Door and window maintenance in old houses

In many ways, original period doors and window frames are just as valuable as antique furniture, says Roger Hunt, and are heirlooms in their own right. Here's some expert advice on how to maintain original doors and windows in period houses

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Few things look shabbier than windows and doors that need a coat of paint. Worryingly, the unprotected timber is likely to swell or rot over time so the sashes and casements will stick and rattle while draughts will find their way in through gaps. If such problems are left unchecked, they will only get worse. Repairs will be more difficult and costly, and potentially the building’s character and history could be lost.

It is worth thinking of period windows and doors as antiques and remembering that repair tends to be far cheaper than replacement. Many are a hundred or more years old and, just as with a Georgian table or chair, they can be revitalised and passed on to future generations. One reason why many old windows and doors have survived is that the original timber, often pitch pine, is much more durable than new wood because it was slow grown.

Original glass panels are an aspect that can often be overlooked. Old glass is important and should be retained wherever possible. Unlike its flat, lifeless modern counterpart, Georgian and Victorian glass contains air bubbles and ripples. These imperfections give it a quirky beauty, distorting reflections and making it flash and sparkle in the light.

Well maintained period windows and doors

Well maintained window frames may last for centuries. Period windows and doors deserve to be treated as antiques

Check for problems

The first and most simple rule of maintaining windows and doors is to inspect them regularly, both inside and out and, as soon as they show signs of needing it, giving them a coat of paint. Preparation is important so make sure all surfaces are sound and any loose paint has been removed, but be careful when using hot air guns to strip paint as the heat can easily crack glass. Check for rot and that all joints are firm. If the corner of a window needs strengthening, a simple solution is to use a metal angle bracket.

Doors are best taken off their hinges for painting to enable all edges to be properly primed and finished, including the bottom and the letter plate opening. This helps to minimise moisture penetration and swelling. Replace missing or defective putty in windows with traditional linseed oil putty, again taking care not to damage the glass. Where glass has to be replaced in sash windows, it needs to be of the same thickness and weight as the original, otherwise the sash will have to be rebalanced. Original panes with just a small crack across the corner are unlikely to cause problems.

Rattling sashes can be drawn tighter together with a cam action fastener; This window sill shows signs of weathering

Ensure hinges are not binding and, where necessary, oil or adjust them. At the same time, check that locks and other ironmongery is in working order. Rattling sashes can be drawn tighter together with a cam action fastener.

If windows or doors are sticking, beware of planing the edges, especially in damp weather, because the problem may be due to swollen wood. Other possible reasons include structural movement or a failed lintel.

Sticking windows may be caused by overpainting, swollen or distorted frames, loose joints or seized sash pulleys. Tallow or beeswax applied to the edges of sashes may help them to run while oil will ease pulleys. Broken or fraying sash cords should be replaced and this is relatively easy to do from inside. Always repair both cords on each sash and ensure the new cord is strong enough for the weight of the window.

The weathered bottom half of a wooden door

Door and window sills and lower parts of the frame are particularly vulnerable to weathering

Making repairs

A good joiner or window restorer will be able to cut out decayed or damaged timber, then make and joint in new sections. All repairs should be done with matching materials and techniques.

When re-gluing joints, always use exterior grade adhesive. The frame may not be square so put it together in situ and use wedges of wood to keep the joints tight until the glue is dry.

Check the condition of sills and the bottoms of sash boxes for rot. Sills may often be repaired by cutting the rotten face back to sound wood and then screwing on a new piece. There should be a drip groove on the underside of the sill.

Few things look more shabby than doors that need a coat of paint; Threading new sash cord through the pulley of a sash window is not too tricky

Problems with metal windows include rust, distortion, paint build-up and failed hinges and fittings. Use wire brushes to clean off rust and then prime as soon as possible. Specialist steel window companies or, in the case of wrought iron windows, blacksmiths can make repairs.


External doors are likely to have deteriorated along their bottom edge due to the effects of damp and, where this has occurred, new timber can usually be used to replace the rotten part.

If locks need to be upgraded, try to reuse existing lock holes as it saves causing further damage to the door.

Find out more in our guide to doors for old homes.


While overhauling doors and windows, it is worth draughtproofing them at the same time. As well as the various DIY solutions available, specialist window repair companies can install inconspicuous but effective ‘brush’ strips in grooves routed out along the edges of the sashes. A special silicone system is available for draughtproofing metal windows.

A worn wooden window frame and stone sill

Before repainting preparation is important, so make sure all surfaces are sound and defective putty has been replaced

Warning signs

  • Check for rotten wood using a penknife, paying particular attention to the bottom of windows and doors, the sill and lower parts of the frame.
  • Examine the condition of joints.
  • Look for loose, cracked or damaged putty.
  • Open windows and doors to ensure they move freely and balance, but remember that timber may swell and shrink with the seasons.
  • Check sash cords and hinges.
  • On sash windows, open weight pockets to check for obstructions and damp if problems are suspected.
  • Ensure doors and windows swing smoothly on their hinges.
  • Test that door and window furniture is working properly.
  • Feel for draughts and draughtproof when overhauling windows and doors.

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