Mastering the significant art of window washing

#103 in a series of true experiences in real estate
June 1995, Hills Newspapers

Maybe it’s because I look at so many houses that I love clean windows. Clear and slick, no streaks or smudges even with the sun on them, these are truly clean windows. Every time I walk into a house with clean windows, I think again, “Such a small thing. So much impact.”

Getting my own windows to that state, I’ve found, is not easy. For years I used Windex and paper towels. I sprayed and wiped and rubbed. The windows look fine to me until the sun is glittering off the glass; then I see the spots.

I did buy a rubber-bladed squeegee and some special window soap awhile back, but I never quite got the knack of using them.

The centers were better but the edges still bad. It seems to take longer to wash windows with a squeegee, and there’s a bucket of water to contend with, so I went back to using Windex in a spray bottle.

Then one good day we met Jill Heine. We were getting an old Berkeley house ready for sale. Jill had been hired to clean up after quite a lot of construction was completed.

I remember watching Jill washing windows that first day that we met her. The procedure looked simple enough. She washed each pane, went over the glass with a razor blade, brought the squeegee across, then wiped the edges of the window dry. The results were fabulous.

She was working in a large porch-like room at the back of the house with oversized double-hung windows looking out to the yard and an apple tree. The room had just been painted white and it looked clean and much better than before, but as Jill washed the windows, the glass seemed to vanish and the green leaves of the apple tree appeared to rush inside, the white walls sharpening the green. It was beautiful.

I went right home to wash windows. I thought I was doing it just like Jill, thought I was going slow and being careful. But when I was done and I stood back to look, I was disappointed. My edges were still smeary.

The next time I saw Jill, I asked her to give me a lesson, which she was happy to do, and I tried again. But I still didn’t have it right.

I didn’t know what was wrong until last week when Anet and I went to look at a multi-story house on a downslope in the Berkeley hills.

Overlooking tall trees and the bay, the large windows were strikingly clean. My very first thought was, “I’ll bet Jill did these windows.”

Now that says something. Can it be that the work of an expert window washer is instantly recognizable? Like the work of an artist? I guess so, because we went downstairs in that house and found Jill there. She was just finishing the last of the windows.

“I thought this had to be your work,” I told her, “because the windows look so good,” and we both laughed. Then I made my confession. “I’ve gone back to Windex,” I said. “Could you tell me all over again what you do?”

Jill uses a little Joy dishwashing liquid in warm water and a terry cloth wash rag to go over each pane. While the glass is wet, she scrapes off any paint around the edges and goes lightly over the surface with a single-edged razor blade. With a section of dry terry cloth towel, she very carefully wipes one edge of the glass, the edge where she will place her squeegee. She draws the squeegee across the pane, wipes it dry after each pass, then dries the remaining edges with the towel.

She does not vary her routine. She is patient and steady, never missing any part with her razor blade, making sure that the squeegee and the towel are completely dry before they touch the glass.

Jill said she thought my towel was damp; that’s where I went wrong. Jill uses lots of towels, old bath towels she gets at Good Will. She uses No. 9 razor blades because they don’t scratch the glass. And she has squeegees of various lengths, 16 inches the longest.

I asked how she became a window washer and if she likes it. She enjoys cleaning things. She needed a job some years ago and figured she could clean houses.

“A lot of people think they don’t know how to do anything,” she told me.

“They limit themselves with their jobs, but I began cleaning and then I wanted to know how to wash windows. I just went up to this guy; I didn’t even know him. He was cleaning windows in big commercial buildings and I asked if he’d teach me. He was very kind and taught me everything. Then I practiced, but it didn’t take long to know I could do it.

She says washing windows is somewhat mindless but also satisfying, meditative. Her pleasure is in “doing as good a job as I can.”

Jill specializes in getting houses ready for sale. She washes every window in a house, inside and out. Sometimes this involves ladders (a 20-foot ladder is the tallest she can carry so that’s what she has), hanging out of windows (“I’m careful”), and a fair measure of ingenuity (“There’s always one window that’s a real challenge to get to”).

She is pleased that I think clean windows are so important. Many people don’t seem to. “The owners try to decide how much to spend on their houses. Windows seem the least of it. Sometimes they’ll give me a budget to work with…it’s too small. I can’t spend the time to get the whole job done.”

She understands. Getting ready for sale, sorting out, mowing, painting take time and money, and windows come at the end when time and money are running low. It’s easy to ignore them but it is a mistake.

Nothing compares with clean. When I go into a clean house and the windows are clean too, I feel good about being there. Unconsciously, perhaps, I like it better. I believe that this is a good house and that good people who care about the house live here.

So I went home and I washed windows again, and it worked! I can do it. Third time’s a charm, or I’m just a slow learner, but the few I washed look great.

Jill was right about the towel. It gets wet quickly and I have to make myself stop to get a new one.
The technique is not hard but I can’t seem to get into the right rhythm. I don’t become calm and meditative — I just want to hurry.

I want to wash several panes at once, skip the razor blade part, wash inside but leave the outside alone. I’m up on a ladder counting the number of panes I have left in this window, then estimating how many there are in the whole house, wondering how I’ll get around the bushes at the front of the house.

I think it’s easier, better to hire the right person for the job. I like things done well. How very good it is to know that, at least with windows, this is still possible.

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