The specialist: Ivan Crowe, conservation joiner and sash window specialist
‘Every day is a school day with this work’
Ivan (front) and Carl Crowe of Advance Joinery Services, who specialise in restoring sash windows, working on a property in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
‘Windows are the eyes of a building – if you change them, you completely alter the look of it,” says Ivan Crowe, one of Ireland’s leading specialists in making and restoring timber sash windows in partnership with his brother Carl. One of the key visual elements of 18th- and 19th-century buildings, sash windows, are enjoying a revival and the brothers’ work can be seen all over Dublin city and beyond, from Fownes Street, Henrietta Street, South William Street to Stephen’s Green, and on to Mullingar where they restored the windows of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House and an old farmhouse in Tipperary. “If the project is interesting enough, we will travel the distance,” says Ivan.
The family tradition goes back nearly a century to the 1920s. Their father, Joseph, set up in business in Harold’s Cross in 1974 and Ivan’s first experience at his father’s side in the joinery workshop was as a youngster. Carl joined the firm straight after school. Ivan eventually followed. At the time old buildings were seen as eyesores rather than assets and there was little emphasis on restoration. The work was dangerous; in an accident while making Victorian mahogany handrails on a spindle moulder, his father lost his thumb and four fingers. “He was never the same again and died two years later at the age of 60,” recalls Ivan.
The spindle moulder, he says, is one of the most versatile machines in any joinery shop – and the most dangerous. It shapes the wooden moulding for a window’s glazing bars and requires confidence and competence to use. Sash windows are composed of more than 50 individual pieces including sash cords and pulleys that all have to knit together perfectly in the making.
Original workmanship for this once depended on simple hand tools such as chisels and hammers, so “you get an appreciation for their craftsmanship and skills making joints and mouldings. These pieces can be works of art – they were a lot more skilled then. Today we have quite a range of modern machinery to help us whereas then they didn’t”.
The company restores windows “top to bottom” and can rebuild old sashes. “It gives me great pleasure to go into a project where PVC windows are being replaced and we are able to bring it back to the way it looked when the house was first built. We can thermally insulate sash windows now with new technology to a very high standard and still get the fine glazing bar details which are key to the look of the window. We often advise our clients to have a suitably qualified conservation architect.”
Even a small section of an original window can be the guide for reproduction like a piece of a 1720s’ window found in Henrietta Street from which they were able to reproduce the whole front of the house.
New windows are made from sustainably grown hardwoods such as iroko, mahogany or teak. The Crowes work in imperial measures – feet and inches.
“There is a difference and I think it all counts,” says Ivan.
“The horn or section on a sash became fashionable in the Victorian era when they were able to produce plate glass. The Georgians couldn’t make glass of a certain size, so they broke the window into sections with crown glass – spun glass which was molten and spun,” he explains.
When it comes to specific details, he talks another language – terms trip off the tongue, such as staff beading, ovolo, Bishop’s Mitre and Lamb’s Tongue (common mouldings from the Georgian era) shutter boards, scarf, lap halving joints, rails and stiles, not to speak of lugged and shoulder architraves and feathers (the meeting rails of the sashes). Brighton and Fitch fasteners constitute window furniture.
Painting is key to maintenance, he stresses. “Most of the problems of old sash windows start with bad painting – it is unbelievable the number of problems bad painting can create.
“You cannot stint on the painting. We fit our sashes with a quick release system, allowing them to be taken out for painting and cleaning.”
Currently restoring a house in Fitzwilliam Square, another in Brighton Square and one in Bray, the Crowes are also involved in restoring the main entrance door and outbuilding gates of Malahide Castle with McKeown Construction.
As far as Ivan Crowe is concerned, the original design of the sash window cannot be bettered. The most unusual ones he ever encountered were in a very old building in Fownes Street and didn’t have parting beads (the strips of timber alongside the sashes).
“Just when you think you know everything about them, you suddenly come away with something you have never seen before. Every day is a school day with this work,” he says with a grin. See ajs.ie