Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Weighty Task

Spring has sprung. It's hot. But not really hot enough for air conditioners, unless we don't open the windows. Which, mostly wasn't possible, so we had to borrow an a/c unit from my mother. I'm putting screens into the storm windows right and left, but getting all the windows open, and keeping them that way is a nightmare. We ran out of short pieces of wood.

What's wrong with the windows, you might ask? You didn't ask. Well, I'll ask for you, in the interest of moving us all along.

The windows are quite well preserved, except for a couple in the dining room bay, but nearly all the sash cords have gone. All but one set, on the only window that apparently never got sunbaked. That window has been open for weeks, since it's now indoors, on both sides, and opening it does us no good. I replaced a set of cords in my son's bedroom, and I think I replaced a set in the back room (hereafter referred to as the Hole, until it's cleared and made into the dressing room), last summer.

Some progress, but not enough. No openable windows in, say, the kitchen, or the dining room, or the living room. We had used up the little bits of wood propping open our bedroom windows. So sleeping was possible. It was unbearable, even with fans everywhere, and mom's little borrowed a/c unit. Too hot.

So, I started the interminable task of pulling out bottom sashes and prying out access boards yesterday. I started with the other window in my son's room, so he could get actual cross-ventilation, and while I was working on it, I decided to take photos. For everyone else, of course. I really don't need a picture of this to remember it:

Yum. It's like a big metal poop, but covered with 80 years of dust and dead spiders. Just makes you want to do this, doesn't it? Actually, looking at this, you can kind of see why people just quit replacing the cords.

Let's start at the beginning. It's much less disgusting.

These instructions are for a "modern" house with repair access ports designed into the frames. You can tell if you have these by opening the window and looking for joints and/or screws in the tracks. Also, even though all our windows are double-hung, the upper sashes are painted into place and their cords are (unsurprisingly, as they were protected from the sun) in fine shape, so we're only working with the lower, inner sash and its cords. Pulling both sashes, stripping and restoring full sash movement is a whole other kettle of lead paint chips.

If you have a house that doesn't have this modern convenience added to the traditional double-hung window, you'll have to pull the trim to access the channels.

Get real replacement sash cords, not nylon (or any other synthetic rope - it won't hold the knots well at all) or cheap cotton cord (not strong enough). It's fairly high-test, and is treated with a very grabby sizing to help it keep the knots. You'll also need a hammer, a large flathead screwdriver or small prybar, a screwdriver for removing and replacing any screws, and a cutting implement. Another thing you want is a long stiff piece of wire with an open hook at one end - a repurposed coathanger is perfect. More on this later.

First, pry off the stop moldings, gently, and set aside. If there is a single cord, or if you are replacing cord before it gives way, cut the cord now. Grasp the lower sash firmly and pull it straight out and set aside, somewhere you won't step into or kick it. I know you won't and you know you won't, but do you want add a trip to the hospital and the home store, plus recreational re-glazing to your day?

Now, if there are screws holding in the access panels, rather than just friction and the pressure of the stop molding, remove them and put them somewhere safe, like a cup. You'll probably find some evidence of previous repairs, as I did. Only two of the prymarks I left behind were mine - the other dozen were already there. Clearly the cords had been replaced before.

Start by prying carefully. There might be a small nail securing the panel (these are under the window trim, where they occur, at my house, which meant either pulling the trim -all of it- or hacksawing the nail). Remove or cut the nail, depending on your level of commitment. The edge that is secured by this mail occurs under the stop moldings at my house, so I just cut the nail. Continue prying gently until the panel pops out.

You may have to pull it out after the leading edge is free, since the center stop molding is still there. One edge is often under that. Once it's out, we get to do the fun part.

Deeee-lish-us. Reach in there and grab the weight and pull it out. Wear gloves if you like - our weights are iron, but as often, they can be lead. Look at the knot configuration, if you can. You probably can't, if it looks anything like the example weight does:

Let's wrestle that a little bit. This better? No?

Well, okay, I'll demonstrate the not-so-arcane-after-all knotting technique after we get the new cord through the pulley and out where we can reach it. Measure the length you'll need the cords - measure how far down the sash the cord groove goes, plus the length from the top of the pulley to the top of the weight (if you stood it up on the windowsill), and the cord should be long enough. Add three inches if you are worried.

Tie a plain old half-hitch close to one end, and pull it as tight as you can.

Then thread the other end through the top of the pulley, push every bit through until you get to the knot.

If you are really lucky, the cord will just snake down the inside and fall out the opening. However, this is unlikely, so use that long wire hook to fish around up there and pull the cord through.

Take the end of the cord and thread it through the hole in the weight. You should have enough slack to do this pretty easily, but not so much that the weight can lie on the windowsill while you work. I propped the weight up in the outer slide channel and the worked fine.

Now, tie another firm half hitch close to the end.

This would be the not-as-arcane-as-you-think knotting method. Next, pull the knot up, wrap it around the cord, and "button" it through the resulting loop. Step 1:

Step 2:

Then pull tight to secure it.

Put the weight back in the weight channel, and close up the access port. Repeat on the other side. Get the sash, and remove any remaining old cords from the cord grooves. Get another person to hold the sash (or prop it on something secure), make sure you've got the right side of the sash facing in, pull the knots down from the pulleys and tuck them into the holes for the knots, then push the cords into the grooves. The sash should now be hanging freely in the window, and shoudl slide easily up and down. Re-install the stop moldings (if you pulled the trim, re-install that, too), and you're done.


  1. Dontcha LOVE window weights?? I love them especially when the previous owners have cut the cords, and I (the foolish new owner) is removing window trim, only to take a set of weights in the toes!

  2. The plural of "sash" is "sash", not "sashes". Just like fish!

    I am happily replacing ALL the double-hungs (which is to say all the windows) in my 1920's Dutch Colonial. Some are originals with weights, others are replacements.

    Either way, out they go!


  3. So how do I tell if my weights are iron or lead? Mine look kind of rusty like yours, but maybe the lead ones look like that too. I want to take my weights out and vacuum them (with a HEPA vac), but maybe I shouldn't be doing this if they are lead.

  4. Also, where did you get your sash cord from? I can only find the nylon version at the local Lowes. Do you think this polyester version would be good:

  5. @Ben:

    Thanks for the comments and questions. I'm answering both at once for efficiency's sake :)

    Weight content:

    My weights looked like they were probably made of iron - if you look at them, there is a slight rusty look under all the dirt and dead spiders.

    Lead hardly discolors at all, by comparison - it appears gray or almost white, like aluminum, when it has oxidized. Lead also has a smoother appearance when it oxidizes, and would not have roughened up to the point that dust would gather like it has on ours.

    Sash cord:

    DO NOT use poly rope, even if it is the same tensile strength or braiding style. The secret to sash cord is the stiffness and the textile glazing (also known as starch) that makes the knots grip so well. Moder sash cords have a poly core for strength and durability, but the outer shell is still the same glazed cotton as the original.

    Rejuvenation sells sash cord for $6 per 25 feet, and House of Antique Hardware sells longer lengths for a comparable per foot cost. I bought mine at the local ACE hardware/farm supply.

  6. Oh, one other thing - if you want to do ANY vacuuming during restoration in an older home, make sure you use the fine particle filters for your shop vac, because you are at much greater risk from paint dust than from any residual dust from the weights.

    Be safe, and enjoy your renovation :)


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