Are Steel Windows Worth Saving?

By Scott Sidler May 1, 2017

Historic wood windows are kind of like the rock stars when it comes to preservation and restoration. Everybody talks about them, most people understand the need to preserve them and you’ll find dozens of workshops around the country where homeowners can learn to restore them on their own.

I even wrote a book to teach people how to walk through the restoration process we use in my shop every day called Old Windows Made Easy.

It makes sense why these are so popular. They are everywhere and they are simple to understand. They’re just wood, putty and glass. Well, steel windows are not much different except instead of wood you’ve got steel, so why don’t they get the preservationist’s attention? More to the point of this post, do they deserve attention like wood windows?

Are Steel Windows Worth Saving?

While not as common as wood windows, steel windows make up a huge portion of the historic windows still remaining in this country. They were used heavily in industrial buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century and then became extremely popular in residential buildings in the early and mid 20th century.

From English Tudors to Mid-Century Modern homes these steel windows were a constant fixture in a variety of designs. They are an important part of the historic fabric and definitely contribute to the original appearance of the building.

Worse even than the replacement of wood windows, the replacement of steel windows almost always looks jarringly out of place since the style of these replacement windows is so completely different from the original steel.

While the argument to save these steel windows simply for aesthetic reasons is pretty overwhelming in my mind, I want to offer you some other reasons why steel windows might be worth saving.

1. Steel Windows Are Long-Lasting

But they rust, right? Yes they rust, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t some of the longest lasting windows ever manufactured. Rust is something that can be repaired and rust can be prevented. Just like wood rots steel rusts. It’s only when you don’t provide your windows with a little maintenance that things can get dicey. If they lasted the first 80 years they can last the next 80 years.

2. Steel Windows Are Secure

The frames and sash on steel windows are solid rolled steel that is extremely strong and with the typical multi-lite designs they create one of the most secure windows ever. Security may not have been a big issue back in the day, but today having a secure and burglar-resistant window is a definite plus. The design of steel windows is essentially like having bars built into the architectural design of the window.

3. Steel Windows Are Efficient

Yes, I know the rumor about how leaky steel windows are, but it simply isn’t true. Looking at an 80 yr-old steel window that won’t close because it’s bent out of shape and caked up with tons of paint is like complaining that your Porsche which has never been washed or had it’s oil-changed is a junker. No, it’s just not been cared for at all.

steel window anatomyTesting done by the Windows Preservation Standards Collaborative revealed that restored steel windows are incredibly efficient. That efficiency comes from the interlocking design of the sashes and frames that when closed provide exceptional air sealing (even by today’s standards).

There are weatherstripping options though they are rarely necessary, and replacing the glass with laminated or low-e options often can help steel windows make extraordinary gains in energy efficiency.

4. They Can Be Restored Simply

Just like wood windows, steel windows can be restored fairly easily by homeowners and DIYers. I’ve written an eBook called Steel Windows Made Easy that outlines the specific step-by-step process for restoring steel windows that is tailored to the DIYer.

Like I mentioned earlier they are just steel, putty, and glass. Most of the supplies you’ll need like Sarco DualGlaze putyy and Spring Clips are available in our store as well.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to convince you that steel windows are worth saving through this. I cheer on these underdogs whenever I see them because it’s too often that they are torn out and replaced. America was built by steel and these windows are just one example of our fantastic history. Just like most high quality materials installed in historic buildings steel windows were meant to stand the test of time…if you’ll only let them.

6 thoughts on “Are Steel Windows Worth Saving?”

  1. Has anyone tried using the 3M (or other?) window films for climate control or security/strength concerns?
    If so, did you put the film on the entire pane of glass while it was out of the frame and then glaze over it?
    were you able to get the film and do it yourself, or did you have someone treat the panes before you reinstalled them?
    Anyone calculate out if it was reasonable compared to higher energy bills or the cost of exterior or interior storms?
    Anyone ever try these products on “wavey” glass?
    Thanks

  2. all of the windows in our 1930’s brick home are steel. I would rather not replace them. Is there a good storm window that works? The previous owner installed some “storm” windows on the interior side of some of the windows, but they are pretty worthless, big gaps and such. Any suggestions? Its a large 3 story in a historic district. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for this article, Scott! I have one steel window in my 1957 ranch that I plan on restoring with the rest of my wood windows. I love all of the info you provide. I’ll most likely do the steel window in situ but I’m going back and forth on attempting to take out my wood windows to work on or just leave them in place and do what I can with them. I bought a big container of Dual Glaze instead of Type M partly because of the steel window and partly because I’m not sure about how I’m going to go about the resto job. I’m not sure I want to have the windows out for long enough for the Dual Glaze to set up.

    1. Jamie, good to hear! With one window it likely makes sense to do it in place rather than the trouble of removing and reinstalling. Concerning how long the dual glaze takes to setup we’ll usually prime, glaze and reinstall. You can then paint in place or pull the wood sashes back out to paint when the time comes.

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