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Around the House

Restore or replace historic windows?

After many years, the old, original windows on Victorians and other period homes can be drafty and difficult to open or close. When it comes time to paint or restore the home, the owners often decide to install replacement windows.

When researching window choices as part of a painting, remodeling or restoration project, rather than replacing windows, owners would do well to consider restoring them. Restoration is an even more attractive option if the project includes stripping and staining original wood wainscoting on the interior walls, or if the windows have original wavy glass or small-pane
French windows.

There are several reasons to restore rather than replace windows:

  • Restored windows are often a more sustainable option, and the cost is about the same.
  • Restored windows help maintain the authenticity of a period home.
  • Original windows have lasted so long because they were made with better wood, often redwood, and denser wood than is now available. Restoring them can extend their life for many years.
  • Proper adjustment and weather stripping can make your windows more efficient.
  • Though you may experience some heat loss with original single pane windows, most heat is lost through the roof, vents and cracks, or poorly insulated walls.

In San Francisco, single-pane, double-hung windows must be replaced with “in kind” windows, that is, if the windows are visible to the street, the new windows must look identical to the old windows (vinyl windows are not permitted). However, the new windows must be double paned and meet additional requirements to prevent heat loss through the windows.

Though double-pane windows help retain heat, because they are more complex, they have a higher failure rate than single-pane windows. For example, the space between the panes can become foggy, and new double-pane windows are more likely to trap moisture around the windowsill, creating opportunities for mildew and wood rot.

Restoring windows used to be messy, dusty and time consuming. Some paint could not be removed or the surface of the wood sash was left with an uneven surface. Today, professional painters use Peel Away, an odorless nontoxic paste to remove paint, which is brushed on thick and then covered with special paper so it stays moist. After a few days, the paint comes right off with a putty knife. Peel Away is also available for do-it-yourself homeowners.

If you are restoring your home in stages, you have an opportunity to restore the interior wood and windows in one room at a time.

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Nita Riccardi is the founder and owner of Winning Colors Painting, which specializes in preserving Victorian and other architecturally significant properties. She can be reached at 415-826-0423 or winningcolorspainting@gmail.com.