How to Fix Screens

When the weather is warm, and the breezes are cool, there’s nothing better than opening up a window and filling your home with fresh air. That is, unless your screens are torn and broken. Then you’re rolling out the welcome mat for gnats, flies and mosquitoes, just to name a few. Waking up in the morning with a huge bug bite on your forehead is no way to start the day.

Whether it was a stray fly ball that crashed through the screen, or an anxious pet (or child!) trying to get outside, a broken screen is an easy fix for any homeowner.

A basic do-it-yourself fix could run around five dollar$5 per window. Putting it in the hands of a pro could run as high as twenty bucks per window; double that for a slider or storm door. Multiply that by the number of windows in your house and you can see how tackling this project yourself can save a bundle.

Screens are simple. There is a frame, screening and something to attach the screening to the frame. If your frame is made of wood, then the screen is attached with staples and covered with small trim. If your frames are aluminum the screen is held onto the frame with something called spline. Spline resembles shoestring licorice, though it’s not nearly as tasty.

You only need the most basic of tools to replace screens, with one exception. Aluminum frames require a spline roller, which looks like a pizza cutter. A decent one will run you $5 or less. Some spline rollers come with wheels on both ends -- one wheel has a rounded edge and the other has a concave groove. In almost all cases you really only need the side with the groove.

The other tools you will need for aluminum frame screen replacement should already be handy: just scissors, flat head screw driver and a utility knife. For wooden frames you’ll also need a hammer, staple gun, and needle-nose pliers.

The screen material comes in either aluminum or fiberglass. The fiberglass kind is the most popular choice because it is like fabric and is very easy to work with. It is also maintenance-free and corrosion-resistant, which is particularly important if you live near the ocean. The aluminum variety has sharp edges and is extremely rigid and less forgiving. A thicker, more durable version which stands up better to pets and kids is available in both fiberglass and aluminum for sliders or storm doors.

Fiberglass screening comes in rolls from 84 inches up to 25 feet in length, is almost always 36 inches wide and costs between $5 and $15 dollars. Measure the height of all your windows and doors that need to be replaced to figure out how much you’ll need. Unless your windows are unusually wide, you’ll rarely need more than the standard width.

With aluminum frames, the screen is pushed into little grooves in the framing and held in place with the spline. Start by gently prying out the old spline with a flat-head screwdriver, being careful not to bend the frame. If the spline is more than a few years old or is brittle, splitting, or has lost its elasticity like a dried out rubber band you’ll need to replace it. Spline is sold in bundles and is available in different thicknesses. Measure all four sides of your frames to determine how much you’ll need. Bring a little piece of the old spline to the hardware store to find the perfect match, and don’t try to guesstimate. A spline that is too thin will not hold the screen in place, and if it is too thick you won’t be able to push it back into its track.

Next, lay the aluminum frame on a flat surface and cut a piece of screening that is 2 to 3 inches longer and wider than the frame. Place the screening over the frame. Set the spline over the screening, aligning it with the groove in the frame. Start at one corner and, using the concave wheel of the spline tool, gently press the spline and screen into the frame’s grooves. Continue all the way around the frame. Hold the screen taut as you roll but not too tight. This will give the screen a flat appearance. There is no doubt the first screen you do will be a little frustrating. If you find at the end you’re left with loose, crooked, or creased screening it is because you held the screen unevenly or too tightly as you worked around the frame. The good news is that you can pull out the spline and try again. Use one long piece of spline and don’t cut it until the end; it’s flexible and if you trim it ahead of time you’ll always come up short.

Once you are satisfied with how the screen looks, clip off the excess spline with the scissor and gently tuck in the end with the spline tool, but make sure not to overlap the ends of the spline. Using the utility knife, gently cut the excess screening along the outer edge of the spline. It really is that easy.

Wooden frames are a bit more complicated. Remove the trim that covers the staples by gently prying it up with the flat screwdriver. If the molding is sealed with paint, use the utility knife to cut the paint first, then remove the old staples and screen with needle nose pliers. Lay the wood frame on a flat surface and cut the screening 2-3 inches wider than where the staples were. Using a staple gun, staple the new screening into place holding it taut but not too tight. You don’t get a “do-over” with the staples as you do with spline so go slow. Once the screen is attached on all four sides, trim away the excess with the utility knife. Finally, nail the wood trim back into place.

If you find that your old frames are bent, broken or rotted, you may need to replace the entire frame and screen. Prices for new screens can run from $30 to $70. If you’re on a budget you can buy a screen kit for less than a third of that cost and assemble them yourself.

Fixing screens is a simple project you could tackle in a lazy afternoon, and once again be ready to enjoy the summer winds.

Jason Gurskis is a licensed home improvement contractor based in Mystic Island, New Jersey dedicated to making homes more comfortable, durable, and energy efficient.