Portland’s oldest buildings and prominent historical homes.  If you are in an area outside of Oregon and not sure how to find a resource, start with finding a contractor with a good body of work on old houses.  Organizations like these know who to

If cash is king, let’s talk costs and longevity. This is the part that completely floors me.

  • Replacing old windows with vinyl windows costs more than refurbishing your old beautiful, historically accurate wood windows.   Actually in some cases, nearly 2 times the cost for an interior product destined to fail in just a few years.
  • Longevity of old wood windows in most climates, especially in Oregon is 100-150+ years.  Vinyl windows 3-15 years. Well made wood windows installed properly last on average 50 years.
  • It is reasonable to say that the cost of refurbishing your old windows, and adding custom storms will be in the ballpark of the cost to replace all of your windows!

It is reasonable to say this.  You can pay to replace all of your old windows because you lack education, or you can refurbish your superior original windows and even add custom storm for essentially the same costs.

That is the educational overview.  Are you as shocked as I was?

Please tell everyone you know, and you are welcome to share this post.

It is so vital we start saving these important historical features in our old homes! Here is an article from Old House Authority backing up the facts I have given in this blog. 

Last, if you need an artistic eye for your old house, and a Portland interior designer with a heart for old homes, quality and history – I would be delighted to talk with you.


Angela Todd Studios For Custom Furnishings

Angela Todd

Owner & Principal Designer

Angela is the principal designer at her boutique interior design firm in Portland, Oregon. She is known for creating memorable backdrops that tell the story of fascinating and intricate lives.

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