Art Transportation Packing Methods

12 Minute Read

By Vanessa LynnMore from this author

Packing is hardly a glamorous subject. Yet, like labeling and billing, it remains one of those sine qua nons of your professional—without which, your business would not be. As a former gallery owner, the writer is all too aware of the problems engendered by the slovenly packer. Yet, admittedly, she did not leap at the opportunity to present Metalsmith readers with the "definitive" article on the subject. But the fact remains, the article needs to be both written and read.

The secret to mastering the packing task is bound to the following cardinal rules:

  1. Assume nothing.
  2. Anticipate everything.
  3. Expect the worst.

If you can remember these, and act accordingly, you will:

  1. Be well ahead of the game.
  2. Endear yourself to the gallery/museum community.
  3. Probably be asked to participate in more exhibitions, based on your bundling finesse.

What do these rules mean? Exactly what they say. Never even assume that your package will arrive. Never assume it will be handled with intelligence or care on its route, or that it will be opened with same. If it is opened, never assume that the handler can read the instructions, which you will later be instructed to enclose. You are, however, permitted the luxury of at least hoping for reading skills on the part of the unpacker.

From these, the second axiom follows logically. Always anticipate the possibility that your parcel will be lost. Always anticipate malice, ignorance and indifference on the part of every individual who comes in contact with your goods. This is not to say that these problems will exist, but do remember that they may.

The third critical rule is included in the hope that if you abide by it, it may mitigate the inevitable aggrevations inherent in the situation. With these general guidelines in mind, we may approach the particulars.

The basic considerations of packing and shipping metal art are no different than those that apply to the packing and shipping of any other art object. While there are a few further points applicable for the shipping of large and/or heavy pieces, the package profile remains the same. And the goal remains the same—getting the piece to its destination without any damage. With this end in mind, think of only one word: protection. You must protect the piece from itself, from the packing material, from the container and from the myriad handlers whose own goal is different from your own; to get the parcel to its destination, not necessarily in the same condition as when it started its journey.

For purposes of clarity, we will first address the simplest packaging situation, and build on that knowledge base for the more complicated situation. Obviously, the simplest case is one in which a small, single item (a piece of jewelry, a little box) is intended for a single destination. In this, as in all subsequent situations, the rule is to seal all surfaces of the piece. If there are any loose or dangling appendages, they should be individually wrapped in plastic wrap before you enclose the rest of the piece. All subsequently used packing materials can easily mar a metal surface—tissue and foam can scratch silver; bronze patinas can be destroyed by paper friction.

Metal can be safely sealed in plastic, provided no tape or rubber band touches the surface, or tarnish-proof cloth, if the material warrants. It is highly advisable to include silicone gel within this first closure to prevent any accumulation of moisture. The farther the work has to travel, the more likely the possibility of moisture damage occurring.

Following this, the piece may be wrapped in several layers of tissue or newspaper to create a firm layer of padding. For added protection on larger pieces, bubble wrap or additional newspaper is a good idea.


Having sealed and secured the piece, it remains for you to obtain a firm cardboard box. The box should be several inches longer than the wrapped bundle to allow for ample all-around padding. This can be provided by crumpled layers of newspaper, tissue paper, styrofoam pellets or a bed of bubble wrap. The box should be lined and half-filled with this material. Make sure you have provided a firm bed to support your piece away from the sides and bottom of the box. Lay your packet into the center and then carefully fill the remaining space with your buffering material. The idea is to create a little pocket for the bundle, from which it cannot be jarred. It is advisable to use a differentiating material around the actual piece, to distinguish it from the packing mass. If you pad with newspaper for example, wrap a sheet of colored tissue around the item to insure its visibility.

Prior to closing the box, be sure to include a description of the article therein and a statement of its value. On a separate page, include a clearly written set of instructions for repacking and reshipping. It is also recommended that you enclose a duplicate mailing label listing destination and your return address. This way, should the very worst occur and your exterior label get damaged, there is a possibility that the package will still arrive at one of the two known destinations.

The guidelines for packing a grouping of small items are very similar. The most important thing to remember is that within the box, each wrapped piece should be placed in its own pocket within the protective material, so that it does not come in contact with its traveling companions. Try to build a little protective wall around each padded bundle. This will aid in keeping each in place. The more items included in a single box, the more important is your packing list and your repacking instructions. Be clear, simple and direct.

The most difficult packing hurdle is presented by metal sculpture—the larger the sculpture, the larger the hurdle. But it is never insurmountable. Once again, the basics remain the same, only the details have been changed to protect the innocent (sculpture).

The first order of concern is locating an adequate container. Where relatively large (over three feet) pieces are concerned, most people opt for the construction of a wooden irate. If the work is really large (over six feet) there is often no other choice. But wooden crates, with all the protection they appear to afford, have a drawback. That drawback is their weight. When fully packed with metal sculpture, large wooden crates can be so cumbersome and difficult to handle, that they are poorly handled, i.e., dropped. So, an alternative is often preferable.

Alternatives take creativity and a bit of luck. One artist has found that the heavy-duty cartons used for shipping farm machinery are ideal for his needs. For smaller scale work, the cartons used for quantities of liquor bottles are particularly strong. If one has use for such boxes on a fairly regular basis, it is well worth the effort to seek out a local packing supplier and discuss your unusual needs. He may have something perfectly suited to the job, which can be purchased in small quantity.

In packing free-standing or wall-mounted sculpture for shipment, the notions of protection and support cannot be overstressed. Initially, the work should be treated in the same manner as discussed earlier, with a protective surface wrap and moisture-absorbing crystals or gel. After that, every corner and every appendage must be protectively cushioned. This can be effectively accomplished with bubble wrap, or a closed cell material like Insolite or Evalite, available in large sheets that are easily cut. The point is to provide not only physical protection but shock absorbency as well. Make sure that any loose or hanging elements, which cannot be removed and wrapped separately, are especially well covered and firmly secured. In some cases, this may not be possible. It is then encumbent upon you to construct some type of support within the box to keep this part from moving. Here again, a certain creativity is helpful. It may be achieved by large bundles of bubble wrap wadded between the walls of your prepared box and the free-moving element. Or it may be necessary to build a cradle out of plexiglass designed for the specific contours of your piece. Remember in considering your bracing structure that the entire carton/crate will inevitably be placed both upside down and sideways in the course of its journey.

A word here, about mixed-media constructions. If your work includes another material of significantly different weight than your metal armature, it is an excellent idea to consider packing it separately. If the material is lighter than the metal, it may be damaged by the metal. If it is heavier, it may mar the metal. Of course, this does require forethought in the actual construction of your piece. But then, that is why you are reading this article. Forewarned is forearmed.

The ideal situation is to be able to pack like materials together. In this way, each receives the proper attention and is in a better position to arrive unscathed. If it is impossible, then the interior support structure must be absolutely foolproof.

Placing the sculpture and its predesigned brace into the container is managed in the same basic manner as one would pack jewelry. The carton bottom and sides are lined with a cushioning agent. With the exception of crumpled paper, any of the above-mentioned materials will serve. In addition, rigid sheets of syrofoam which can be cut with a breadknife or band saw are excellent wall liners. If the support structure has been premade, it is placed in the box, followed by the well-wrapped artwork. No doubt, additional padding will be needed to fill in the empty spaces and hold everything securely. It is probably worthwhile to fasten your cradle to the padded carton walls with tape.

If the brace has not been prepared, you must place the wrapped sculpture in the center of your lined carton and begin to build a support structure of cardboard, wood or any other packing material that can be wedged in and around the piece and its structural members. Do not use crumpled paper or foam peanuts, but opt instead for a firm material. After accomplishing this, let the packing settle for a day and then recheck its support capability. Add material as you deem necessary. A large sculpture should also be packed with moisture-absorbing crystals. Make sure you include enough for the square footage of the container.


Once you have completed these steps, seal the box with strong tape. Tape one envelope to the exterior lid and insert your packing and value list. Tape another envelope to the lid and insert your various instructions. If there is any chance of a disaster occurring in the unpacking, then include a guide to this procedure, as well as one for any assembly necessary and most especially, repacking. Label your envelopes. Always keep a copy of the packing list. The envelopes are attached to the outside because the ideal way to ship a piece of this nature is to double box it. The small added effort goes a long way toward security.

The exterior box should be between five and eight inches larger than the interior box. The base should be layered with the usual material. Then place the sealed box in the middle of the box and load in your padding on the sides and top. Once again, a day of settling is a good idea. Place a single sheet with destination and your return address on the very top, seal the box with heavy-duty tape, label it, mark the top and "Fragile" all over, and you are on your way to the trials of shipping.

If your sculpture can only be accommodated by a wooden crate, you are obviously not going to double crate it. Therefore, the trick here is to build a crate large enough to include extensive shock absorbing padding around the edges. If the work needs bracing, it should be approached in exactly the same way as described above. The identical paperwork is placed just under the lid and above the padding. The lid should be screwed shut, with tape placed over the screw heads. Label as above and once again, the task of shipping awaits you.

In fact, shipping is not that difficult. For large containers, overland hauling is cheapest, although not the fastest. Therefore you should line up your carrier well before you are ready to ship in order to be able to budget for the time in transit. Other considerations are full insurance coverage and door-to-door service. While it may be possible for you to forego pick-up on your end, you don't want to find out that the trucker on the other end is only responsible for delivering to the curb.

As far as locating a reliable shipper in your area, it is a good idea to consult with other artists about their experiences. The ideal situation is to find a company which is familiar with art handling. Remember that ceramic and wood artists share your concerns. If no first-hand information is available, and you are left with the Business-to-Business Yellow Pages, use the '"Trucking, Moving and Storage" and "Air Cargo and Package Express" (for emergencies) headings. When doing your comparison shopping, ask the various companies to refer you to regular, local customers. And do check these references. Often a smaller, local company is more accommodating. They have more need for your steady patronage.

Illustrations courtesy of Ollendorff Fine Arts

Transporting smaller works presents fewer problems. While many people do use the U.S. Mail by registering and insuring their work for its wholesale value, there have been problems with losses. In attempting to collect on a loss claim here, you must present detailed documentation of the costs of materials and labor. Thus, it is often preferable to absorb the cost of a small package handler. United Parcel Service, although the cheapest, was consistently downgraded by those consulted for this article. There have been problems with personnel and service. Instead, many people did recommend Federal Express. Just be sure that you complete your paperwork properly and that your parcel is fully insured.

There is nothing more frustrating than learning that after months of concentration on the conception and execution of an artwork, the piece has been damaged or destroyed in the final stage of fulfillment. The forethought, time and energy necessary to properly pack and ship your art is a measure of your own respect for your work. Done correctly, it offers its own reward.

Special thanks to the following for their helpful contributions: Artists Sharon Church, John Marshall, Kurt Matzdorf, Richard Mawdsley and Steve Pioso, Registrar's Assistant in Packing and Shipping, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of American Art, Vanessa S. Lynn, former art and architecture librarian at Pratt Institute and former director of the Cooper-Lynn Gallery in New York, is a freelance consultant in art and design.

By Vanessa Lynn
Metalsmith Magazine – 1985 Spring
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Vanessa Lynn

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