Most of our older housing stock still peeks out on the world thought original wooden double-hung windows. Since we still live with so many of these, we should understand their advantages and disadvantages.
Double-hung windows are those with two moveable frames, called sashes. Many of these sashes are divided up into multiple “lites” by “muntins,” “mutts” or “mullions.”
These windows were originally designed to operate with weights and pulleys and remind us of a time when blocks and tackles were the prevailing technology for lifting heavy objects. Each sash had a pair of cast-iron torpedo-shaped weights tied to the end of a cotton cord which hung over a simple pulley mounted in the window frame on either side of the sash. The cords were mounted with knots inserted in a pocket drilled in either side of the sash and the cord lay in a groove cut just above the pocket.
If you are repairing or replacing the cord, I always find it advisable to tack a very small nail through the knot into the wood to keep it from creeping up in the pocket. This creeping is a common cause of windows sticking or the ropes pulling free. Some of the early installers put a tiny nail through the knot. That’s where I picked up the trick, much as I’d like to take credit.
The weights hang in a void between the window frame and the nearest 2x4 in the wall and get covered over with a wooden trim, called a “casing,” on the inside and by exterior siding (stucco or what have you) on the exterior.
The weight can be extracted by removing the casing and possibly a bit of plaster, if some excess was placed there.
The weights can also be found through a commonly installed pocket cut into the side of most window frames. This is usually painted over and hard to find, but may be visible as a diagonal cut into the frame on the side of the sash with tiny grooves running down the frame just above. Some of these aren’t fully cut through but were partially cut in for future access.
If you want to try to repair the window weights, you’ll need to remove at least one sash, and this will require removing a trim that holds the window in place at the most inside edge. This is called a “stop” and is almost always coated with paint to a degree that removal requires finding the separation with a utility knife or similar tool. If you remove a stop on one side, you can then tilt the window out and extend the ropes (if they’re still there) and pull the sash out. This might be enough for the repair of the lower sash, which is the one that is closer to the interior. Lower sashes need ropes repaired far more often than uppers because they are used the most and also because the rope is visible when the window is shut and therefore exposed to the sun.
If you want to get the weight through the diagonal pocket, you’ll need to remove one more trim called a “parting bead.” This is a strip of wood that sticks out of the side frame or jamb between the sashes. Each sash rides along the parting bead, preventing them from rubbing against each other. The parting bead is usually nailed into a groove with a few very small nails but is often stuck with paint. Again, the trusty utility knife (my favorite tool for taking blood samples from my thumb) can cut the paint bond and make it easier to remove.
Removal of the upper sash will require the removal of at least one parting bead, although taking both out makes it much easier. I personally don’t like fixing weights through this pocket and prefer to take a casing off one or both sides of the window. This lets me get my fat hands on the weight. Once this is done it’s not hard to copy the length of the original rope with new cotton sash cord. Make nice tight knots on the cord (two half hitches for you boy scouts, if you can manage it).
Be sure to buy 1/4” cotton cord. Nylon can slip between the pulley wheel and the axle and become jammed. Cotton seems to hold a nice shape but flows over the wheel in splendid fashion.
A couple of thoughts about the use of double hung windows: Try to get used to using the upper sash. This does as least two things for you, but will likely require you to free it from the paint that holds it in place (many, if not most, of the upper wooden sashes I see have been painted shut). Using the upper sash allows heat to escape from the room. That’s where the heat is, up in the top of the room. It also allows for ventilation without blowing that antique vase off the table. When you open the upper sash and leave the lower sash closed, you keep children from falling out of windows—although, there’s a lot more to do and say in the way of child safety. Briefly, let me note that I was at a building yesterday that had a 20-foot drop from the back windows in the upstairs and there was a scant 21 inches from the floor to the window sill. I’m sure an adventurous 3-year-old could have climbed up that high. Think about locking lower sashes in place when small children might be present.
The last reason is as noted above. The ropes on the uppers are likely in great shape and may have 40 years left in them, while the lowers are tired or gone altogether.
As I’ve noted in the past, if you’re interested in upgrading these old beauties to add double glazing (quiet and warm) or out of dire need (they’re toast), consider some Marvin Tilt Pac replacement sashes. They eliminate the pulleys, ropes and air leaks and look quite a bit like the original equipment.
This is an area where many of you men and women can try your hands at a home repair project without fear of burning down anything. I encourage you all to take a stab at fixing some sash weights. It’s very satisfying and might be just the task to set you on the path to becoming your own handyguy or gal.