Transom Window Lifts

Before & After
As with any new field of endeavor, the aspiring house renovator and historian must begin by mastering the terminology of the subject. Once you know the correct terms and definitions the rest becomes much easier and the information you need is often a mere Google search away.

Which brings us to our latest restoration project. Our 1913 Queenslander was built with 14 breezeway windows above all internal and external doors, the external windows fitted with rolled figured glass and internals with clear panes. Over time they were all nailed, painted and jammed shut and by the time we moved into the house they hadn't been opened for - who knows, 50 years or more. I can't stand paint-smothered hardware so a restoration was on the cards, and besides, we wanted to be able to open the windows during the warmer months. It helps the evening breeze and looks - well I suppose a bit tropical. It just goes with the bungalow style.

So the Internet search for restoration tips began, but what to search for? These fixtures are often referred to as "fanlights" but I quickly realized that this term should be reserved for fan- or half-moon shaped windows. The correct term for a rectangular window is transom, denoting a horizontal element or bar above a window or door.

Transom windows were generally hinged from the lower edge of the frame or on a central pivot. In colonial and federation days a range of accessories were devised to operate the high-set windows and the most common method involved a latch mechanism and cords. But in our house the formal spaces comprising the central hallway, dining room and drawing room all used transom lifts. It took me a little while to find that term and its many synonyms - transom operator, transom rod, transom opener etc. We have five of these in our house and it appears that they were commonplace in contemporary houses although most have been lost in restorations or buried in paint. But if you look for them you might spot one - as I did in my GP's surgery the other day, for example.

Locking mechanism,
with wasp 
nests
Pre- and post pictures of my efforts are shown above and below. I'd never seen a fully operational (and unpainted) transom lift before so the restoration was a journey of discovery. Before stripping the paint I could barely make out a maker's mark on the small lifter handle, which later turned out to be a "RHCo" brand. And to my delight the locking mechanism had prominent patent mark stating "Pat. June 6 1899". I also noted that the hardware had once been bronze-plated although almost all of the finish had been lost from the metal parts over time.

RHCo stands for the Reading Hardware Company which was based in Pennsylvania USA and manufactured a range of appliances and building hardware for local and export markets. There were several transom lift designs but the RHCo model has the advantage of a locking mechanism that is released by gently pulling the handle out from the wall. The 100-year old internal spring mechanism worked perfectly on all of our transom lifts, once the clogs of paint had been removed. Back in those days they made things to last.

Patent and maker's
marks
The restoration involved freeing the windows from their frames using a Stanley knife, pliers and whatever other tools required to get through the paint, fossilized dust and nails. The window frames were trimmed with a block plane and sandpapered to remove old paint and straighten warped edges. Only one window had to be removed altogether so that it could be re-shaped to fit the frame - an arduous process that required stripping of paint and removing the two side stiles that hold the pivot mechanism. All frames were rubbed down with a sanding sponge and painted.

The transom lifter components were taken apart and boiled, stripped  by hand and with paint stripper where necessary, rubbed down with fine steel wool and sealed with several coats of quality spray lacquer. A Dremel rotary tool fitted with a steel brush provided a burnished finish before the lacquer was applied. I decided not to paint the hardware black although this is an option where a uniform finish can't be achieved. The hardware was re-installed and the windows finished with a lockable latch for security.

We still have one door where the original transom lift is missing but my search for a salvaged replacement so far has drawn a blank. I suppose the lifts look unimpressive when covered in grubby old paint and are simply ripped off and tossed out whenever old houses are renovated. What a shame. And yes - reproductions are available of this exact model but the casting and detailing is downright awful compared to the originals. The search for a salvaged, genuine "Reading" transom lift goes on.

The 1899 patent, full document
available here

If you have any additional information or corrections to this post please let me know. 

4 comments:

  1. You provide good information about the transom window lifters.The images shows that great work is done by you . Keep it up.Thanks for sharing.
    Queenslander Renovations

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  2. I just spent this morning freeing the transom window from above out front door. It certainly lets the Brisbane summer breezes through now that it's opened. I suspect the window hadn't been moved in decades.

    In the process, though, I noticed that our window has identical hardware. Strangely, though, only our front door appears to have ever been fitted with such hardware. The similar transom windows above other doors to the verandah have to make do with a rope!

    Thanks for the blog. As a fellow Brisbane renovator, it's great to share this information.

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  3. Hi David - thanks for the comment. The transom lifters were often used only in the formal areas and main entry doors, other transom windows used ropes. I will post an article on the latch and cord system shortly.

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  4. Thanks very much for this great article;this is the stuff that keeps me going through out these day. OPW By Design

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