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Steel Casement Windows

Kendall Holmes

"The steel casement windows on our 1940s brick house are cold and drafty. Short of replacing them, is there anything we can do?"

Steel casements were popular from the late 19th century through the early 1950s. Depending upon who you talk with, they're a heat-sucking curse or an important architectural feature worthy of preservation.

Having owned and lived in two houses with these windows, I'd argue that they can be both.

At their worst, they are cold, rusty, condensation-prone eyesores. But with some work, you can often turn even the sorriest-looking steel windows into reasonably efficient, draft-free units that, because they are original, also fit your home's architectural style better than any replacement window might install. And you can probably do so for a fraction of the $300 to $600 each you'd spend on new windows.

Let's attack these problems one by one:

  • Perhaps the most common problem with steel windows is that they no longer shut tightly. The most common cause? Excess paint build-up where the sash and the window frames meet one another. The cure is to scrape away enough of that old paint, dirt and other junk so that you can once again shut and lock your windows. Once you've done this, you're halfway home.
  • Next you'll want to deal with any surface rust, peeling paint and loose window putty. The tools of the trade here are a wire brush, a paint scraper and, once you've got everything cleaned up, primer designed to be applied to metal. Priming is important both because it protects the metal and also because caulk, putty, self-stick weather stripping and finish paint don't adhere well to bare metal.
  • Once you've got your windows so that they close and have a fresh coat of primer on them, you can attack their drafts. Missing or worn weather stripping is the biggest source of drafts. Steel windows usually have brass or copper weather stripping that fits into a groove in the sash. You can replace it with the same (available at most home centers) or with more modern vinyl weather stripping.
  • Missing putty is another source of drafts, so you'll want to replace any missing or loose putty.
  • And finally, you'll need to apply a high-quality caulk both inside and out at the edge of your window frames, where they meet your house.

As you can see, getting steel casements back into shape is time consuming, but not necessarily costly. Obviously, there will be times when repairing old metal windows doesn't make sense. For example, replacement probably makes sense if your steel casements don't have storm windows--or if many of the old storms are missing or damaged. And if more than a few of your windows are missing hardware, have bent frames, or are deeply rusted, then replacement windows also make sense.

Should you decide to replace your windows rather than repair them, try to match the style and appearance of the originals. Slapping in windows you've selected on the basis of price and energy performance--with no thought to whether they fit your home's architectural style--is a sure-fire way to make your house look really odd.


Ken Holmes is an award-winning print and web journalist and editor, as well as a former contractor.

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