A Cautionary Tale: Shop Fire Destroys Building and Burns Owner

This thread will teach you the hard lessons learned by a shop owner whose buildings caught fire without having to go through it yourself. October 4, 2011

I am a small shop with a 30 year collection of machines. My shop burned and I am dealing with an insurance adjuster who has zero knowledge of vintage woodworking machines. Does anyone have a contact for appraising machines and/or a machine shop which can redo the restorations already completed on these machines? These machines were all rebuilt to better than OEM specs with automotive finishes. I am insured, just need a source for valuing great machines at actual replacement costs.

West Kentucky
Full range of 1940's-1960's Delta and Powermatic saws, drills, joiners plus State oss. spindle sander, IR compressor, Clements joiner, Cemco wide belt, Walker Turner drill, marquetry supplies, carving tools/bench, etc.

Forum Responses
From contributor H:
I am sorry to tell you that you will be very disappointed in what your machines are worth to the insurance company. Unless you have a policy that specifically was bought at replacement cost, you will be given cash value for your machines. Cash value on older machines is next to nothing compared to what you might be expecting. The fact that you restored them beyond OEM specs with automotive finishes also means nothing in added value.

Example: A Delta Unisaw which may have cost 800.00 back in the day. You may have bought used for 300.00 and restored. But since the saw is in fact 30 years old, you're likely to get a couple hundred bucks for it. It's sad but I've seen it happen.

From contributor M:
Sorry to hear of this - a burned shop is a disaster none of us wish to encounter. I can't help you with your question, but will continue viewing this thread as I also have tons (literally) of older (defined: best) equipment. Would you mind telling us any of the details on the cause and subsequent damage resulting from the fire? Perhaps it will help prevent the same happening in others' shops. Thanks.

From the original questioner:
I am located in the part of KY that was hit by an ice storm. After 12 days without power/phones/water/etc., I learned it would be 1 month before my power was scheduled for reconnection. I then secured a large gas powered generator, and when refueling it, a clogged internal filter allowed gas to spill over the unit. A 7.5 gallon tank when empty took about 3 gallons. I guess the muffler was too hot from running - the unit was off for fueling - and the overflow ignited.

I was severely burned, 40% 2nd and 3rd, and am just now beginning to walk, but will make a full recovery. The unit was outside my shop, but the overflowing gas crept in and caught the building on fire. I had 2 Morton buildings, a 30 x 36 and 42 x 95 fully insulated, central heat/air, exhaust systems, plant air in each - very nice setup. One building is completely lost. Everything in it was single phase, restored. It was the carving/marquetry/final assembly and finishing area.

Lessons learned - invest in fireproof storage cabinets. I stored too many solvents in file cabinets. When they blow, they nearly melt metal. Also, when machines were being removed while I was still in intensive care, the exhaust system caught fire a second time. Somehow an ember smoldered for a few days and when a wide belt sander was moved, it reignited the entire roof area. The fire department then resprayed the remaining veneer inventory, carving bench and tools and such so that plans/books and photos of past work were lost.

Also, stop, drop and roll does not work. Tried it the first time on concrete - zero; second time near a pile of sawdust to smother myself - worse; outside on ice - nothing. If ever on fire, remove your clothes. I will always keep a blanket nearby in the future in addition to all the fire extinguishers I have. Can not figure why I did not go for one of them. Too far into the building, I guess. I have managed over 500 people for 22 years in 3 factories without a single lost time accident. I had never been in a hospital before. An accident can happen to anyone.

From contributor M:
Wow! Man - am I ever sorry to hear these details. Being without power is bad enough, but obviously, things can and do get worse. Many a time I've overspilled filling lawnmowers, generators, etc. Guess I've been extremely lucky - I'll certainly take care in the future to avoid your disaster.

Hopefully the insurance company will do well by you. We've got safety cabinets, but my suppressant system rep has been urging me to install automatic fire heads on each shelf of the cabinets. Cost is about $2,500.00 per cabinet (120 gallon cabinets - Eagle Manufacture) and I've procrastinated. Bad enough to shoulder the heavy cost of the cabinets without going further, but based on your statements, I'll ponder it more closely.

Keep us posted, good luck and hope you do have a full recovery.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the kind well wishes. I have heard many stories lately of persons hearing the hissing and crackling sounds of overspilled fuel on mowers, chainsaws, irrigation pumps and the like. I think the location of the muffler directly under and in line with the fuel cap on the generator is the reason I was not so lucky. Most other devices are better engineered with respect to the location of the spark system/muffler/common overflow location.

As for the cabinets, I am going to really put the numbers to reducing all on-hand solvents and allowing my local Sherwin Williams to stock what items they can. An extra trip/shipping/added non-bulk purchasing costs would never overcome what I lost - or the costs of correctly storing the quantities I had on hand. I also restore vintage Mercedes and kept all the HVLP base coat/topcoat supplies in the burned building, as it was climate controlled. Then I kept a bench full of every MEK/lacquer thinner/reducer/mineral spirits and every other type of antique cleaning material on hand in gallon cans. Never again.

A local body shop stores all their materials in a separate building 10' away from their main structure for insurance purposes. I use an export shipping container now as an overflow tool crib for hardware and tooling. It is all metal, waterproof, and was $2,000 for a 20' unit. I then insulated it with 2" foam, added a dehumidifier and lighting, and could add an HVAC system easily. Much less money than buying a garage and it is a well engineered/made structure. You may consider such an approach?

From the original questioner:
Good news update. My insurance paid off with a very fair amount to replace both the building and contents I lost in this fire.