Should You Get Rid of Those Old Wood Windows?

Editorial By: Doug Brannen | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper

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Yay!  You did it! You finally bought that house on the hill.  You know that one.  It’s ‘100-and-something’ years old.  It has that steep roof and those weird, different-shaped shingles.  It has that gingerbread in the eves and multi-pane windows with old-fashioned wooden storms.  Part of the roof is wooden shingles.  The ‘old guy’ used to live there and then his family put it on the market after he died. 

Maybe it’s exactly what you were looking for.  Maybe it was very affordable for your first home. Maybe you bought it to be an income provider.  Or, maybe, something deep in your gut just told you that this was the one (rising crescendo of romantic music inserted here).

Let’s say your situation is a little bit of everything.  Most of ours’ are.  Old houses can be super buys; especially on the East Coast.  A lot of realtors will tote them as “fixer-uppers”, in need of some “TLC”, or call them “project homes”. 

Eager to share your good fortune, you invite your friends around and invariably talk comes round to, “So, what are you going to do with it?”  Huh?

This conversation is inevitable.  You bought an old house so naturally you must work on it to make it good again.  You know, like the guy who bought Steve McQueen’s 1968 Bullitt Mustang for $3.4 million and then had to paint it orange and put plastic daisies on it and add a hybrid engine to make it good again..?

Usually, the first thing you’re told is this: “Well, you’ve got to get rid of those old windows for starters.”

You say, “Oh, really? I like them.  They’ve got character.  They go with the house.”

“No good,” says your buddy.  “Get some new vinyl windows.  You can get them in any style you want.  They’re way better.  Look, you can’t even open these.”  (He makes a grand show of trying to lift a pane and spills his beer on your real hardwood strip floor.  He thinks it’s a laminate.)

Can I speak to you candidly for a moment? 

Listen, your friends and family want only what’s best for you.  They want you to be happy and enjoy life.  They want to help you and that’s awesome, that’s lovely.  But they’re no experts…especially when it comes to windows.

Every year we are bombarded with ads for the ‘great winter window and door booking event’ at our local hardware stores.  Yes, that’s right.  Apparently hibernating animals are responsible for the production of modern windows and they emerge from their burrows sometime in February ready to make a limited quantity of greenwood-wrapped-in-plastic masterpieces especially for you…and him…and her… and them.  The ads are difficult to ignore and yes, your old house has old windows…  And those vinyl windows are all on sale!  The radio said so!  We gotta act fast!  I can get a carpenter to put them in on the first week of April – after that I can’t get anyone until the blue moon next Neveruary!

Hold on.  Slow down. 

First of all, I guarantee if you want to buy replacement windows you can get them any time.  The companies that make them will be more than happy to take your order and make a sale.  Your carpenter?  She’ll be there.  Those windows are a snap to install and she’ll likely find something else about your house that could do with a little “update”.   

But wait…now that we’ve slowed down and we’re thinking about it, are we making the right move going with vinyl?  The answer is simple.  No. Not ever!

We’re going to get into the science as to why later on but, right now, let’s look at what’s right in front of our faces.  Your ‘100-and-something’ year old house has windows in it that are 100-and-something years old. 

Sure, they look a little worse for wear right now.  Sure, they might rattle a bit when the wind is just right. Sure, they’ve been painted in situ so many times you can’t open half of them but they have been there, doing their job of keeping the elements out and letting light in, FOR 100-AND-SOMETHING YEARS! 

I challenge anyone reading this to find me a set of vinyl windows more than a mere 10 years old that doesn’t have something wrong with them.  Maybe there’s a little ‘fog’ between the glass… “Oh, that’s nothing.” 

Maybe sometimes there’s a little condensation right at the bottom when it’s cold out…

“Yeah, all windows do that.” 

Maybe there’s just a little black mould you can see between the panes… 

A short clip showing an 9 year old vinyl window with condensation between the thermal panes! (Note the mould)

The point is vinyl windows aren’t perfect.  The fact is vinyl windows are dead in 20 years.  That’s right.  The replacement windows you’re thinking about buying to replace your 100-and-something year old wooden models will themselves need replacing before the asphalt shingles on your roof wear out.  How’s that sale looking now?

Vinyl windows are part of our disposable world.  They are marketed as maintenance-free because there is very limited maintenance that can be done on them.  That fog between the panes, the black scum, the condensation?  Those are all signs that your window has failed to do its primary job – that is, it is no longer an impenetrable barrier between the comfort inside your house and the weather outside your house. 

“But my windows are filled with Argon gas,” you exclaim!

Are they?  How do you know? 

There is evidence to suggest that the seals around the panes of inert gas windows degrade in ultraviolet light (psst…the sun PRODUCES ultraviolet light.  Windows commonly are in the sunlight for at least part of the day.  A seal that degrades in sunlight that’s used on a product made to go in sunlight?  Historically, not awesome.) 

There’s even evidence to support claims the gas that is indeed installed between the panes of your very expensive vinyl replacements during their manufacture has already escaped by the time the windows are installed in your home.  Whoopsie.

But we still haven’t dealt with energy efficiency experts who all tell us that up to 80% of the heat lost from our houses goes out our wooden windows. 

Whoa!  That’s a lot! 

Fortunately, what it’s a lot of is pure malarkey.

Unless you’re living in a house made entirely of glass, no more than 20% or less of heat loss in a house is attributable the medium your windows are made of.  Dr. Christopher Cooper (Director of Education | The Edifice Atelier Institute) himself has led a study confirming this.  The main area of heat loss in every structure is invariably up and through the top – where all heat wants to go.

Wooden windows are simply the best window that we have available to us today.  The reasons are evident in the number of wooden windows that still exist from the 18th century through Atlantic Canada and those older still found in the UK, Europe, and other lands abroad. 

Despite the common misconception that vinyl windows outperform wooden windows in terms of insulation value, the data from scientific studies is exactly the opposite.  Many of us talk insulation in terms of R-value – a term we have become familiar with primarily through the material in our walls and attics and basements keeping us warm in winter and cool in summer.  In academia, U-Value is the measure.  Simply put, U-Value is a measure of thermal transmittance where R-value measures resistance to heat flow (see explanation below in Sidebar).

In terms of heat transfer from a warm area to a cold area, a wooden single pane window with a good-fitting wood storm window (properly and professionally weather-stripped) outperforms a double-pane inert gas vinyl window every time.  Every.  Time.  That means that more of your hard-produced and expensive heat will stay inside in the winter and more of that oppressive summer heat will stay outside during the winter.  What else can you ask for in a window?  Fashion?  Please.  What’s more beautiful than a finely carved muntin bar or a delicate piece of tracery in a Gothic-head window.  By the way, neither of those things are found in vinyl windows… Durability?  Ah, are you actually paying attention at this point? 

Oh!  How about a little fresh air?  Yeah, guess what.  An Edifice Guild Member can make you a window that outperforms anything else in terms of passive air movement – meaning – more warm air out and more cool air in during the summer – and more in the winter too, I suppose, depending on your preference.

Are wooden windows maintenance-free?  No, they aren’t.  Do you know of any wooden product exposed to the elements that will last for an indeterminate amount of time without maintenance?  But here’s the thing, with maintenance (something as simple as properly caring for the paint covering your windows every year – I’m not talking about a full-blown re-do, I’m talking about touching-up paint nicks and chips that invariably occur), your wooden sash windows can easily last – well – 100-and-something years more.  And with proper professional assistance, well, no one knows… there’s no reason they can’t last forever.  

Now, doesn’t that sound better than buying new vinyl units and then throwing them away in 20 years so you can buy more new vinyl units?  I certainly think so.  That’s why in our 100-and-something year old house there will always only be wooden windows.

So – the next time you’re told to get rid of your wooden windows, I suggest you start the conversation by saying simply, “Oh really?” Oh, and get a towel ready to mop up the spilt beer.

Article Author: Doug Brannen | Owner/operator of Sherlock Homes Carpentry

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Doug Brannen is an Edifice Guild Approved Window Restoration Specialist in the province of Nova Scotia. Doug also builds custom wood windows and storms. Visit his page on our Guild Resource Directory below for your next window restoration project in Nova Scotia.

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The Edifice Guild is in search of Window Restoration Specialists across Canada. Become Edifice Guild Approved!

Side Bar

U-factor—the rate of heat transfer from warm to cold areas in watts per square metre Kelvin (W/m2K) or in British thermal units per hour per square foot Fahrenheit (Btu/h x sq. ft. x °F). In either case, the lower the number, the more efficient the product.

R-value—a value indicating the resistance to heat transfer in square feet per hour in degrees Fahrenheit per British thermal unit (sq. ft. x h x °F/Btu). The higher the number, the more efficient the product.
(The R-value is not part of the energy performance standards, but is often quoted by contractors and sales staff as a measure of performance.)

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. conservest says:

    I am so tired of explaining to disbelieving people, the benefit of my original sash and storm windows , that I now just let them think I am eccentric , it’s my little secret.

  2. Betty Anne Cameron says:

    Thank you for this article. We live in a beautiful provincial heritage home in Inverness.My husband has been saying exactly this for years.Our 27 windows are 110 years old, original glass, beautiful. Will send a pic. Thank you Betty Anne Cameron
    Sent from my iPad

  3. Mary Haslett says:

    Totally agree with this article. Wooden windows are the best!
    Our 1850’s home was “modernized “ and lost its original 6 over 6 windows. We researched windows in Europe and her in NA.. best results are wooden windows by far!

  4. Lori Martin says:

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more. I’m so glad that when we first bought our early 1880s home 25 years ago, we didn’t listen to family members who insisted that we needed to replace them. And I’m very thankful for Dr. Cooper’s eWorkshop on Wood Window Restoration. I believe I was one of the first to take the course, and it’s an incredible resource. I’ve restored several windows so far, including repairing rot and replacing broken panes with wavy glass I “rescued.” Heritage windows are the eyes of the home and should be restored and preserved.

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