NC State Extension Publications

Assessing the Damage

Floodwater can damage wood furniture in several ways. Direct contact can cause changes in structure and appearance. Joints may loosen and the wood itself may warp and/or crack. The finish will get cloudy and staining can occur. The damage to wood can progress from slight to severe in only a few days. Before trying to salvage damaged wood furniture, decide which pieces are worth restoring. Such decisions should be based on:

  • Extent of damage
  • Cost of the article
  • Sentimental value
  • Cost of restoration

Antiques may be worth the time, effort, and expense of restoration. Generally, except for drying and cleaning, the less that is done to an antique, the better, since even minor changes can reduce its value.

Try to preserve the original finish of antiques. Restoration is preferable to refinishing. Antiques should dry out slowly to reduce uneven shrinkage, which can cause cracking, warping and splitting. Unless you are an experienced furniture restorer, it is best to leave restoration to a professional who can preserve the value of the piece. Improper drying, restoration and repair procedure can cause more damage.

Solid wood furniture can usually be restored unless the piece was in the water for several days to a week and the damage is severe. Clean and dry the piece, then assess whether or not it can be repaired. Saturated wood expands, and then shrinks as it dries. This may loosen joints and cause warping and swelling. Solid panels and tops are particularly vulnerable, especially when the inside is not finished. Slightly warped boards may be removed and straightened or replaced. Woodworking tools, clamps and other equipment and materials may be needed. Decide if you have the time, equipment and ability to do the work.

Veneered furniture may not be worth the cost and effort of repair unless it is very valuable to you. Veneered furniture usually has a core material that is plywood, particleboard or medium-density fiberboard. Particleboard and fiber cores swell when they come in contact with water. Thus, veneered seams come apart.

Printed vinyl surfaces and low-pressure laminates will come unglued and cannot be repaired, even by a professional. If veneer is loose in only a few places, you may be able to repair it, but veneered furniture repairs are usually best done by a professional.

If insurance allows part value on flood-damaged furniture, it may be best to apply the money to new furniture, rather than paying for extensive repair.

Salvaging the Furniture

If wooden furniture is salvageable, slow drying and proper repair are essential. Rubber gloves should be used with cleaning solutions or when working with flood-damaged or moldy furniture.

Submerged Furniture

  • Take furniture outside and remove back panels, drawers and doors, if possible. Drawers and doors will probably stick due to expanding, wet wood. Do not try to force them out from the front.
  • Use a hose to clean off mud and dirt inside and out.
  • Take the furniture to a well-ventilated storage area. Do not let it dry in the sun, or it will warp and twist out of shape.
  • Check the furniture periodically. Remove drawers and open doors as soon as you can without forcing them. Continue to leave the back panel off to allow air to circulate throughout the piece. It may take several weeks or months before the furniture is completely dry and ready to repair and refinish.
  • Mildew will continue to grow as long as the wood has a moisture content above 20 percent. Use mineral spirits on mildewed surfaces. Be sure to check underneath and inside.
  • Solid wood furniture with a cloudy finish, flaking or missing finish, open joints and even cracks and warped boards can be salvaged. The joints can be reglued and warped boards can be straightened. Consult an experienced cabinetmaker. Special tools and skills will be needed. If you do not have the skills or the tools, get an estimate. Compare that with the cost of buying new furniture of comparable quality.
  • Veneered furniture submerged in water for several days will be more difficult to salvage. If the particleboard underneath has swollen, the damage will be permanent.
  • If the veneer is loose in just a few places, it may be glued back by a cabinetmaker or skilled woodworker.

Damp Furniture

White spots or a cloudy film may develop on damp furniture that has not been submerged.

To remove the white spots: If the entire surface is affected, rub with a damp cloth dipped in turpentine or in a solution of 12 cup household ammonia and 12 cup water. Wipe dry at once, and if the color is restored, polish with wax or furniture polish.

If color is not restored, dip 000 steel wool in oil (boiled linseed, olive, mineral, or lemon).

Rub lightly with the wood grain. Wipe with a soft cloth and re-wax if the color is restored. For deep spots, use a drop or two of ammonia on a damp cloth. Rub at once with a dry cloth. Rubbing cigarette ashes, powdered pumice or a piece of walnut meat into spots may help remove them.

If spots remain after all efforts to remove them, the piece should be stripped of the old finish and refinished.

For More Information

For more information on disaster preparedness and recovery visit the NC Disaster Information Center.

Publication date: June 6, 2014

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