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Restoration Refinishing of Fire and Water Damaged Furniture

Restoration refinishing of household furniture that has been damaged by fire and water, or water from ruptured pipes, presents a series of unusual technical requirements.

A client brought in a set of photos of the remains of his heavily fire damaged home with much of his nice furniture still in place. The pictures reflected major exposure to heat, water, and steam from the heat. Other pictures showed the furniture after it had been removed from the home to a storage facility. Wide spread soiling, discoloration, finish blistering, and charring could be seen. Most charring spots were in limited locations.

The furniture consisted primarily of family keepsakes and quality sets of bedroom and dining room furniture. The client wanted to save the furniture if at all possible. The insurance adjuster was willing to cooperate, but felt most of the furniture was pretty much a total loss.

Based on our experience and capacities, the required restoration is likely possible. The restoration cost will at least approach the fair replacement value and that without some leniency in valuation judgement the emotional connection to damaged items and the remaining parts of sets will be lost. Because types of insurance coverage can vary so widely, it is not our role to decide coverage, only what it will cost to restore to acceptable levels.

Some rules of thumb can be applied:

We will primarily discuss damage from fire and heat. Water damage from a ruptured water heater or clothes washer line can be interpreted from the discussion, especially if hot water was involved.

Each Item: The damaged item will presumably need to be totally refinished inside and out. We start with the price range that we generally use to estimate the cost to refinish a certain type of item, for example $1000 to $1200. Depending on yet unknown aspects such as the current type of finish that must be removed and the difficulty of color matching, then the higher end of the range should be used because of the difficulty with faux hiding of blemishes that have been caused by the damage.

    This cost range can be estimated from good photos of the items with close-ups of any particular detail or damage.

The Set of Items: The items that have not been particularly damaged and that are part of the set also have to be refinished to maintain the consistency of the set when done.

Color Matching: All of the items in a set would then be refinished to match each other and to be reasonably close to what they were before the damage. However they may not necessarily be exactly like before because of a variety of issues to include new versus old finish, and impacts to the wood from heat and other discoloration. Some flexibility in the final result must exist to deal with the unknowns.

The unknown question until the item is being worked on is how deep the charring goes into the finish, the wood veneer, or the wood itself. The area can be scraped with a single edged razor blade to indicate if it is beyond the finish level.

The type of repair can vary based on the depth, location, and size of the charred wood. Replacement of veneer sections or total surfaces, wood inserts, wood parts or components made to match, or specialty fillers can be used.

In each case the repair results in increased finishing requirements to hide the new from the old.

The final costs can not be known until the item is stripped of the old finish and work is performed to get to the bottom of the charring along with deciding the method of solution.

Damage from Heat and Stream: The fire itself may have ruptured water pipes and certainly the firefighters introduced water and maybe some chemicals into the scene. The impact of the severe heat and steam is that it can cause the wood to expand and later contract. Most importantly it can impact the glues used to fabricate the item. Typically older furniture is made with hide glue. Such glue softens under heat and steam and can reform itself just fine.

At the same time it is possible that the damaged hide glue, for example that holds down the veneer, did not totally rebond and an air bubble was created under the veneer. Such a bubble might not be determined until late in the restoration stages. A way to find them is after the item is stripped and dried to wipe the veneer with a wet coat of lacquer thinner. Since it evaporates so fast the bubble might show itself to look or feel if inspected closely at a flat angle.

The final costs can not be known until the item is stripped of the old finish and work is performed to test for such damage.

Damage from Fire: The fire resulted in charring of some locations of certain items. The charring usually comes from something that was a fire dropping onto the item, so for example the chest top might have a charred area. The option is that something dropped to the floor and the leg is charred from being nearby.

Damage from Water: Water itself or water in the form of very high humidity or mist can be absorbed into the various aspects of the wood. The impact is that all wood expands and contracts across the grain from such exposure, must as it does normally as the humidity levels change in the home during the coarse of the seasons, but more severely.

The movement of the wood components can cause joint damage and splitting of lumber parts along glue seams. For example furniture legs that have sat in water are frequently split vertically along glue seams. Furniture tops of lumber that have sat with water on them for a period of time could also be split. It is important to realize that the damaged wood will never reposition itself fully by closing the gaps.

The options are to break apart the glue seams, resurface and reglue them, or to inject glue to stabilize them and to close the gaps with fillers to hide voids.

The final costs can not be known until the item is stripped of the old finish and the full extent of such damage can be clearly seen.

Damage to Hardware: The brass plating on most hardware can be damaged from the heat or moisture. The hardware can be cleaned and clear coated for reuse, or replaced with similar new items.

Delay to Dry: Items that have had such damage should be allowed to dry for a reasonable time before any work is performed on them. In a properly ventilated and heated storage facility it is our rule that at least 60 days should be allowed for normal drying.

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