Replacing a Window Screen Can Be a Nastier Little Job Than You Think

Googling “replace window screen” brings up 57,100,000 results, most of which tell you how to do the job “easily”. The job can be nastier than they’ll admit, though.

Checking out none other than the mighty Bob Villa’s post on the subject, titled How To: Replace a Window Screen, makes it sound as simple as can be. Admittedly, I agree with most of the steps he describes, but there’s one huge and horrible exception. Bob states,

4. Insert the new spline. Starting at one side and working your way around the perimeter of the frame, use the convex wheel of the rolling tool to push the screen into the channel of the frame. Be sure to keep the material taut as you work your way around, then use the concave side of the same tool to insert the plastic spline….

We’ll get back to that paragraph shortly.

In the meantime, there was certainly no doubt that at least one window screen at the Border Fort needed to be replaced. As a shrewd guess, it was the hardcase Arizona sun that had done the damage. At one point (in July of 2012), an entire corner of the screen, spline included, had slipped out of the track. Gato cat discovered the opening, nose-pushed to enlarge the opening a bit, and slipped out to adventure among the coyotes, bobcats, barn owls and rattlesnakes. We were sure he’d been killed and eaten…until he showed up safe and sound, underweight and wary but not a mark on him, three weeks later.

At that time, all I did was tuck the screen and spline back into place, then use black ABS pipe glue to patch a couple of smallish holes the sun had worn through the screen. We were good to go for another year.

By the end of 2013, though, the screen had thoroughly had it. Another, larger hole had sun-blasted its way through the material. It was definitely time to replace the piece.

The old window screen was definitely ready to go, sporting a spreading hole where the sun had destroyed the material (in addition to a pair of patches done 18 months ago with ABS ppe glue).

The old window screen after removal. It was definitely ready to go, sporting a spreading hole where the sun had destroyed the material (in addition to a pair of patches done 18 months ago with ABS pipe glue).

Removing the old screen is simplicity itself; any good home burglar could zip the spline out of the track and pull the screen in two seconds flat.

But from there it gets nasty–for me, anyway. Replacing this little piece of screen intimidated me more by far than building the entire house did. No, that’s no joke; it’s not even an exaggeration.

Nasty little glitch #1: I got a roll of rubber spline from Home Depot–where I’d purchased the windows originally, so it made sense–in the wrong size. The new stuff was too big, .140 inch in diameter when it needed to be .125 inch. There was no way the oversized material would roll into the track. My trusty eyeball had fooled me. So, back to the store (15 miles each way, thank you very much) with the old spline in hand.

The new spline in .125 inch size looks like it's a match  for the old material that came out of the track.

The new spline in .125 inch size looks like it’s a match for the old material that came out of the track.

Nasty little glitch #2: The online helper pages, Bob Vila and such, tell the DIY fanatic to remove the screen frame from the window and lay it down flat before going to work on it. Uh-huh. Great idea, except for one thing. When our home settled a bit after I built it, the window frames got torqued a tad. Not enough to prevent the cheap aluminum sliders from sliding. Not enough to break any glass. But enough to jam the window screen frames into place pretty tightly; they’re not going to come out of there without destroying (or removing) the entire window setup. Which would mean chiseling away oodles of concrete stucco, pulling nails, etc.

Bottom line, the window screen had to be replaced “in place”, while the frame continued to hang vertically rather than lying flat.

The window screen came out easily, but not the frame; the new screen must be installed "in place" in the vertical frame.

The window screen came out easily, but not the frame; the new screen must be installed “in place” in the vertical frame.

Nasty little glitch #3: Bob Vila and others recommend first using the convex end of a spline roller tool to stuff the screen down into the track. They also tell the do it yourselfer to keep the screen taut while you’re doing this, to which I say…huh? I don’t know what kind of screen they’re using, but that simply doesn’t work with the roll of fine mesh plastic bug screen Home Depot stocks. Rather, maybe you can make that happen, but I can’t. Tuck in a bit of screen, try to pull it taut, and it pops right back out of there.

Nasty little glitch #4: The only way it worked for me was to stuff spline and screen into the track at the same time–but not starting out with the spline roller. In this track, with this screen and this .125 inch spline, the fit is tight. That’s good once it’s in place, but the resistance by the spline to go-into-track pressure is enough to make the metal roller slip and slam down on the glass.

That happened several times before I decided there had to be a better way, and I’d better figure one out before breaking a window.

For the tougher spots, especially starting out and also going through the corners, the only thing that got the job done was a flat bladed screwdriver.

The spline roller kept slipping, threatening to break the glass.  However, a flat bladed screwdriver was able to "punch" the spline/screen combo into the track successfully.

The spline roller kept slipping, threatening to break the glass. However, a flat bladed screwdriver was able to “punch” the spline/screen combo into the track successfully.

As time and experimentation went on, I discovered (eventually) that the concave spline roller wheel could be used safely on the longer, straight portions of the track–but not just by simply “rolling the spline in”. Instead, it was necessary to “rock” the roller forward a quarter inch (or less) at a time, applying, quite frankly, a great deal of force. After a while, this became a pain the derriere, and I’d go back to using the screwdriver for a while, and…repeat the process.

I do agree with Vila when he says to cut the screen “oversized”. There’s really no other practical way to get the fit right.

Having to work with a vertical frame, it was necessary to tuck the spline into place along the top edge first, then work down both sides at the same time. I used two pieces of spline for this purpose, so that the left and right sides could be “tucked taut” inch by inch on the way down (rather than inserting the spline all the way down on one side before starting the other side, which tended to create “crooked screen”).

The spline is inserted in the track along the top edge first.

The spline is inserted in the track along the top edge first.

Another innovation: The top edge, after spline insertion, was trimmed with a utility knife before the other three sides were “splined”. Why? It just felt better that way, letting the corners “spring free” when the excess along the top was removed.

The top edge is trimmed before the spline is inserted the rest of the way around the frame.

The top edge is trimmed before the spline is inserted the rest of the way around the frame.

The top edge is trimmed, "freeing up" the corners prior to inserting the spline into the rest of the track.

The top edge is trimmed, “freeing up” the corners prior to inserting the spline into the rest of the track.

Struggling with the spline rock-and-roller.  When one hand didn't have a camera in it, both hands were used to apply lost of pressure to the roller tool.

Struggling with the spline rock-and-roller. When one hand didn’t have a camera in it, both hands were used to apply lots of pressure to the roller tool.

After the spline and screen were fully inserted in the track and the excess trimmed all the way around, the concave roller wheel was run over the spline several times to make sure it was well seated and also to smooth the screwdriver marks down a bit.

And then–finally–the job was done. What should have taken a few minutes to do had required several hours, especially if the extra trip to Home Depot was included in the count. If you’re a reader who’s handy around the home, you’re likely to be rolling on the floor by now, laughing maniacally. Surely no one could really turn such a simple little task into a marathon ordeal such as described on this page…could he?

You be the judge. As far as I’m concerned, replacing a window screen can truly turn out to be a nasty little job. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Finally!  The new screen is in place, ready to block bug entry for another year or two.

Finally! The new screen is in place, ready to block bug entry for another year or two. It looks a little loose and billowy along the bottom edge, but only to the camera. To the naked eye, it looks nice and tight.

10 thoughts on “Replacing a Window Screen Can Be a Nastier Little Job Than You Think

  1. I enjoyed this one. I had the exact same problems as you did and was laughing about it. I was just putting the screen back in after my little boys pushed it out of the frame. The dog went through one of the screens that I had to repair. And it is a LOT easier when you can take the screen out and do it on the flat. I had one that I could not get the frame out, like you had a problem with.

  2. Now, that warms my heart, to know I’m not the only one to find a few challenges in the window screen arena. No little boys or dogs to push at the screens, but the sun on that side (dead south) is plenty fierce.

  3. I have a screen that has a big hole in it. My windows are fairly new. I know I should replace the entire screen, but I was thinking of doing a patch. Don’t they make a screen patch that comes on a roll? I’ve not looked into it yet, but something needs to be done. My son attached blue duct tape to cover the hole (it’s his bedroom window) and it looks like shit. Plus, it’s starting to come off.

  4. They do make patch kits. If you search “window screen patch kits” on Amazon, several come up–with moderately okay review ratings. I have a suspicion it’s no easier to use those than it is to replace the entire screen, but it’s only a suspicion; I’ve never used a patch kit.

    When using duct tape to cover a hole (I’ve done it), it’s best to place one piece of tape on the inside, another on the outside, and press the two together, HARD. Which would mean you on one side and your son on the other, care being taken to get the press-together part done without one person pushing too hard and breaking right through. It’ll still look like sh*t, but it’ll last quite a bit longer that way–although sooner or later, weather will always wipe out duct tape.

  5. I had the opposite issue. The spline the guy at Lowes put me on was the smaller kind, and it went in super-easy of course. But then it kept rolling out from wherever I wasn’t pushing it in. Once I used the right size, perfect.

    The second problem was when I was trimming the excess. Folks, use a VERY sharp razor. Any dullness and it either pulls or rips instead of cuts, and you are left with unsightly edges.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Brian. I can see exactly how that too-small spline would work. Seems like there ought to be a joke in there for a good standup comic, you getting a spline too small from Lowe’s and me getting a spline too large from Home Depot, but I’m not quite comedian enough to figure out the punch line.

    And you’re 100% correct about using a (very) sharp razor, of course.

  7. My grandmother used to sew a piece of window screen over a hole. She used wire to sew it on with and the repair would last for a long time.

  8. I’ve done that, too, though sew-patching would have been a waste on the old screen in this case. That’s our southern exposure, major sun damage. By the time I replaced it, the entire screen was getting ready to crumble into dust. On the other hand, it’s not like I’ve had to replace that screen all that often–just once in the past five years.

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