Recovering from a Shop Fire

Woodweb forum steps up with well-informed advice about how to cope with a catastrophic fire in the wood shop. April 16, 2009

My cabinet shop just burned, probably a total loss. I have insurance. Any advice on dealing with my situation?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor Q:
Sorry to hear about your loss. I started in the construction industry with a disaster restoration company, so I know firsthand the devastation that you are dealing with.

The thing that comes to mind is how well you have documented what you have in the shop. The insurance companies will work with you but they will want you to have serial numbers and a list of equipment. This brings up a very good point to all of us who own equipment. Please take a day this week to catalogue all of your equipment with digital photos. You will not believe how much time this will save you if you should ever have an accident/theft. This is huge! Don't leave your equipment replacement to the whim of an insurance company. Good documentation is key, and store the digital photos in multiple off-site locations.

As far as how to deal with this, it sucks and a lot of how well it goes for you will depend on how good your insurance is to you.

From the original questioner:
Luckily (I guess), you can still physically see most of the tools and equipment. I do have photos of the inside of the shop and a fairly accurate equipment list, so I am hoping that will help. My shop is 2560 sq ft and located just about 50 yards behind the house. We were fixing dinner when my wife noticed the flames shooting out an overhead door. I was able to run in and grab my laptop with all design, accounting and router software... whew... But that's about it. Biggest issue I feel is going to be getting back up and running extremely fast, as I am super busy.

From contributor S:

Sorry to hear about this great loss. Do you have any idea what caused the fire?

From contributor T:
First off I would contact your customers. I am sure they will understand. For the customers that can't wait for you to get up and running again - try to find a nearby shop that will help you out either with shop time or sub part of it out to them. I know in my area we are all pretty good friends and would jump at the chance to help each other out. Next I would contact your suppliers and let them know what is going on - they will probably be willing to carry you for some months. The key is communication with everyone. Sorry for your loss. I had a close call this past week with a trash can catching on fire in the shop.

From the original questioner:
Don't know yet, but it has been less than 24 hrs now. Hottest spot was near the dust collector corner of the building.

From contributor R:
Stand up for what you are due. If it is reasonable they will cave. I'm sorry for your loss.

From contributor A:
My shop burnt 14 months back. I had just purchased it after years of renting. I am not a big fan of insurance to start with. I used cash to buy the building and all the tools including the CNC were paid for. The fire was 2 weeks after I had purchased the building. I had plans of putting a little insurance coverage on the building, but had nothing at the time of the fire. This was one bad day! 14 months later I think this is one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I raised $9000 hauling my burnt equipment to the junkyard for scrap metal. Do not overlook the value of scrap! My wife helped in the clean up and got an additional $1000 in copper from the wiring. This did not make the pain better, but we had some cash to help things out.

Local shops helped me out big time. In this process I learned how to outsource. I ordered doors, box parts and hired the finishing done. I have made more money from this bad time than I ever thought was possible. I am renting a little shop space. I have everything back but a large CNC (have 3 small CNC routers). Have paid cash for all this. I had no money left at the time of the fire. I had just spent it all on the building. I made many new friends outsourcing and they have given me as much work if not more than I give them. I always built it all myself. I still like to build my own projects from scratch. I do not turn any work down now. If I am real busy I send more out. If I am slow I do more. The less I do, the more I make. I think this will work for anyone in any location. I am in western NY. We have more animals than humans. Turn this into a positive thing, not a negative one. It is real hard but can be real rewarding.

From contributor E:
So sorry to hear about the situation. One contributor has posted a link to this thread in the CMA private forums. We are putting together a list of things to do and volunteers to help you. As more info becomes available it will be posted here. In the interim, I am extending to you a free one year membership so you can get access to all our documentation, a list of nearby shops to help spread the workload around through outsourcing, any other help we can provide. I am in NJ and can not help you physically but am willing to donate time calling your vendors, clients and prospects. Help in laying out the shop, machinery research, etc.

This is a quick list put together I am sure there is much more to be done.
1. Calls to all vendors. Asking for 30 day free pass to get things organized.
2. Calls to all clients.
3. Calls to all prospects.
4. Organize time line and game plan to satisfy all client needs and to get up and running with sub-goals.
5. Protecting remains of shop so no more damage is done from the elements.
6. Itemization of all assets/paperwork for insurance company.
7. Completion of outstanding projects in the field and what was on the floor.
8. Organizing, cut listing fabricating projects till shop is back up and running.
9. Taking advantage of the situation to optimize shop layout and process.
10. Research replacement machinery.
11. Machinery shipping and placement.
12. Utility hook ups (air, dust, electric).
13. One year free membership in the Cabinetmakers Association.

From contributor M:

Sorry to hear of your loss. I lost a building and business to a fire 10 years ago. I know what you are going through. Contributor S gives excellent advice, and I will just give a list of what we did in our situation.

1. Called all vendors, and asked for 90 day terms temporarily because we didn't know how our cash flow would play out. They were all great with it and said don't worry if it took longer. This of course was because we always paid our bills promptly in the past.

2. We chose not to tell our customers because of the type of business it was - we didn't want them to go to our competition. This was not a woodworking business however.

3. We contacted a friendly competitor and asked if they could help make product while we were down and out, and also if our employees could work in their facility to keep making product. This was the most important thing we did, as we were able to keep shipping and billing during all of this.

4. We took as many pictures as possible, and made the most complete list of equipment and inventory so the insurance company would replace everything. Luckily we had great insurance and they took care of it.

5. Many electrical devices and tools that still worked shortly after the fire started to slowly die with internal corrosion from the fire. Even though you grabbed your computer please copy everything off of it onto another computer or external drive. The smoke may kill the computer in 6 months or a year.

6. Learn from this experience so you can protect yourself from it happening again. As you buy replacement tools, catalog them in a database and be sure to keep a disc or drive with backup. Photos or video of what you have is invaluable should this happen again.

7. Protect yourself while working in the building from the chemicals from the fire. That stuff is nasty, so wear a respirator while in there cleaning up or gathering items.

8. Keep in mind you could have been caught in there and possibly died. Appreciate the good in this tough situation. When it happened to me, I felt like I got a second chance to enjoy and appreciate my life, even though I was in a tough place at that time.

Good luck. I am sure that you can get the help you need from people here at WOODWEB, and local people as well.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all so much for your concerns, help and advice - we are very thankful.
Luckily no one, including the shop cat, Woodie, was hurt. We have been taking pictures and videos, putting together lists and contacting folks.

From contributor M:
I am sorry for your loss. I also had a total fire loss about a year and a half ago. My shop was about 3,200 sq ft. At the time, we were a 3 man shop with a lot of work in process and scheduled to start.

Luckily I have a very good friend who is also in the business. He allowed me and an employee some space in his shop for a couple of weeks. This helped me to keep things moving to a degree while I figured out what I was going to do.

I knew that if I took the time to rebuild my old shop I would lose the jobs that I had on the books along with future work for those customers. So, I looked around at all of the existing commercial spaces that were available and wound up buying a garage building and auto parts house that had gone out of business and had been on the market for a year or so. I was able to move in immediately. The total space between these two buildings was approximately 7,000 sq ft. No way could I have even begun to build this facility for what I paid for it. It was a little rough and had a lot of old junk that had to be cleaned up and hauled off but well worth the effort. The garage setup works great. The floor is level throughout the building, making it easy to move materials/cabinets around the shop. Several overhead/barn style doors allow for easy access and good ventilation in the summer. 16' ceiling height is also a big plus. The accompanying parts house building is slated to be a showroom one day. Currently, it is used as an office and hardware storage.

I will note that while the insurance company came through for me, it did take longer to actually receive a check than I expected. It took about 3 months. I replaced as much equipment as I could with cash that I had on hand and had to get a loan from my bank to purchase the new shop buildings until the insurance check came through (I had no debt on the shop/equipment that burned).

We are now a 5 man shop and have kept plenty of work. I would never want to go through the stress and anxiety of another fire for sure. But just remember that this tragedy could actually lead to something positive.

From the original questioner:
Cause was narrowed down to one of two things, with only one that they felt was the real cause - our outdoor wood stove (Lil House brand). They are thinking failure in the heat exchanger somehow, but visual inspection shows no failure. The other unlikely possibility was a possible arc in wiring, but it was in conduit. Just stated that it could not be fully ruled out.

Now I am just waiting for checks to be written so I can purchase machines and start making sawdust again. Thanks for all of your support!