Preservation expert Jim Turner discusses the value of preserving and restoring original steel windows for both homes and commercial spaces. Jim has spent 30 years in Detroit, Michigan as an advocate, activist and skilled craftsman where he founded Turner Restoration. Jim is helping to bring some of Detroit’s beautiful old buildings back to life. He is also an adviser in Michigan for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The full transcript of his webinar is below.
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Note on lead paint: to stay safe during home renovations please refer to this excellent lead safety guide developed by the EPA.
Hello, everyone. My name is Sam Pardue and I’m the CEO of Indow here in Portland, Oregon. Welcome to our Window Hero Webinar with Jim Turner, a steel window preservation expert in Detroit, Michigan working to restore historic buildings in that city. Today is part of our Window Hero webinar series, in which we invite historic preservationists to speak about various aspects of window preservation. Our goal is to deepen appreciation for one of the most valuable parts of a building: the historic windows.
Thank you to the many people who are are dialing in today. We’re thrilled to have Jim Turner of Turner Restorations. Jim is highly recognized for his work in preserving steel windows, and is an advisor in Michigan to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is also executive director to the Samuel Plato Institute of preservation trades in Louisville, Kentucky (my hometown).
Jim was board president of Preservation Wayne in Detroit when the city demolished the historic J.L. Hudson department store in the name of economic development. They thought, incorrectly, that by clearing that downtown space, builders would come. Jim had argued that saving that building was an investment in the city’s economic future, and its loss galvanized his commitment to hands-on restoration work.
Jim, thank you for taking the time today to speak about the value of preserving historic windows. I’ll now turn the webinar over to you. Thank you.
Thank you, Sam, And I do appreciate the opportunity to take this form of media to talk about steel windows.
I want to say: Certainly the demolition of Hudson’s galvanized that effort in me. But it also galvanized a movement in Michigan, in Kentucky and all over the United States to value the places in which they live. To value the people who walk and live within them.
I had the good fortune several years ago to find a window restoration seminar, a two-week immersion for both wood and steel restoration in Pine Mountain, Kentucky (and thus the link). I am the executive director of the Samuel Plato Academy of Preservation Trades here in Louisville, Kentucky. This is our first year that we’re about to end, on June 30. But through that year, there certainly have been lessons learned, mistakes made and wisdom gained. We’re beginning to work here with the city and organizations [to inform] the training center. A training center can ask… how to train their new employees, and to look toward preservation as a primary vehicle. Again Sam, thank you.
Our discussion today is going to (focus) on steel windows. Some ask, “Why?” Because they are an integral tool to a large expanse of American history.
We’re going to work on steel a little bit here. What I want to do here is justify three main areas: How do I remove paint from a steel window effectively? And I’ll address that with why not chemicals, because it’s much easier. But I’ll show you three methods, mechanically, to do that organically. And then, to talk about how to provide efficiency in my steel window, and whether or not that efficiency is equal to a new window’s energy efficiency. And hopefully we’ll destroy the myth that windows are the loss leader in energy efficiency in homes and commercial buildings. Because quite honestly, they’re not. They’re just a small portion of the lost energy component in the overall building structure.
Let’s start with paint removal. As you can see, I have a sack, or encasement, that has a lot of peeling paint. The paint that [was] on this encasement was latex; never should you apply a water-based paint to steel. If there’s one point that I should make, [it’s] always gravitate to oil-based, acrylic paint (an oil-based paint preferably) on steel and in steel materials. If you are working in steel, you go to an auto body paint that gives you a better steel, a longer life and holds [it up]. But we do want depth of color and a multitude of colors to utilize.
I would start with a carbide scraper, and a simple carbide scraper that you can purchase at Lowe’s or Home Depot that you could purchase for about 19 dollars. We’ll move to the removal of the paint.
Yes, it’s a bit noisy. A bit screechy. But very, very effective.
The next method I’d like to show you is a needle scaler. I’m using a small needle scaler that I acquired from Harbor Freight. Costs 25 dollars on a portable hydraulic air compressor.
[mechanical whirring. Off camera: “Excuse me.”]
Two [units] down. Now what I’d like to show you is [uling]. Before we get to [it], with a lot of restoration is that funky middle part: how do you get to the inside of an encasement? I like to use a 4 inch wide wheel grinder. Fenestra, in one of it’s pamphlets I believe in 1021, identified their method for scarring. You can do it with acid wash—scarring the metal. And when you scarred the metal it hit the metal so that the primary paint had [alleys] to bond to or to hook to. Very much like a plaster or a lat provides a key for the plaster to hold on to the surface.This is a small micro-scarring of the metal so that the primary paint has a key to hold on to, to lock in.
And I hope from the visual earlier you can see all the cracks in [the] paint. And by utilizing a wide wheel grinder, we are able to get down to new steel (or what some would term new steel). But it’s the same old steel that was there with a little bit of surface rust.
We do have to recognize that there are issues in many instances of surface rust, but it is because of the application, or the improper application, of the latex paint on steel.
And for some of you that are thinking, “Hmm, safety”: Yes, I am not wearing glasses other than my own. Please do not do as I do. Do as I say. Protective glasses, certainly protective gloves will help, and a respirator. If you’re not using a respirator please use an MP100 mask to reduce the dust. Fortunately, I was not going to be doing this very long. But I do emphasize the importance of a safe working environment. We are working with materials that are predominantly filled with lead and lead paint, and in some instances may asbestos in the glazing or the pipe. So: not as I do, but hopefully as I say, and forgive me for not taking the precautions myself.
In dealing with a steel window, sometimes there are issues in running a tube with glazing. In a window like this, of this size, the lead… separate glasses. [unintelligible] There’s opportunities, as you can see, for air to get between one of these. In most instances, most homeowners fail to recognize that their leaden glass panel, no matter how beautiful it is, is a culprit for lost energy.
So how do we address that? I’m going to step behind the desk here… I’m also going to offer the opportunity to [add] glazing and a composite. I have glazing here. It’s manufactured by Sarco glaze and putty in Chicago. And I’d like you to see it because it’s very pliable and I like using it because it’s very pliable and when I have it made, I can get it within two days. It fits the timer here, temperature [wise] so that I don’t have oil oozing out.
To make a repair here on a steel window, note that the leaded glass window here is a quarter inch plate, classic. This is not lead, but it’s zinc. So it’s structurally strong with a quarter inch opening for mounting. What I’ve done with the utility knife (or an X-Acto knife) is… where the loose glaze fit is, break it out on both sides. And you need to do it on both sides because the blade is at a compound; it’s on both sides.
Some will say, “I really don’t like that putty look in color.” I know. If I were you, I would tint it. And if you use an iron oxide or [unintelligible] putty or a ceramic shot and get a guy for your glazing putty, work it into it. And you can see that mine has turned a little from the dust on my glove.
What we want to do is work the glaze into my lead pane… [unintelligible] and work it in, sideways and in backward with my left hand. And in doing so, what I provide is a seal and eliminate the air infiltration. I also (stepping back to the camera, sorry)… I also fill in the air leaks and strengthen my windows.This glazing is a miracle, and this glazing will harden to the hardness of the exterior. And then I use either a rove stick or a little tool like this, [which] you can get at a ceramics shop or a potter’s shop. A potter’s cutting stick; generally mahogany feels wonderful in your hand. And jam that potting stick in there, so it is clear that the edges are focusing. From that point, I use sliding or Plaster of Paris. Just put it on the tip of a brush… what this does, it also polishes and cleans your pane. It also adds a bit of powder into the glazing to accelerate the drying process.
When you have a pane that is a lead pane, sometimes you see it warping. And it’s warping because it’s been in the sun and it’s weak and… other times you see a number of cuts in it and cracks. Those can be resoldered. I would take the window out of its frame, either by removing the exterior glazing or [unintelligible].
I will say to you all: never take glazing out that has a tight seal. Use your knife, utility knife or chisel. Go around the vested glazing. If it falls out, make a mixture of lemon seed oil and turp (70/30) and wet my old glazing because it’s already hard. I don’t want my new glazing to just sit on top of it. When we look at a plasterer, a plasterer is just (working with) old plaster. And the first thing he does when he’s making a repair is open that old repair up, make it wider so he has more surface area to work with (to put in the new plaster). But he’s also throwing at and wetting new plaster. So we want to wet [like with] the old plaster, we want to wet the old glazing here so it provides some hydrology between the two materials and it does not… the oils from the new glazing are not forced themselves out by the old glazing. Hope I explained that clearly enough.
In review, three different methods of paint removal: Carbide scraper (hard, use some muscle). Creates a strong back. Hydraulic scaler; fast, relatively easy. You can control the needle placement to as narrow as an eighth of an inch on the hydraulic scaler. And you also can remove old glazing from the window with the hydraulic scaling. We have the jumbo size, too. Heavier, faster. For those of you with need, a good tool. And finally, a 4 inch wheel grinder. Yes, you will go through a lot of wheels. But the cost per wheel … it’s about $3.95, $4.65 depending on where you are.
But getting into the field requires the skill of paint removal, and then painting, and then being able to flourish the finish. Typically [they’re] some of the first jobs people are looking for because they are buying a new house. They have windows that have been painted shut, the interior’s set apart and [unintelligible] not coming out at all. So you have an opportunity to do that as a tune-up job, if you want to call it that. Or a first level job of restoration. It’s very very easy for a homeowner to do, and we do offer window restoration workshops for homeowners that want to move and want to do the restorations themselves.
[This] started out talking about window restoration and the myth of energy efficiency on a window. When starting this process, I looked also at the number of people who purchase insulated handles for steel windows. Certainly there’s an opportunity for insulated windows [unintelligible] … when you can make it yourself.
This frame is a three-quarter inch to an inch frame. And what I’ve made here, utilizing double-strength glass and a nonmetallic spacer, is an insulated half inch unit. If I can do it, a homeowner can and save yourself hundreds of dollars. But preferably, I would use quarter inch laminate than to go through this again. I would used quarter-inch laminate because it provides three significant things: It blocks out 99 percent of all [outside] noise; it also reduces sound from the exterior; and the safety factor. The laminate glass is not going to break or shatter into your home. It will crack; the laminate will stay in place. And it can stay in place until you have time to replace it. There is no opening in your home with laminate glass, and it is the principle [unintelligible].
I’m not sure how far we are in time and I apologize if I’m running over. I can take questions and we can talk it over if…
Thank you, Jim! Jim, thank you so much for that detailed and informative presentation. We’ve been having some questions coming in and maybe now would be a good time to transition to the Q&A.
One of the questions that came in is: Can you please tell us about a time when one of your clients really thought that replacing their windows was the right thing to do but you were able to convince them that restoration was a better option? And how did that turn out? Was the client happy in the end? Were you able to convince them to restore the windows instead of replace them? Has that ever happened to you?
Yes it has, and I can tell you about both situations. There has been a time when I tried to convince a client that restoration was a better option than replacement. This is the result of that discussion: I have the windows that that client removed, and I use them as demonstration to show the effect of that solution over the fact that his loss, my gain. The wife wanted restoration and the husband wanted replacement. He wanted replacement immediately. This is five years now since that replacement, and I believe the client is regretting that decision because it’s now coming up on that time to replace his windows again. Because replacement windows possibly have a life of possibly five to fifteen years, and they start fading, Particularly the vinyl replacement windows, because you’re not getting [the right kind of] replacement. The color begins to fade in the body of the interior. That particular client, his are fading. Because the windows he chose had only a quarter inch of covering of his membrane. So the ultraviolet rays have destroyed the seals on the windows and he’s fogging up now. So, one example.
Our argument is: When you decide to replace your windows, that is not a one-time decision. It is a serial decision, because you will be replacing windows from that moment forward every 10 years.
That’s a great point, Jim. Thank you very much for saying that. We have another question from Patricia, and she has steel windows that are missing some of the vertical pieces of steel. And so how would you go about restoring those windows that are missing some of the vertical pieces of… it looks like some of them are actually gone altogether from the windows.
I’d do it in the same way that a wood restorer would replace the muntins that are missing [from] windows that they have. This is a steel… it used to have a steel T-bar. I can cut out a steel T-bar from some of the replacements that I have. A carpenter or a restoration hardware contractor would take and either replicate that muntin to give you a replicate muntin that fits yours. I have the good fortune of being able to purchase a flat bar and weld in a T. Weld it together and we have a replacement for that vertical or horizontal bar.
That’s excellent, Jim. Another follow-on question is, once you’ve restored these steel windows… you mentioned that replacement windows are going to need to be replaced again because they’re not as well made. Once you restore a steel window, how long can you expect those restored windows to last?
Another 80 years.
Another 80 years? Well, what would be the proper way to maintain these windows so they can last that long?
The proper way to maintain a steel window?
Yes, so they will last—
Again, I’m going to refer back to Fenestra. And they identify that any of their steel windows, when they were shipped out new; the only thing that was a primer coat. Oxidized primer coat. And the only two coats of paint, nothing that looked like this, with paint so thick on the windows that it couldn’t close properly. Typically our process is that we remove all surface paint from both sides of it, interior and exterior. We prime the window with a direct to metal prime (oil based), and two coats of the direct to metal paint. And that way, you are maintaining your windows almost as well as the manufacturer at the factory where it begins.
That’s excellent feedback. What are the biggest differences between wood window restoration and restoration of steel windows? Do you do both?
I don’t see very much difference. I do see a number of carpenters that reluctantly look at steel as difficult. It’s just a different medium. You cut steel as you cut wood. With wood you either use an epoxy or you cut in a Dutchman to replace a failed wood outline. With steel, I would cut in another few pieces of bar and weld it together to replace another element of the window. It’s just one additional medium to use to build and restore windows.
The example that I showed of the steel window with the insulated glass unit, I would say, can be employed with mid-century modern aluminum windows. Both the aluminum slider and the aluminum casement awning, and the hopper window. Because the aluminum window offers you a full quarter inch of space. So you can maintain your panel and your seal to the inside, utilizing the quarter inch or half inch non-metallic spacer. You can apply another Douglas wrench, eight-fifths piece of a glass or a quarter inch laminate piece to the outside to afford you that 99 percent UV protection and make your insulated unit a seller.
Now this one point about the insulated unit. People will ask, “Well, how do apply that and fit that in your frame?” Excuse me one moment. [pause] I would seal this and apply this unit with some.. . gyro tape. And you can get gyro tape in one-sixteenth quarter and one-sixteenth half, eighth inch by half, and quarter inch by half. I would put a space between (because there is expansion and contraction of the aluminum and the steel), so that I give myself the extra space between my glass and my frame. I would then use an RTV silicone caulk to fill that space because it provides flexibility, it fully cures in 24 hours, and it eliminates from sixty to one hundred degrees.
Thank you Jim for sharing that detailed explanation. That’s very very helpful. We have one more question and this comes from another Sam somewhere in the United States. This Sam asks, “How can people find qualified restoration experts in their state?” Do you have a recommendation on how to find a good contractor to help people out with their steel window restoration projects?
The National Trust (for Historic Preservation) has a list of window restorers across the country. I learned all I know from John Seekircher from upstate New York. They have the best supply of steel windows for replacement that you can find anywhere. One of the best suppliers. And I owe him all that I know right now, with the window and the hunger to understand them better. [unintelligible] There are a number of people that do it today… [that are] special. David Gibney in the Maryland area. Duffy Hoffman, now in Chicago. We’re finding that we have fewer and fewer people that understand steel and work with steel out on the West Coast for the most part. And we’re trying to move in that direction to satisfy the need in upstate Washington, in Oregon and in California.
Well thank you very much for those references. Indow is also a happy member of the Window Preservation Alliance and there may be resources available there as well. But Jim, we were super grateful to have you out there training people, sharing your knowledge so that more people can have access to restoration instead of replacement because these original windows are so incredibly valuable.
So thank you so much, Jim, for joining us today. And thank you to everyone who tuned in and spent time with us to learn more [about]… really one of the priceless aspects of every historic structure which is the original windows. The more we can learn about the great options for preservation that we have, the more we can promote that as the better alternative to window replacement.
So on behalf of Indow, thank you to you Jim, and thank you to our audience. We really appreciate the time, and let’s all go out there and be window heroes today.
Thank you, Sam!
NOTE ON LEAD PAINT: To stay safe during home renovations, please refer to this excellent lead safety guide developed by the EPA.
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