Mike Kunnen Gives Seattle a View of the Past

The Magnolia craftsman uses traditional window-making techniques to restore timelessness to classic houses.

By Stefan Milne Photography by Will Austin April 23, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Seattle Met

While some windows on Sam Woods’s century-old Mount Baker house were still original and working well, a previous owner had replaced other window banks with large pieces of glass. Woods wanted to have them redone but says putting in contemporary windows didn’t even occur to her: “I wanted to honor the house, being as old as it was.” So she went to the Washington State Archives and found a photo of the home from the 1930s. Then she hired Mike Kunnen, who runs Seattle Historic Window Company, to recreate the original looks—a four-part, divided light piece out front—based on the photo and the house’s existing windows.

Kunnen understands well the importance of a historically accurate window. From inside the workshop he keeps behind his house, he points to his own home, a 111-year-old early craftsman in East Magnolia: “It’s all kind of laid out around the windows. When you put modern windows on an old house, I think you just completely ruin it.”

Mike Kunnen in his Magnolia workshop.

Image: Will Austin

In turn-of-the-century houses, like so many still standing in Seattle, windows were a key source of light in the days before widespread electricity. And the double-hung design, in which both the upper and lower parts move, created an elegant pre-AC cooling system: a built-in draft. Yet in the last century, many of those windows, with their detailed wooden sashes (the part that frames the glass) and rope pulley systems, have fallen into disrepair or been painted shut. “If you’ve experienced that,” Kunnen says, “and think that’s what an old window is, of course you think they all suck.”

But those old windows are generally of higher craftsmanship, both longer lasting and more comely, than the ones built after World War II, and new windows won’t aesthetically match an old house. Recently, restoration efforts have flourished with the help of social media, Kunnen says. “When I started [remodeling] in ’98 the internet was barely there. At that time working on these old machines you’d have to know somebody or maybe you’d read something in a magazine.” Now Instagram and online forums let other craftsmen learn from each other, and the sharing also spurs restoration tendencies in home owners.

Mike Kunnen restored these windows on a Mount Baker house based on a photo from the 1930s.

Image: Will Austin

In his workshop, Kunnen has essentially created a prewar window factory, which he runs by himself. Following the 2008 recession, nearly all the classic window shops in the city had closed, so Kunnen, who’d been working in remodeling for 15 years after a master’s degree in toxicology, homed in on windows. 

A 1973 chain mortiser.

Image: Will Austin

He now has 32 woodworking machines, bought mostly at auctions when mills close and on eBay. The majority of them—hulking, patinated, cast-iron things—date from the 1920s to the 1950s and make a single type of cut each: one to cut the “mortise” (the hole on the window’s joint), one to cut the “tenon” (the part that fits in the hole). And Kunnen’s laboratory precision comes in handy. For these joints to work—with their delicate dance of tabs and grooves shaped from lumber, like a key fitting a lock—the cuts must be within about two thousandths of an inch. 

Getting a window to match a house can be an even more tailored affair. Kunnen usually takes a sample of the original window sashes and has blades made specifically for that house. Some people, he says, are okay with a near match, but for others it has to be perfect, so that past merges seamlessly with future, “so in 100 years,” says Kunnen, “there’ll be no way to tell the difference between the two of them.”

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