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Designer Specs: The traditional window

OHI The editors of <i>Old-House Interiors</i> magazi

Photo: Courtesy of Loewen

By Mary Ellen Polson

High-end window manufacturers want to dazzle you with the possibilities.

They promise windows of any shape or size you can imagine, incorporating every type and style from sash windows and casement windows to bow, bay, picture, and Palladian windows.

What's more, you can specify windows in just about any material, including:

  • Solid wood treated to make it last longer;
  • wood clad with vinyl to keep the elements from ever reaching the wood.
  • windows that are wood on the inside, and resin coated on the outside.
  • and for the environmentally conscious, there are windows made from sustainable woods (i.e., the tree wasn't harvested until another just like it was planted). Energy efficiency is a given.

Whether you're shopping for replacements or for an addition to an older home, chances are you'll be considering two of the more enduring types of windows: sash and casement.

  • Sash windows are usually double hung, meaning one sash moves up and down behind the other.
  • Casement windows open inward or outward, are hinged on one side, and open and close with a latch or a crank.
Sash Windows
Divided lights

The best simulated divided lights are proportioned to match traditional windows (meaning the "pane" is usually taller than it is wide).

On a doubled-glazed window, even a well-proportioned wood grid won't look realistic close up, so manufacturers add a spacer bat -- a sort of dark interior grid -- to make it appear as though the grid does all the way through the glass, just like real muntins.

In older windows, the sashes are usually made of one or more panes of glass held in place by muntins.

In windows where there's more than one pane of glass, this is called a true divided light window. In newer windows, the sash usually contains one sheet of glass, which is divided into "panes" by an internal or external grid, with the intention of re-creating the appearance of real muntins. (For more, see the sidebar on divided lights.)

As a rule, the more realistic the dividers, the more expensive the window. If you're shopping for windows that will appear alongside the originals with true divided lights, the panes as well as the sash should approach the originals in terms of size and proportion.

A great deal of the charm of an original window lies in the window frame and mouldings that surround it. Pozzi and Norco, both Jeld-Wen companies, offer a replacement option that allows you to install new, energy-efficient double sash windows with insulated glass within the existing frame and trim.

The mechanism that allows for movement in a traditional sash window is a weight and pulley system concealed by the framing at the sides of the window.

While you can still buy windows made with old-style counterbalances (Grabill offers them: Heartwood uses a pulley and chain system), other options include spring balances and other proprietary balance systems.

The newer systems not only move up and down effortlessly, but they're often configured to tilt in for easier cleaning.

Casement Windows

All windows need to shut tightly to close out the weather. This is especially true for casement windows that open outward.

A few words about wood

Even people who love old houses are concerned about maintenance.

Manufacturers have stepped up to the plate with options that are increasingly sophisticated, such as building a wood window with all the period detail your house requires, then cladding it on the exterior with specially formulated resin, vinyl, or metal, with factory-applied color that matches your other trim.

Some companies are actually building windows out of better woods: Jeld-Wen, for example, offers windows built from a proprietary vacuum / pressure treated wood called AuraLast, which is guaranteed for 20 years.

Other custom builders, such as Heartwood, simply use woods with naturally long lives, like mahogany.


For these windows, the key to a tight seal is a multi-point locking mechanism -- basically a bar attached to both the window and frame that slides outward when the window is cranked open from the inside.

Look for casements with less obtrusive hardware; Kolbe & Kolbe offers a concealed multi-point system for its Heritage, Sundance, and Ultra casement windows.

Often referred to as a French- or European-style casement, in-swing casement windows are available with or without a center divider. Common in many Romantic Revival homes of the early 20th century, in-swing casements that are in poor condition are usually equipped with hardware that can be refurbished and reused.

One of the advantages of in-swing casements is that they can be fitted with period-appropriate hardware. Belisle's custom-built Ancestral Window, for example, comes with an exposed cast-iron casement latch that's just as elegant as the ones you saw on your last European vacation.

Suppliers of Windows

The Old House Web's Guide to Suppliers contains information on hundreds of companies that supply windows and window parts to the old-house market.

Other Resources

The Old House Web has published a variety ofhow-to stories on caring for and restoring old windows. Additionally, you'll find stories on the site about:

About this story

This story is adapted with permission a story that appeared in Old-House Interiors magazine's June/July 2004 edition. If you would like to learn more about the magazine, its editors invite you to request a free issue of Old-House Interiors magazine.

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by the editors of Old-House Interiors magazine

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