Friday, July 06, 2007

This Old House

Maybe I should join one of those blogging sites specifically for old house owners because one thing that gives old house owners immense pleasure is trading horror stories. As in most areas, there's considerable one-upmanship involved:
Oh, you were without a roof and had to shower outdoors in February? Well, our house was built in 789AD. It was pretty smooth sailing once we removed the skeletons from the basement, but for eighteen months we had no floors at all and had to hop from joist to joist. The kids fell through to the basement a few times, but pain builds character and Timmy gets to remove his C-collar in just six weeks!

Today Jon and I completed the ultimate old house DIY: we replaced the sash cords in one of our windows. Was this job a bitch? Bitch doesn't even come close. It was ten paper cuts, a twelve hour drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, getting overcharged for your coffee, stubbing your toe on a door and having to abort a parallel parking attempt—with witnesses-- all rolled into one.
I had been planning the Great Window Repair almost since the day we moved in. I remember discussing it with a carpenter. He sized the two of us up with narrowed eyes. “The first time you do it will take six hours. After that, two.”
Anyway, there were always more important things to do, and after all, windows can be propped open with a stick, so what's the big deal? Until Tuesday when I was nearly decapitated by my living room window.
Getting the sashes out was hard. It involved removing a seemingly insignificant strip of wood called the “parting bead” which is what separates the upper and lower sashes and keeps them in their tracks. It is, of course, held tightly in its groove by many coats of paint. Actually, there are two parting beads that need to be removed. You also need to remove some of the window molding and need to be prepared to totally ruin the paint on the interior. Sashes out, I thought the hard part was over.
All you are doing is replacing a broken rope with a not-broken one. What could be simpler?
Pictorial evidence—these sash weights haven't seen the light of day since the McKinley administration.
There's a giant hole in the house!
One of our big difficulties, once we got the new ropes attached to the sashes, was threading them over the pulleys and getting them to drop. Jon did the threading while I shoved my arm up, blind, into a cave-like recess, groping uselessly for a rope that never descended. The rope frayed and Jon melted it with a lighter. The window wells are full of fluff—insulation, apparently—and I was concerned that the lighter technique would ignite the fluff. In a moment of inspired stupidity, I licked the tender skin on my inner arm and pressed the still-burning rope end to it.
After that we used a glass of water to cool the ropes. Which descended eventually but only because of divine intervention.
The silliest problem: replacing the parting bead. When you take it out, the lower sash is already out of the window and not in your way. When you put it back, you have to somehow work it in between the two sashes. Here's how we handled it.
It's done. It's like a miracle. If I want to open the window the sash goes up, and it stays up. The upper sash does not sag (or hurtle down, nearly killing you.) This particular window faces the porch and its wood is rock solid. With the sash cords replaced, it is as perfect as it was the day the house was built, roughly 100 years ago. Cheap replacement windows in an old house are an abomination. I am so glad we were able to save this window.

1 comment:

  1. Two comments:

    1) Read Tristram Shandy for a harrowing account of what can go wrong when a sash weight goes missing.

    2) I'd go with the abominations and let future generations curse my name.

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