Despite the fact that people have been working on old windows for many years, when we started out there was a dearth of information on how to actually do so. Over the years we have tried things many different things. Some methods and materials are more effective than others. Sometimes unpredictably so. Nevertheless, there are a few things we have learned along the way that remain constant. This is a list of the top 5 most valuable tools and materials that we use every day as we restore historic wood windows. Without them, I can confidently say that there would be a whole lot more cussing in our shop.
1. Steambox! It all starts here. This is the workhorse. If you do not have one of these and you have any desires to enjoy the task of restoring windows, you must get one. There of course are some very expensive ones out there like the fantastic one produced by Bagala Window Works, called The Steam Stripper. It is not really something a DIY person can afford but for a serious restoration shop it will pay for itself. However, that is not the only option. You can make your own using materials found at your local hardware or home supply for under $200 (not including the steam machine, which could set you back another $200 brand new). A well built DIY box will pay for itself 10 fold. At our shop, we have built at least a half dozen boxes. Our current box, built with stainless steel sheet metal, hopefully will be our last.
The steambox is the single best way to soften and remove the old hard putty holding the glass in place. As a result, there is far less glass breakage. In addition, most paint is easily removed from the wood surfaces. On top of all of this the steam is the cleanest and safest way to remove materials containing lead. So, yeah this thing is the bomb.
2. Whiting Powder: This is an item that always seems to be overlooked on how valuable it is. It is simply a chalk like powder that we use to clean the oils from the glazing putty from the glass. It also helps start the curing process of the finished glazing. When you finish tooling the putty on a window, you simply brush this onto the glass like you are dusting for finger prints and it will magically remove all of the finger prints from the glass. This used to be a common material found at hardware stores but now it can be difficult to find. Don’t even think about the big box stores. To give an idea of the value of this, recently we ran out of whiting and we halted all glazing work until it was replenished. Life without it just isn’t desirable.
3. Quality Glazing Putty: Since we are on the topic of glazing let’s not overlook the actual putty. A good quality glazing putty tools well, cures fairly quickly, and maintains the seal and elasticity for a while. The one we swear by is produced by Sarco Putty Company. The glazing putty you will find at most hardware stores and home centers do not fall into the quality category in my mind. Do not succumb to reaching for the low hanging fruit. You will regret it.
4. Glazier’s Hammer and Point Driver: These are two specialized tools for this specific trade. The point driver quickly and easily sets the glazing points into the rabbets holding the glass in place. Depending on the window, the wood may be a bit too hard for the gun to set the points as deep as you need. That is where the Glazier’s hammer comes in. It has a flat face that sits flush to the glass and allows you to tap the point into the wood deeper. These tools combined will increase the speed of finishing windows as well as reduce glass breakage a bit.
5. Wood Epoxy: This stuff is pretty much what puts the restore in restoration. These old windows have been around for a while and there is no doubt that there will be some knicks, dings, and damage. With a good quality epoxy you can fill and rebuild parts of the windows to make them look like new. Without epoxy, our windows wouldn’t even look half as nice as they do. We also would be spending so much more time replacing items such as sills and muntins without epoxy.
These are not the only items that we consider invaluable but they by far have the most impact on our day to day restoration process. Even for a homeowner taking on the restoration of your own windows, all of these items should be in your arsenal.