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Replacing old wood screens

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

I purchased a home that was built in 1937. It has old wooden window screens which need to be replaced. Do you have any suggestions or patterns on how to make them?

Making new screens isn't complicated. That's good news when you own an old house and have plenty of jobs to do that are complicated.

If you have one of the old screens, you can use it as a pattern. But there are no absolutes here. Let your eye guide you. Or take a walk through your neighborhood and see what houses similar to your own have in the way of screens.

Screen window
One small reason you might need to repair window screens in an old house

Generally speaking, stiles (the vertical pieces of the frame) will probably look right when they are between 2 in. and 2 1/2 in. wide. Make the top rail (rails are the horizontal pieces) the same width as the stiles. The frame will look more in proportion when the bottom rail is a little wider.

A center rail will stiffen the frame, especially if the screen is large. Should you put one in, align it with the lock rail on your window so it doesn't obscure the view.

Use wood that doesn't mind wet weather

Assuming these are exterior screens, there are several kinds of wood that will hold up well. Pine will do nicely if it's kept painted. Cedar is more weather resistant. Both are relatively light, making the screens easy to handle.

If you want to splurge, buy mahogany. It holds paint well and will last for many years. Look for Honduras mahogany, a South American tree, rather than Luan or Philippine mahogany. Avoid hardwoods such as oak or maple (way too heavy) and poplar, which is inexpensive but not very durable outdoors.

You'll have no trouble finding 3/4"-thick material. But if your window frames have a deeper recess milled into the perimeter for a screen, 1"-thick material will be stiffer and not much heavier.

Spring for clear lumber. That is, without knots. It costs more, but knots have a way of bleeding through the top coat of paint. And they look awful.

Joinery can be simple

There are lots of ways to make the frames. If you have a well-equipped shop and you're a glutton for punishment, use traditional mortise-and -tenon joints.

If not, invest in a doweling jig. It's inexpensive, simple to use, and makes a strong joint. A biscuit joiner is more expensive -- but it's fast and accurate. You'll also need a couple of bar clamps.

Make sure you use an exterior glue. A waterproof yellow glue like Titebond III is perfect. Polyurethane glue (Gorilla Glue, or the one made by Elmer's) also would be fine, though more expensive and messy.

Screening is stapled in, covered with molding

If you live on the coast, you might want to buy bronze screening. It's the best, but is very pricey. For inland houses, fiberglass or aluminum screening is fine. I think aluminum is a little more robust.

Screening is stapled on the frame and covered with screen mold, which you can buy at most lumberyards. To get the screen good and tight, prop up both ends of the frame on blocks, clamp the middle of the screen down flat so the frame bows gently, then staple on the screen.

When you release the pressure, the frame will straighten out and tighten the screen. I saw Norm Abram do that on his TV show years ago and it really works.

Last but not least, use the best primer and paint you can buy.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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