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Wet Worry – Dealing with Water Damage

by Fred Taylor (06/06/11).

Instead of wooden blocks, paint cans or food cans work well for lifting furniture above a wet floor or carpet. Just be sure to use aluminum foil under the cans in case they are rusty or might rust from contact with a wet surface.

In this year of what seems to be extraordinary adverse weather events with tornadoes and flooding, and with more flooding looking imminent as the past winter’s snow pack starts to melt, now seems to be a good time to talk about excess water and its effects on your furniture.

If you are lucky, you will never have standing water in your house to attack your antique furniture. On the other hand, think of how many ways that unfortunate event can occur—some of which you may be able to prevent and others which are totally beyond your control.

Here are just a few of the ways in which water, which will always find a way, can creep into your house—a leaky water heater, a stopped up washing machine drain, a faulty intake connection on the washer, a leaky pipe in the wall, an overflowing toilet, tub or sink, an open window near an irrigation system, a faulty seal on a dishwasher—and these don’t even take in to account things like storms, roof leaks, floods and vandalism.

The first thing to do is turn off the electricity in the house. You don’t need to get electrocuted while you are assessing the damage. Then turn off the water source if possible, either at the offending site or at the street or pump if necessary. Then you can go take care of your antique furniture.

A little soaking with water won’t hurt most wood furniture. It may create a haze, known as “blush” (similar to a ring mark from a wet glass), that is easily repaired. The main damage comes from prolonged exposure or submersion in the intruder. As quickly as possible, you need to get the furniture out of or away from the water. If the problem is simply a household leak, like those listed above, you may just be dealing with saturated carpets and floors. In that case, your most effective and timely response is to simply get the furniture off the floor or wet carpet. Pieces of 2×4 lumber, cut into four-inch blocks, will usually do a great job, lifting table and couch legs 1½ inches off the floor. If necessary, stack the blocks to provide even higher lift. If the furniture is going to be there for a while before it can be moved out completely or before the carpet can be removed, consider putting aluminum foil under the wooden blocks to keep them from getting saturated and transferring moisture to your furniture. Food cans or paint cans also work well. Of course if the water is more than few inches high you need to remove the furniture from the location as soon as it can be done.

Now comes the hard part—the waiting. The furniture needs to dry out before you can do any repairs or before you can even make accurate judgments about the damage. The best way for the furniture to dry is slowly and naturally. Don’t try to use a heat source like a propane heater or a hair dryer to speed up the process. That will only result in more long-term damage. Of course, good air circulation around the room will help things dry a little. Fans and blowers are important tools in this department. If possible, move either the air source or the furniture to different positions so all parts get exposed to drier, moving air.

Without an artificial heat source like a kiln to dry and cure raw wood, it can take years for enough residual moisture to leave new raw lumber so that it can be used for furniture construction. However, in the case of water-damaged older furniture, it doesn’t take that long for the wood to dry out because it probably didn’t get that wet and it probably had some finish on it to protect it somewhat. But it will take more than the few days that it would seem to take. After three or four days the furniture may feel dry to you and, while there may be some apparent damage, it doesn’t look that bad. But it’s not over yet.

The usual outcome of incidental water is simply the finish starting to flake off like on this table leg.

This is the point when a great many homeowners make a mistake by trying to hurry the insurance company. And if the insurance company is smart, it will encourage the homeowner to settle the outstanding claim as quickly as possible. Why? Because a smart adjuster knows that all the damage is not visible yet and once the claim is settled it’s over.

Most furniture damage caused by moderate exposure to water shows up as a haze that appears in the finish, mentioned as “blush” above. This haze is easily removable by a restoration professional using a chemical designed for exactly the purpose. Usually, the result is the return of the original appearance with no loss of sheen or actual finish. However, in some cases, it may result in the finish flaking and falling off. This can also fixed by a touch up artist.

A more serious problem is when the water damaged area turns dark or black. That means the water penetrated through the finish into the wood itself. The discoloration is the result of the tannin in the wood reacting with the water. This is a serious problem and while it can be resolved, it can get expensive and usually involves refinishing the piece. The worst outcome is if the wood actually cracks or splits. In some cases the split is only a glue-joint that has opened and after it dries out can be reglued and clamped back into position. A more serious situation is at hand if the wood itself has actually cracked or split as it expanded and then contracted under the influence of the water. This can require extensive and expensive restoration.

Damage to wood furniture, to both the finish and the wood itself, often takes three weeks or more to be fully visible and even then not all of the damage may be apparent, especially to the novice homeowner or to the insurance adjuster, who may or may not be a furniture restoration expert. When in doubt, the claimant should hire an expert to be on his or her side. Call a local, reputable furniture restoration craftsman and ask them to provide a written estimate for repairing the water damage—not an appraisal, not an evaluation, not a “guesstimate” but a genuine proposal on what they would charge to fix the stuff. The homeowner should be prepared to pay a reasonable amount for this initial estimate and in many cases the insurance company will make reimbursement for it. At the very least, the professional furniture person will most often give credit for the estimate fee on their final bill if they get a significant amount of the work.

In most water damage situations, the beginning of the saga requires quick decisive action to minimize the damage. The second part of the tale requires patience, perseverance and a longer term outlook. Don’t let anybody rush you through this part.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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