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It is commonly accepted that window screens became prevalent around turn of the 20th century. Imagine--with home air conditioning in its first iterations and not widely in use until much later in the century, how would you go about cooling your early 20th century home? Easy--open the windows.
Still a valid option today, opening windows creates a cool breeze. In fact, this is a great way to lower energy bills, taking some of the load off our often-overworked air conditioning units. Now, how do you open windows while keeping unwanted critters out? Answer--with window screens.
Almost without fail, manufacturers of modern windows ship their new products with pre-built screens. However, it is not uncommon that a window screen is pulled out, lost, or is otherwise irreparably damaged in a storm.
Screen design and dimensions can vary not only based on window type (double-hung, slider, awning, casement, etc.), but also ever so slightly by window manufacturer. If your windows are new enough, often the most straightforward option for replacing a screen is identifying the maker of the window and simply reaching out to them.
If the manufacturer cannot be identified, cannot be contacted, or your specific windows are simply out of production, do not fret. Fortunately, for us, building a new window screen is an easy proposition.
Many mom and pop hardware stores offer screen building and screen replacement services. While these shops may have some specialty equipment, which eases the process of building a new screen, you can similarly achieve a reasonable replacement with not much more than a well-stocked toolbox, plus one specialty tool.
Note: This article focuses on building a screen for a double-hung window (as this window type is by far the most prevalent), but most techniques described within this guide apply to screens for all window types.
1.Tools and Materials
Tools Materials Skill Level Estimated Time • Tape measure • Screen Beginner 1 hour • Utility knife • Spline • Scissors • Screen frame • Hack saw • Screen corners • Miter box • Pull tabs • Metal file • Tension springs • Rubber mallet • Cross brace • Phillips head screwdriver • Masking tape • Needle nose pliers • Splining tool
2.Planning and Prep
Ideally, you will have additional screens (windows with screens of the same size) that you can use as a template for building a new screen. Further, considering the shape that your existing screens are in is an essential part of this job.
Beyond frame color, there are a number of decisions you will need to make prior to building your new screen. Screening itself, the interwoven mesh that makes up the screen, is commonly available in two materials: aluminum and fiberglass. Unless you are absolutely certain that you are matching existing aluminum screening, fiberglass should be your choice because it is durable and workable.
There are subtle differences in the color of screening material, with black, gray, and charcoal being the most common. Further, advancements in recent years have yielded additional options like clear-view, light filtering (solar), and pet-resistant screen material. When replacing only one or two screens, successfully selecting the material that either matches your existing screens or satisfies some special need can have a big impact on the outcome of your job.
Window screen frames are constructed of aluminum, are ¾” wide, and have a spline channel of 1/8” to 9/64”. The depth (or the thickness) of the frame may vary, but 5/16” is by far the most common.
Spline, the rubbery (EPDM or polyfoam) material that locks screening in place, appears in either a rectangular or a tubular form. Measured by its diameter, spline can range in size from .125 to .250. Today’s frames will typically call for spline in the range of .125 to .175. Generally speaking, the type of screening you have chosen to use should drive your spline selection.
Standard fiberglass will call for a .140- to .150-diameter spline, while heavier sun- or pet-resistant screen will demand the smaller .125 to .130 option. Spline over .180 will often only come into play when repairing vintage screens, and most screen makers will provide a recommendation on spline diameter.
Spline, too, is available in various colors including black, gray, and charcoal, as well as a sand color. Spline is commonly packaged in lengths of 25, 100, or 250 feet.
Home improvement stores will stock kits for the most common configurations and window sizes. This may be an option, but remember that screens, for any size window, can just as easily be assembled from parts.
Always purchase screen at a size no less than two inches longer and two inches wider than the window’s opening. Screen is often available in 36- and 48-inch widths both in single use (seven-foot) or longer “bulk” (25 or more feet) rolls.
Screen frame parts are often available in seven-foot lengths. Later these parts are cut to size using a hacksaw. Frame material is hollow, allowing it to accept coordinated corners. Screen corners are not universal and change just so slightly based on the profile of the specific frame product.
The hardest part of gathering your screen components may in fact be selecting the matching pull-tabs and the tension springs to be used in your assembly.
Screens wider than 36” should be fitted with a cross brace, which helps stabilize the assembly. Cross braces are unique to frame products, so make sure you purchase a brace that will mate with the spline channel of your screen frame. If your existing screens have no cross brace, you can easily forgo them here.
4.Assemble the Frame
If you have access to a similar screen, remove it from the window and measure its height and width. If you do not have a similar sized screen, measure the window opening. This is typically found on the outside of the window, but with some window types (like casements or awnings), the screen may be installed on the inside.
Note: Modern double-hung windows often have a channel or bead that the screen fits. Because screens seat into these recesses, under the force of tension springs, the screen itself may need to be up to a 1/2” inch larger than the actual opening in height, width, or both.
- 1. Layout and Cutting
- 2. Installing Tension Springs and Corners
To layout your frame, work on a flat surface. Your work surface should be large enough to hold the entire frame, and stable enough to support modest pressure. The spline channel, or groove, found in the frame material will be oriented toward the center of the frame, or towards the screen as you work. Layout your parts with this in mind.
For ¾” frames, cut the individual frame pieces 1 ½” shorter than their measured length and width. (This accounts for the thickness of frame, top and bottom, and left and right. Ex. ¾” + ¾” = 1 ½”.) While larger 1” frames are often mitered, ¾” frames are instead cut square. Cuts for both types, however, are best executed with the help of a miter box. We cut the aluminum framing with a hacksaw and use a metal file to smooth any rough edges that may result from cutting.
While assembling your frame parts, insert the long tab of a tension spring into the hollow end of one member of the screen frame. Placement of tension springs may vary based on the design of the window. At minimum, one each should be installed either at the top and the bottom of a vertical member or at the left and the right of a horizontal member. Insert the tension springs prior to inserting your screen corners.
In many cases, installing coordinated corners requires nothing more than sliding them in. In other cases, and especially when a tension spring is present, installing corners may require a little more persuasion. If required, tap the corner lightly with a rubber mallet until the corner’s tab slides fully into the frame. Repeat the process of installing corners until you have a fully assembled four-sided frame.
On larger screens, you may be required to install a coordinated cross brace near the midpoint of the screen. Measure both up and down from each of your four corners and install the brace exactly perpendicular to the frame. Mark the bottom edge of the cross brace on each of the long legs of the frame with a light pencil mark. This will then give you a visual reference, helping ensure that the brace does not swivel as you install screening.
5.Install the Screening
To help with installing the screening perfectly straight, square the frame up with an edge of your work surface. It is often preferable to employ a work surface that offers a “lighter” backdrop than screen material. This aids with eyeballing during the installation of screening.
Tip: Try to orient the frame such that you are standing at the screen’s bottom edge. Use masking tape to tape the frame down to the work surface. Doing so will help keep the frame from racking as you work to install your screening (Do not cover the frame’s spline groove with tape).
While some find it easier to pre-cut screening to a rough-use size (frame dimension plus two inches in height and width), it may be preferable to roll the screen over the frame from bottom to top. With two inches overlay at the side of the screen and at the top, work carefully to find a long vertical column in the screen. Align it with the frame. Similarly, find a horizontal row in the screening and align it with the top of frame.
Important! Do not stretch or otherwise deform the screen’s frame as you work. A framing square set beneath and moved around the inside corners can be of some use for ensuring that your frame stays true.
With spline in hand, insert it firmly at the upper corner sitting at the inside of the work surface. Work back towards you, rolling out the spline. Move slowly across the top of the frame inserting a few inches of spline at a time and checking that the screen is not bundling, twisting, or otherwise stretching.
Using light pressure, run the grooved side of your spline roller first back toward you and then away from you. By applying an equal and opposite motion to the spline, we ensure that it does not stretch, as it is rolled and bedded. This is of critical importance.
Note: Screen roller tools are typically fitted with two small wheels, one grooved and one rounded and smooth. The rounded wheel is designed to pre-form the aluminum screen before the spline is inserted. While potentially useful while bedding heavier screen material (like pet or solar screen), the rounded side of this tool is not needed in a simple fiberglass screen project.
Once you have made your way across the top of the frame, check your work. If you get this first run on the screen and splining perfect, it will significantly ease the rest of the installation.
At this point, cut the rough size of your screening from the screen roll (again two inches beyond the height and width). Use a pair of scissors and again follow both a column and a row, respectively, to keep your cuts straight.
Our goal now is to work around the perimeter of the screen, inserting the spline in a single piece and pass. Patience and precision is required, but note that with fiberglass screening, spline is removable and can be reinserted with minimal impact. As you navigate corners, use a Phillips head screwdriver to bed the spline into the spline groove. Proceed down your first long leg of the screen frame. (If your screen contains a cross brace, be conscious that it remains undisturbed as you install the screening and spline.)
If required, and partially based on your selected work surface, pull your masking tape and rotate your frame 180 degrees. Retape the frame to the work surface if you choose to rotate it.
On installing at the bottom, you may optionally install finger and pull tabs. With some screen and window pairings, this little accessory is vital for installation and can help later with easy removal for repair or cleaning.
When you reach the last “short” corner, the bottom in this project, you will make another turn up and into your final long leg. This is a good point to double check the screen to ensure it is showing no signs of bunching or waviness. Install the spline up that last vertical. When you again reach that “first” corner, use a utility knife to carefully cut the spline. Cut splining about 1/4” long and bed it again with your screwdriver.
Using your roller tool, go around the entire perimeter. This time, firmly nest the spline into the groove.
Working carefully with your utility knife, now trim all excess screening. Place your knife on a steep(ish) angle, and run it above the spline just at the point where it meets the outside face of the spline groove. Tip: It is better here to trim the screen a little longer than it is to cut it just a little too short.
Remove your tape from the work surface and reinstall your screen.
6.Installing the Screen
Screens for double-hung windows can be installed from inside the home safely. If the window where the screen is to be installed is low enough to the ground, you may choose to install it from the exterior instead. If needed, give yourself added height by using a step stool for the interior and an extension ladder for the exterior.
7.From the Inside of the Home
Locate the screen channel that appears as part of the window unit. With one sash of your double-hung window open, turn your newly completed screen on its side, remaining conscious that the splined-side (the side on which optional pull-tabs should appear) faces in. Angle it corner to corner on a forty-five degree angle and pass it through the window opening. Once it is clear of the window sash(es), twist it back into its proper orientation.
Grasping the screen firmly with one hand at its midpoint, guide the side of the screen containing springs into the screen channel. With your free hand relocated to your screen’s pull-tab(s), apply light pressure to the tension springs such that the spring’s compress allows you to swing the opposite side of the screen in line with the opposite side of the screen channel. You will need to now relocate your second hand to the pull-tab. Pull inward on the pull-tab such that it is completely in the screen channel, and is now fully installed.
While this article focuses on building a window screen for a double-hung window, the steps contained within would apply to building a screen insert for a storm door in many cases. As wide and varying as window construction can be, screen or storm door construction is possibly even more unique and specific to manufacturer. It is also best practice here to research requirements based on existing door units, possibly reaching out to the maker for replacement screens. In general, though, while construction details and materials as well as the installation methods may vary, the techniques used in assembling the screen should remain roughly the same.
While offered as a service by many local hardware stores, building a window screen is a relatively easy proposition, and is easily within the reach of any homeowner. With a minimal outlay in terms of supplies and project-specific tools, screen building is a skill well worth learning. Over the life of a home, it is a project that will likely be executed more than once.