Replacement Windows in a Brick Victorian

October 2, 2012

While trivial workshop stuff is a sitting duck for the blogger, large projects can be so all-encompassing that there’s no room for journal reports.  I guess that’s the way it was with the windows in the brick house.  It has taken a pulled hamstring and a day of boredom in bed to let the ideas coalesce into a report.

The most conspicuous evidence that the project has progressed beyond the first stage is the little pile of bits for my impact driver which has sat untouched on the kitchen counter for a couple of days.  For a week they made the trip from one pocket to another, everything coming to a halt if one of them was lost.

The green Robertson fitted the screws which held the seventeen aluminum storms in place.  The red Robertson drove the 2” screws out of the big plastic jar which followed me around, first to secure the new windows in place and then to fasten them permanently.  The 1/8” drill with 3/8” countersink got me through one layer of vinyl at the bottom of each window so that the screw wouldn’t interfere with the window mechanism.  Phillips and flat bits were largely passengers in my pocket, though they were pressed into service occasionally to remove old screws in window trim which were too firmly attached for the chisel and mallet.

When it came right down to it, the window installation was pretty simple.  Remove the storm window.  Pry off the interior trim.  Lift out the bottom window.  Chisel out the ½” separator between the two halves of the window.  Remove the top half.  Measure for the base adapter and the side fillers.  Machine them in the shop.  Caulk everything.  Set the 11 degree base piece in.  Tack in the 7/8” by ½” pine fillers over the caulk beads with 2” galvanized finishing nails.  Drop the window into the space.  Screw it in with six screws, taking great care not to over-tighten.  Foam a bit.  Let dry.  Check operation of windows.  Foam some more if it’s o.k.  Clean up.

I should emphasize that this flurry of activity wouldn’t have gone smoothly without a few preconditions:

1.   confidence that the new replacements from Marlboro Windows in Ottawa would fit;

2.   easy access to a well-equipped woodworking shop;

3.   abundant scaffolding and ladders of various sizes.

Brian Doherty of Rideau Lumber in Smiths Falls came to the house and in an hour produced his list of dimensions.  He told me he allowed ¾” for side clearance (measured from the vertical surfaces after the chiseling was complete) and ½” top-to-bottom clearance (measured from the window sill to the highest point in the window frame the tape could reach).  This is accurate to the best of my recollection.  On the estimate, however, he ordered windows 1″ shorter and 1″ narrower than the rough openings listed on the invoice.  A few windows were out of square, but Brian’s generous space allowance was just right.  What I would infer from this (now that all of the windows have fitted perfectly) is that window measurement is an art, and it might be a good idea to have an expert do the measurements.

There was space for foam, but not too much.  I did, however, decide to add ½” fillers to the exterior stops after the caulking bead on the first window shrank and let go on one portion of the joint.  This was a ground floor joint and easily serviceable, but  for nine of the windows I would be up petty high, and I didn’t want to make any return trips for leak repair in the middle of the winter.

On the first window I also put in too much foam.  Even the low-expansion stuff will jam the window if squirted in liberally.  This is where the burnt-fingers technique with its constant feedback loop works well:  as the window grew tight, I tightened up the screws and added a few more to push back on the foam.  That worked.  Having learned my lesson, I extended the foaming over three sessions from then on.

And so the windows went in without much drama.  The double hung white vinyl Marlboro product was what the owner had promised when I visited the factory in Ottawa before making the order.  They were dimensionally accurate, solid windows with good hardware.  As Brian Doherty had told me, “Installers love them.”

The other variable was my woodworking shop within easy walking distance of the project.  The 8” General jointer with its 3 hp motor proved very important:  the adapter plate was an 11 degree taper where I cut a piece of 2” pine down to a wedge 7/8” thick on the narrow side.  The jointer cheerfully chewed through a lot of pine to make the wedges.  Because I have made beveled panels freehand on the jointer for many projects over the years, I could make these beveled pieces easily.

The 10” Rockwell Unisaw did the ripping without fuss.  I quickly realized that the filler strips shouldn’t be one-offs.  Too much time would be involved, so I ripped up a few 7/8” clear pine boards and then planed the strips to the proper thickness, thereby providing a jointed surface and predictable dimensions for a bunch of material.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that the window installation would be only part of the project.  The first window sill which came apart in my hands changed all of that.  I suddenly needed 4” material for a new sill, so out came the clamps.  I felt very glad I’d bought 300 bd. ft. of dry pine and planed it to 2” and 1” before the project started.  Lumber yard 1 ½” plank would have required a lot more work to get ready to make a sill.  With a 9” X 48” x 4” blank glued up, I reconstructed the sill from the pieces removed and dropped 25’ to the ground (the ground slopes away steeply from the south side of the building).

But the sill’s just a 4” thick piece cut on an 11 degree angle on both edges, sized to fit the space.  Ripping 4” material on a 10” saw is a pain, so I just chewed the 4X9 into place with the jointer.  I took off about an inch.

I put a couple of coats of white exterior stain on the sill, then tried setting it into place.  Never did take it out again.  It was fine.  I foamed and caulked, then put a wider adapter plate over the top to cover the joint between the sill and the interior sheeting.  The other plates were 3 3/8″ wide.  This one was 5″.  Then I dropped in the window.  The repair cost me a day or so, but the work wasn’t difficult.

Gradually I was coming to realize that the real work of the project would be at the painting stage.  In the late fifties or early sixties the aluminum storms had gone in over a wide bead of caulk which had hardened in most cases, but on the north side of the house remained gooey enough to confound sanders and scrapers.  Fortunately the sun on the south-side windows had baked the caulk to where it would chip off.

The only new tool for the project was a Mastercraft 12v cordless sander/scraper I found on a half-price sale at Canadian Tire for $70.  With a thin stainless steel blade it dislodged the caulk on the upper windows, but produced a rough, unpredictable surface.  So I recharged and went at the window casings with 80 grit sanding pads and the same machine.  This worked.  The very light tool proved well worth the purchase price as it fitted into my back pocket for the long climb to the second floor.  Battery life with the suspiciously small lithium power pack was considerably better than I expected.  On the lower windows I wheeled out the Dremel 120v equivalent and gloried in its abundant torque and noise, but the lightweight portable detail sander has done a fine job so far.


Dealing with bees, scaffold, caulking and dust.


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