Attain the Optimal Blend of Old House Trades

Steve Quillian making a window sash

Window Craft just may be the perfect old house trade to study, as it encapsulates practically all the skills needed to properly service every historic house community across the United States. It is the optimal blend of practical joinery, carpentry and finishing.

Ironically most of those who engage in a subset of Window Craft commonly called window restoration, miss this and leave their offerings to the client incomplete. Their focus is often restoring the operable part of the window, the sash, by removing its original finish and updating it with a new one. In their defense, learning the finishing element of Window Craft is hard enough and can take years to master. Mastering joinery and carpentry on top of that is a tall order for anyone.

Admittedly, I entered the world of Window Craft the lense of carpentry and it took years to understand that blending joinery and finishing with carpentry makes Window Craft complete.

The Disjointed Nature of the Trades

I started exploring the world of Window Craft around 2004 after several years as a successful carpenter, when I bought an old house as an investment. It had old windows. Like any actual carpenter would do, I began repairing and tuning the windows and soon ran into a termite damaged window sash that I wasn’t yet equipped to handle. After all, this wasn’t carpentry, per se. The sash has mortise and tenon connections. There are moulding profiles woven in. The sash is definitely a relative to the woodworking I had been trained in, yet taken to another level. A window sash is joinery.

A jointer is a person who engages in joinery, that is, assembles woodwork such that a carpenter can then manipulate and put to use. A jointer makes a door. A carpenter installs it. A jointer makes a window sash. A carpenter installs and tunes it. Both need a finisher

A finisher is a person who takes over once the jointer’s and carpenter’s jobs are complete, following the natural order of operations. A carpenter hangs a door made by a jointer and once done, the finisher applies a protective and polishing coat. Same with sash.

This disjointed relationship between carpenter, jointer and finisher is something that our culture has come to expect, but when it comes to windows, it causes a lot of problems. An optimal blend of practical joinery, carpentry and finishing is critical.

Problems with Disjointed Trades

My first encounter was the termite damaged sash at my first investment property. Like any good carpenter would do, I sought a qualified jointer to replicate it for me. I had to take the sash out of the opening, board up the window and take it a an old timer named Ernie who had a backlog of work and couldn’t give me a definitive time frame for completion. I was stuck. Fortunately I was interested enough in the mortise and tenon to give joinery a whirl on my own.

It’s easy to see the problem. What if that wasn’t my own house? How long would the sash be out of the house? How much would it cost? Not knowing what to tell a client, it’s easy to see why most people avoid this work. How does a person make any money with such an unknown? With Window Craft, carpentry and joinery have to be blended together.

Soon I was on my way toward mastering the art of sash making and blending it together with my carpentry skills. But still in my mind, finishing was something that others did and clients were on the hook for that.

More times than I could count, I hung entry doors for clients and walked away with zero expectation to apply the finish. The clients expected no different. Often they’d ask me for a referral to a finisher, but it was never me.

Blending Three Trades Together

That was until one time in 2008 when a client hired me to remove old 70s era aluminum replacement windows and build sash to reinstall into her, original to the house, window frames. We did a remarkable job and negotiated with the client that they’d be responsible for having our work painted. We completed the project with high marks and went on to the next project.
Unpainted sashes fit and installed on the left (joinery and carpentry but no finish). Aluminum window still in place on the right.

More than a year later the client called with a special request. Their house was to be on the historic home tour that year and they had not found anyone to paint their windows. They tried doing it themselves but fell short. They asked us if we’d consider painting them. We agreed and we’ve been doing all our own finishing in house ever since.

See a couple of my ancient blog posts about it here

The client’s blue tape was sun-fused to the glass

It was time. I’d had other run ins with hiring painters to finish our windows. It was like they just didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish. One guy we hired finished the windows in record time and I couldn’t believe it. Turned out he only painted the inside of windows, not the outside. No wonder.

Not pulling these three vital trades together does a great disservice to the client. This division is often the very thing that will lead a client to throw their hands in the air and hire a replacement window company so “solve” their problem. An optimal blend of practical joinery, carpentry and finishing keeps this from happening.

Disjointed Trades Leads to Overpricing

One autumn in 2015, a client in San Antonio called me, desperate because she couldn’t find anyone to solve her window problem (Wood Window Makeover was still primarily in Tampa at the time) except for one person who wanted to charge what seemed to her an exorbitant amount of money for what she was asking.

I happened to be in town for a teaching workshop, so I stopped by and saw the solution instantly. She needed three sash built, installed and finished. I told her that we could make the sash in Tampa, ship them to her and we could do the work in conjunction with the next workshop. And we did. Travel expense included, I think we did the project for a third of the other contractor.

Why was the first contractor’s price so high? How could it not be? He would have to board up the windows for an indefinite period of time to take the rotten sashes out, find a jointer who could then replicate the sashes in an indeterminate amount of time time. Surely when the jointer finally finished the replication, the contractor would be on another project and would have to find a way to stop, pull off and resume work again. And we haven’t even gotten to the finishing part. It’s practically impossible. So what does a contractor charge first an impossible job? An impossible price. What else?

The only way to adequately serve the window needs of the historic house community at large is to blend together the main three skilled trades it takes to complete a successful window project – carpentry, joinery and finishing. Anything else is incomplete and drives people to our competition – the window replacement industry.

The Optimal Blend of Old House Trades

The carpentry, joinery and finishing required in Window Craft are indeed the optimal blend of the skilled trades called upon for servicing the historic house communities in the United States. Therefore anyone who masters Window Craft basically buys the ticket of entry into a rewarding career, both intrinsically and financially, not just with windows, but with any element of the bold house requiring such a blend of skills.

How then does one go about mastering such a wonderful trade? And how long would it take? Let’s leave that discussion for another post, shall we? But if you are interested now and can’t wait, message me about our emerging apprenticeship program.

Trinity of Old House Trades
Joinery, Carpentry and Finishing blended together equal Window Craft