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How To: Restring Old Windows

How To: Restring Old WindowsLearning to restring old windows is a pretty straight forward task that any DIYer can tackle to get their old windows working again. Personally, there is nothing that irks me more than living in an old house where I can’t open any of my windows. It feels downright claustrophobic. So, if you have a bunch of cut or missing sash cords on your old motionless windows, you can get these windows working again in about an hour.

Old historic windows are architecturally beautiful, and when restored properly, operate more easily than modern replacement windows. But, the best feature of historic windows is that they are not designed to become obsolete.

They will last centuries with proper maintenance, which is honestly very minimal. If your windows are also painted shut, check out my post How To: Open Stuck Windows in 4 Easy Steps before you attempt to restring.

Tools You’ll Need

Step #1 Remove the StopRemove Window Stop

Tip: If only one rope is broken/missing, remove the stop on the side of the broken/missing rope.

Bottom sash – Start by removing the stop on one side of the inside of the window. You’ll only need to remove one side to get the sash out. The stop is the trim piece that keeps the bottom sash in the proper line. To remove the stop, you’ll want to score the paint between the window casing and stop and then slow use you putty knife to pry the stop free. Once the stop is removed, you should be able to remove the bottom sash. With the bottom sash off, you can now remove any remnants of the old ropes on it’s sides.

Step #2 Remove the Parting Bead

Caution! If your top sash is not strung up anymore when you cut the paint free and remove the parting bead, it can come crashing down. Make sure it is carefully supported.

Top sash – If you need to restring a top sash, you’ll need to remove the parting bead on one side as well. This piece holds the top sash in place and is usually not nailed in place, though it will likely have a dozen or so coats of paint holding it in place. Score the parting bead just like the stop and slowly try to pry it out using the putty knife, or pliers if necessary.

Access Sash WeightsStep #3 Reattach the Sash Weights

Once you have the sashes, stop, and parting bead out, you can access the sash weights via the access door. This door will be hiding on the sides of the window casing toward the bottom where the parting bead was, and will have one or two painted over screws that, when removed, will allow you to access the weights. With the door removed, you’ll have to carefully fish around in there to find your old iron weights. Occasionally, someone will have replaced the weights with insulation. In that case, you’ll have to search salvage yards for replacements weights.

After you get the weights located, feed a new length of rope through the pulley at the top down into the weight pocket until it reaches the weights. Then, thread the rope through the eyelet on the top of the weight and tie it off with a Bow knot.

Step #4 Tie Off the SashesTie Off Window Sash

To determine the proper length of the rope, measure so that if the sash was in its upmost position, the weights would still be suspended and not resting on the bottom. Once you have your rope cut, tie a double knot that fits into the circular hole on the side of the sash. The rest of the length of rope will fit inside the channel above that circle. You can add a nail here to secure it or some people leave it as is. If you do use a nail, make sure it is fully inside the hole and not long enough to protrude into the glass. Don’t forget to do both sides, and be careful supporting the sash while trying to attach the rope that the weights don’t come crashing down if you suddenly lose your grip.

Step #5 Reassemble the PuzzleRestring Old Window

Reassembling the window has to be done in a specific order and so here it is:

  1. Attach the top sash
  2. Reinstall the parting bead (this is easiest if the top sash is all the way down)
  3. Attach the bottom sash
  4. Reinstall the window stop (use a few finish nails or a brad nailer to do this)

Once everything is in again, test your windows to make sure everything is working smoothly. Open and close both sashes all the way to make sure you have the proper length sash cords and that the window stops are not to tight. There you have it! Enjoy your windows and share some pictures with us when you’ve finished.

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51 thoughts on “How To: Restring Old Windows

  1. I couldn’t find the access door in my sash windows, and ended up prying off the side panel to access the weights (for restringing)… with subsequent plaster damage, wood damage, AND the side panel never goes back properly (sticking out a bit). Looking where there SHOULD be an access door from inside the walls, there seems to be etching in the wood for an access panel, but it doesn’t go all the way through.
    Was the original installer supposed to chisel it open? Should I just take a sharp wood chisel to it? Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. Rebecca, I discovered the same issue with my c. 1910 house. When re-siding the house and re-doing the kitchen I discovered that my windows had some very interesting differences. First, each window has a single pane of glass. There is glazing putty only around the perimeter. The muntins are somehow glued to the pane of glass! Second, they are double hung and there are four sash cords + weights. But the window itself is held in by the trim both inside and outside, both almost 4″ wide. I went searching for the sash pocket access door but there was none. Every video or web site I’ve seen, including this one, seems to think there is only one way historic windows were built. Sounds like we found out the hard way.
      It sucks too, because basically to get the windows working again on this kind of window one must either remove the siding to expose the open sash pockets or remove the interior trim.

  2. I don’t have access door in my sash windows, and ended up prying off the side panel to access the weights (for restringing)… with subsequent plaster damage, wood damage (from nails pulling out), AND the side panel never seem to go back properly (sticking out a bit). On the WALL SIDE of the window, there seems to be etching for an access panel, but since there is no screws or ANYTHING, how does one open it?
    Was the original installer supposed to chisel it open? Should I just take a sharp wood chisel to it? Any advice would be appreciated.

  3. I’ve successfully replaced a couple double hung sash windows in my 1910 house. But when replacing the top sash, the window doesn’t want to hug the top of the casement when closed. The weights are the same that were installed in 1910, i’m pretty sure, the only thing that’s changed is the replacement of the windows and the cord. The weights are not resting on the bottom of the channel they live in.

    Is there some mathematical relationship between the length of the sash cord and the ability of the window to close all the way?

    1. When the top sash is in the closed position the weights should be floating just above the sill and not touching which will cause the sash to not stay closed.

      1. thanks so much for your reply.

        Yes, i’ve made sure the weights are not touching the sill, but the window still hangs crooked. I’m pretty sure the two weights are equal (we’ve never changed them), but wondering if they need to be?

          1. Well, if I’ve stumped you, I’m really in trouble — ! 🙂 Many thanks for your replies and trying to help.

            Diane Livia

          2. I’m wondering if maybe it’s because the frame is not square while the window is hanging plumb. I’ll get a level out this evening and test this hypothesis.

            thanks again,

    2. The glass shop I used to replace the glass in one of 4 sashes used double strength glass. It is 3/32 I think… nevertheless it was heavier than the other 3 sashes (in a pair of double hung windows).
      I did that before thinking about the weights.
      The windows were in rough shape to begin with and all 8 of the weights were different. I was able to accommodate the heavier sash by switching the weights around. I borrowed a kitchen scale and wrote all the weights on the weights…. hope you follow that!….then did a mix and match until they worked. I think that on my windows the upper sashes of the sets started out being a little lighter because there is more wood in the lower.

  4. I have successfully restrung my upper sash and replaced it and everything works well, except that the top sash was hanging such that there was a small gap on the right side. So, I cut the sash cord by about 2 inches to make sure the weight was not resting on the bottom of the channel it travels up and down. But now the whole window is leaving a gap at the top of about 3/4 of an inch. How do i get the top sash to fit snugly up against the top of the casement? I know the left side’s sash cord is short enough that the weight doesn’t sit on the bottom not allowing the window to close all the way.

    I fear there’s a calculus problem i’m supposed to solve in order to get these cords right.

    Diane Livia

  5. I love old windows, but I have not seen that they are the most practical. You say here that old historic windows will last centuries and that they are not designed to become obsolete, but are they really the best option when technology has helped windows to be better than older windows? Do these historic windows help keep out heat and keep in the cool?

  6. What if the window does not have sash cords, weights, or pulleys? Some of the single-hung windows I am dealing do not have any of the working parts. The lower sash doesn’t appear to have room for cords or weights. I am trying to convince the homeowner to restore her windows rather than pay for custom wood windows with reclaimed glass. Wants them to be operable.

    1. I know it’s too little too late, but it may use a spring loaded metal tape at the top of the window frame. If so, the face of it it will be flush with the top inside of the frame and is usually about an inch wide and 3-4″ long.

  7. I am reworking a set of 2 double hung side by side windows in our laundry room.
    before tuning into the handy paint remover that is on this website, I removed all the paint from the sashes and the frame.
    I also removed the paint from the stop and parting bead. I am having a bit of a time getting the parting bead to stay in the groove. The windows were in rough shape to begin with…. the groove is not a consistent size, and after my paint removal the parting bead is a bit thinner. I tried to get new parting bead at a very good local lumber yard that had previously sold parting bead to me that was thicker than what they have now.
    My question is: are there any tricks aside from using nails or glue, that will enable the original, albeit, beat up bead to stay put but will allow it to be removed in the future?

  8. Hi Scott,
    Does sash cord stretch over time (if it’s label says “sash cord”? If so how much more space between the bottom of the weight and the ? sill? should one allow to make sure the weight doesn’t start hitting bottom?

    Do you carry any sash cord that doesn’t have the red spots?

    1. Nan, true cotton sash cord does not stretch. I don’t sell anything other than he Samson Spot cord but there are other options around for plain white cord like Buffalo sash cord.

  9. Unable to access weights to replace broken weights in single-hung window of 26-year-old house

  10. So far I’ve followed your directions and everything has gone beautifully. Probably a really dumb question here, but this is the 1st window I’ve ever tried to restore. The sash cords look great on the bottom sash, but there weren’t any sash cords in place on the top sash, making the window lower unexpectedly when I opened the latch. I’m assuming their should be a second weight to balance the top sash on each size, right? Can’t find any clarification. FYI I do have access doors.

    1. Hey Nathan! If you see a second set of pulleys in the track where the top sash slides then there should have been a weight hidden in the pocket just waiting to be re-roped. If there is no additional set of pulleys then it may be a single hung window in which case it will not be operable, but from what you described it sounds like it should be an operable top sash.

      1. Thanks, Scott! Yes, there is a second pulley. Unfortunately, no weight there on either side. Looks like I’ll be doing some hunting for weights, and a lot of them considering the guy who “restored” these windows previously had a tendency to “restore” things half way throughout the house. 1/2 of a window done only 19 1/2 to go! This blog has been a life saver.

        1. DId you get these windows restored? I am just now starting on 17 windows and I am scared to death I am going to mess them up. If you have any other tips please email me with them I welcome lol help. I come to this sight often and he has helped me with several questions. I came here today because I didn’t know how long to make sash cords. I guess just off the bottom on both top and bottom sash?

          1. So far behind!!! I’m through 2 of the 19 in the house. Other things came up with house that needed to be addressed 1st. Now that I’ve done 2, and feel much better about doing them, I’ve decided to pull 3 out at the same time, that way I can kind of assembly line it. Main reason is the curing time for the glaze. I try to do as much as I can during that waiting period. Following Scott’s directions make this task SO much easier. Fortunately, since I can do this project is saving us a ton of money. The porch on the other hand, not so much. At least I don’t have to get new columns turned thought, whew.

  11. Love this site. i rent a ’27 cottage the bottom sash will stick if i raise the window above the rope pulley system that is exposed. not all the windows behave this way. could the weights not be balanced. the handyman at one point nailed the area around the exposed rope area so the window couldn’t be raised above that area. i’m not a person of the tool, but something is weird with this situation. Thanks for all the insight. i’m tempted to break out my tools and fix it and fix it right. this is the third time this has happened. can’t wait to see if i can fix it……………..

  12. I am trying to find a quicker fix for the lead weighted windows that restringing, as my daughter’s landlord doesn’t want to disturb the 1928 trim n the windows must stay up for inspection.

    Can you please advise?

    Tim Grove

    1. If your windows have weight pocket access doors it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes per side to re-rope. You can alternatively get a window stick from Window Wonan of New England if you really can’t restring.

  13. I’ve started on the first of 36 windows in my new (to me) old house, starting in the garage. I have the bottom sash out, only to find no access door to reach the weight. Do you have instructions somewhere on how to deal with this?

    1. Wound up removing the interior trim to reach the weights. But at least it’s a practice window in the garage.

      1. I’m starting on window 3 of 15 in my small craftsman home, and have yet to find a weight pocket door. Once I had the old spring bronze removed & the nails pulled, I was able to cut my own weight pockets using a multi-tool oscillating saw. I cut the top & bottom of the pocket door at a sharp angle so when the pocket door is inserted, a wood screw at the top & bottom secures it in place. I hope a future owner appreciates this instead of having to remove the interior trim.

          1. Well, as it turns out – window #4 had weight pocket doors. The first 3 windows were single hung sashes that slid up into the wall above them. Number 4 is a traditional double hung. I’m pretty confident they are all the same age, so it beats me the difference.

  14. What can we do to prevent so much cold/heat from transferring through the voids where the weights and cords are? House is exact replica of Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and is made of poured concrete between polystyrofoam panels so walls are quite thick and voids quite large. Also, 4 3-sash windows in one room are 10′ tall. All sashes move- grat for air flow and temp control except at temp extremes. Any suggestions?

    1. Patricia, insulating weigh pockets is difficult. Depending on how much space you have it may not be able to be done. It is one of the only drawbacks to the counterweight system. If there is space I’ve seen folks install 1/2 to 1″ of spray foam in the pockets without trouble. Sp that is an option possibly.

        1. Hi Arianna, Thank you for that idea. I ordered some 6″ wide and plan to cut it to the width I need.
          I noticed that it came with double sided tape to keep the roll from unwinding.
          I would like to find that double sided tape and use it to attach the reflectix … at least to put it in place before nailing the trim back on.
          Has anyone tried that method?
          How did you attach it?

  15. Hi Scott! I am working on restoring some old double hung windows in a 1950’s house here is So California. I finally got the two sash windows moving again independent of each other. They’re still realIy sticky though. I looked at all the videos to replace the cords, etc.. However, when I looked at the windows there are no pulleys, no little box to open at the bottom. Instead it has a flat metal piece in the sliding part, right where the two windows come together in the middle. I thought those were stops??? The top window has a metal cord. It all looks like original wood. What the heck is this system and how do I fix it? I can’t find any info on it.
    I’m taking the windows out today to investigate further since I can’t see where that metal cord is suppose to attach too. It’s only on one side. Weird!!!

    1. It sound like you have a the “invisible sash balance” system. It was popular in the 1950s and it something I loath working on. No pulleys just a spring loaded balance that is mortised into the side of the sash. The small wire is held under tension and screwed into the window jamb. When you unscrew it it will shoot back into its housing if you’re not holding onto it tightly. You find a little more info on them here:

  16. A few questions:
    1) Any thoughts on using chain instead of rope for longevity?
    2) If only 1 rope is broken or missing,aren’t the chances good the other one has a similar lifespan?
    3) Are weights counterbalanced to the specific window? How do you know what weight to get for a replacement if none are there to begin with?

    1. Good questions Gary!
      1) Chain is definitely an upgrade and will last longer, but quality sash rope should last about 80-100 years and is much cheaper. I use chain only when the sashes are extremely heavy or the client wants it for aesthetic purposes.
      2) If you are replacing one rope you might as well do both.
      3)Weights are specific to each sash. If there are no weights you can take the sash out and weigh it. Then get two weights that are each half the total weight of the sash. (Ie. a 12 lbs. sash will need two 6 lbs. weights)

  17. Please use lead-safe work practices when removing paint that was put on pre-1978; his likely is lead-based and VERY toxic fumes and dust. If kids or pregnant moms inhale or ingest it, it can cause irreversible nervous system, brain and other organ damage. See Make sure the unit you buy is UL-listed for international safety like any quality tool sold in the US should. I don’t think this machine is. Look for an infrared paint remover that has this certification.

  18. This piece a nice complement to Fine Homebuilding article a few years ago on the same subject. Where we live (outside Vancouver, BC) it’s very difficult to find old windows and window components, even at architectural salvage stores. Seattle – our next big town to the south – is the same and what one does find is expensive. That said, New England was a different story when we were building there several years ago; there were plenty of old barn-style stores filled with antiques and dusty old house parts. In either case, being Northerners, restoring these windows while increasing their efficiency would be ideal, an enjoyable and not altogether easy project! I too hail from the South and wonder if bargains are still abundant. I spent a great deal of my childhood chasing antique bargains with my grandparents in the 1970’s! Thanks for sharing…

    1. The deals are still here in the south. I can usually find about any style old window I need at a salvage yard for about $40. And it does make it much easier to use original parts.

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