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Replacing window screens

There comes a time when you need to do a window screen replacement project. Screen material is torn, frayed, ripped, sun damaged and perhaps, even coming off it’s frame entirely. What’s worse is insects and spiders have an easy way in if you open your windows.  Now, you’ve probably heard how you can just buy some screen fabric, pop out the old stuff, and just replace it. This is mostly true, but there are a few things you should know first to make your job easier.

Once you learn this fun little skill, you’ll be a replacement window screen expert. Why does this matter? Well, as a homeowner in a house with many windows, you’ll most likely get to use your ability for years to come. Let’s face it, window screens replacement is inevitable. There are many things around your house that just won’t last forever; and, this is certainly one of them!

Before we get started on the details of how to replace a window screen, here are some basic concepts to think about as you get prepared. First, you may wonder just how you get the screen material to be so tight, i.e. no wrinkles or waves. You have to think like an artist and the way they stretch a canvas. They fasten it to one end of their frame, pull the material taught, then secure the other opposing end.

It’s no different when replacing window screens. In fact, your job is easier when you’re working with vinyl or aluminum sash frames, since these use what’s called a spline. That’s the thin, little rubber-like cord that you squish into the sides to hold the material in. More on that later.

Replacement window screens material
Window screen material comes in several varieties believe it or not. They range from plastics to metals like copper or bronze. The most common types are vinyl, fiberglass and aluminum. Aluminum is more inconspicuous and sturdy, however, it’s more prone to staining. Fiberglass or plastic won’t stain quite as easily, but are made with thicker filaments, so you see them more easily. Fiberglass is also cheaper and easier to work with, but it won’t last as long. Metal varieties require regular maintenance such as needing to apply special coatings.

As for the color or shade of the window screen fabric, you have options there too. Black and dark-colored replacement window screens are easier to see through, than say, brightly colored aluminum types. Over time, the lighter colors will darken, so keep that in mind. You can also look for special replacement window screen material that’s made specifically to block the sunlight better. Keep in mind though, that if you change the type or color on one window, it may stand out in comparison to your other windows. It’s best to stay consistent and keep things looking balanced overall.

Most replacement window screen material is sold in prepackaged sizes. Standard dimensions are 25″ wide by 32″, 36″ and 48″ long; and 84″ long by 32″, 36″ and 48″ wide. If needed, you can buy the fabric in bolts (endless lengths) in widths of 24, 36, 48, 60, and 72-inches widths. Also, look for 18/14 mesh or finer.

How to do a window screen replacement
Ok, now it’s time to get to work. You’ll see that this kind of project isn’t too challenging, and only requires a few inexpensive tools. Let’s get started:

For wood window frames:

  1. First, lay window screen/frame down flat and remove the moldings that hold the screen in. Start with the middle rail, and cut the paint bond between molding and frame. Then, pry the strips loose with a chisel or putty knife. Work your way out from the center and lift up staples or brads.
  2. Using scissors, cut replacement window screen fabric slightly wider (1″-2″), and at least one-foot longer. Then, staple the top edge to the frame.
  3. Now, nail a strip of wood to your workbench or old table about 6″ from the bottom of the frame. Pull the excess length of replacement window screen over this wood and nail a second wood strip over that, sandwiching the material.
  4. Next, pull the whole frame and screen away from the wood strip sandwich until it’s taught. When it’s taught and even, staple the bottom edge and finish with the sides.
  5. Cut the excess off and refit the moldings with small brad nails.

For metal window frames:

  1. First, lay window screen/frame down flat and remove the vinyl spline that holds the old screen in. Just pry out carefully with a small screw driver. If it appears cracked, over-stretched or rotted, you should pick up a new spline.  (It’s also called a spline cord or rubber screen spline).
  2. At this point, it’s a good idea to clean the channel you just removed the spline cord from. Use a vacuum or cloth with alcohol to remove all specs of dirt.
  3. Now, lay your new window screen (replacement) over the frame. Square it up and cut all excess that hangs over the frame itself. This is the size you want your new window screen to be-to the edges of the frame. Tip: clip or “dog ear” the corners at a 45-degree angle so they fold in easier later.
  4. Next, bend the mesh (if it is metal, not soft vinyl or fiberglass) upward and force it into the frame’s channel (spline groove) using a spline roller. (This is the pizza cutter tool, also called a screen-installation splining tool or screening tool). Be sure to use the convex side of the spline tool to do this part. Convex will look like a “V” shape if you hold it in front of you.
  5. If you have vinyl/fiberglass fabric you’re ready to force the tubular spline cord into its groove (over the screen) using the concave side (grooved) of the tool. Do one side at a time, using short/choppy motions. Be sure to hold the screen straight while working on the first two sides. This will tighten the mesh down, and you’re done! One last hint: If you need to trim excess, use a utility or razor knife, pressing the tip between the spline and the exterior side of the spline channel.

Don’t worry if you feel like you’re going slow as you do your first window screen replacement. You’ll get faster and learn the techniques that work. After time, you’ll have it down and will be able to maintain your window screens and replace old ones as needed.

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