Believe it or not, the idea for this blog came to me when I started taking apart one of Hawksey’s sash windows. Like many people I’m sure, I thought at first that they are way too complicated to be restored by somebody with no preparation whatsoever. I then started reading around and looking at videos – mostly from the US: I am a big fan of their “I can do it” attitude. So I convinced myself that I could do it, went out and got some kit and started my project.
I quickly realised that there are a lot of details that nobody bothers to explain, and a lot of things that go wrong and nobody shows you, and that’s where I come in: what happens when you’re ambitious but rubbish? Here’s a first account.
Restoring sash windows is quite a destructive and violent process at first, because the only way to get the windows out is to break the frame open. Yes, it all looks like it’s solid wood but it isn’t: the beading inside will come off if you hammer it away, it’s only kept together by the paint! Well, in Victorian carpentry that was: nowadays non-lead paint is not strong enough, so you’ll find some bullet head nails to hold it together. Check out my terminology by the way: try entering a hardware shop without knowing exactly the names of what you want and the guys in there will never take you seriously. And for some reason they will insist that you’re their “mate”. After the beading comes off, the two sashes are only attached to the pulleys; you have to cut them free to remove them. Then of course you can’t close your window any more until you have nailed in another beading.
Let’s go in order. First, I tried to cover with dusting sheets and masking tape all the area around the window, even though mess prevailed before the end.
In my case, I wanted to change the pulleys and the mechanism as well, so after hammering the beading off with a flat screwdriver, I cut the ropes and tied a knot at the loose end – so that it wouldn’t fall into the weight box. If you want to keep the ropes, then you just have to remove the clout nails on the side of the frame instead. I then covered all the glass with masking tape and newspaper, and removed the old furniture. Because it had been painted over so many times and most of the screws were rusty, this was a very long process. Luckily, Victorian ironmongery is mostly made of cast iron, that is easy to break if the screw is too stubborn. The only way I had to remove screws was to hammer gently the screwdriver while turning it; but sometimes the whole head would go smooth, and in those cases I had to make a new cut in order to be able to turn it. Nightmare.
After the windows and the frame are free of any nails, the paint stripping job starts. I have used chemical paint stripper, applied it several times and removed the soggy paint with a stripping knife, followed by newspapers to dry out and clean the wood. This job is very boring and quite delicate: you have to shave the paint off, but without chipping the wood, that may be soft or rotting away. In the end, I gave up removing ALL the paint. My aim was to remove enough paint to reveal the shape and detail of the wood that was covered in paint, not to strip it bare. Sometimes though large flakes would come off, leaving horrible scars on the poor window. Instead of removing all the paint around them, I decided it was a better idea to fill the scars with a filler instead. Here you can see a test of my sculpting skills to cover a scar that opened up on the window frame as I was stripping the paint.
The whole process creates a lot of sticky, mucky and probably poisonous paint bits that just go everywhere. Ideally, an outdoor space should be used for this, but I won’t let that stop me, ha!
That was the end of day one. Horrible. I was worried that leaving the window wide open wouldn’t have been safe, so I started out basically putting the window back together every night. This works if your paint dries in time, otherwise it will stick everywhere when you put the window back. Frustrated, I eventually got a large MDF board and some leftovers from bed making and used this system to close the window while I was working on it. There is a large bolt fixed to a bracket that keeps the MDF board up. Tested in windy and rainy conditions…
Day two was more promising: wood restoration and priming. I chipped away all the rotten bits, that luckily weren’t that many, and then treated the wood with anti-rot liquid. A very stinky business. Added my super tough wood filler, and smoothed it down. Restored some of the putty that had rotten away, filled the cracks and scars caused by large flakes of old paint coming off…and that was the end of day two, never found the time to prime anything. That happened instead on the morning of day three, while my afternoon was dedicated to removing the pulleys. Those screws were absolutely awful, and killed my valiant IKEA Fixa screwdriver. In the end though, they came off and I had a look at the ancient mechanism. I must have been the first one in decades…I am amazed that sash windows last so long, at least mine, given how flimsy the whole construction is. I like that though, it’s minimalistic and I can’t make it that much worse…
On day four, I sanded the primed wood and painted the first coat. The paint took 24 hours to dry, so that was about it really, and the same for day five. Painting is so satisfactory though, especially with thick oil-based paints that cover all imperfections. Forces you to take time off the job and do something else. Plus you get paint stains even in your hair and that can be quite useful: the builders working next door came to advertise their services and showed some respect after I opened the door and said that I was doing splendidly on my own.
Day six was a good day. First of all, I attached some foam strips on the non visible parts of the frame to stop or at least limit draught. I then screwed in the new pulleys, that required some chiselling because the Victorian ones were much smaller than the modern ones that have ball bearing mechanisms. The wood was quite fragile and I ended up restoring part of it with some more left overs from bed making.
To get new ropes in, I used a piece of string with a fat nail attached to it as a guide, then fastened to the lead weights with a figure of eight knot. I then had to balance the sashes on the window sill as I measured the correct length of the rope, cut it and nail it in. Tricky, and easy to hammer your thumbs in the process. Finally, you can admire how beautifully the top sash slides up and down! Or not, as in my case: the rope was too fat and blocked it halfway, so I had more chiselling to do. After the top sash was in and working, I cut my new internal beading (that separates the two sashes) to measure – bearing in mind that the window frame is not a rectangle and not even a parallelogram – and glued it in after adding a strip of anti draught foam. Now I faced a choice: I could either paint the internal beading now and wait enough to have it dried completely; paint it after the bottom sash had gone in; or finally rush the process and get on with it. It was December, so I didn’t fancy having a half open window all night and I went for option three. I added in the bottom sash taking care that it wouldn’t touch the inner beading, even though obviously the window wasn’t completely sealed. And it obviously did touch the wet paint, making it messy. I will retouch it in spring.
Day seven was another good day. I used a mitre box to cut the exterior beading, and then glued and nailed it in place. My window was almost done! Unbelievable. I screwed in the new furniture, then used some filler to make sure that the link between the beading and the frame was smooth, and primed the frame.
All I did on day eight and nine was final lick of paint. Yes, 8 and 9…but it’s only for the outer frame, so it barely takes any time at all.
Conclusion: it is definitely not a hard job to do. But it is long and precise, and for the most part very boring. It requires planning your time around the drying times of all the paints and fillers used, and possibly good weather. Whether it’s worth £650 or not, up to you! Bear in mind, good weather an better skills should allow you to complete it in three days, at least this is what a professional will quote.
I think I will start doing more soon, now that the weather is improving, and perhaps will be a bit more precise on what exactly I used. But I am very curious to see what level of interest will this post generate, if any at all…