Table of Contents » Chapter 8 : Shipping Work » Chapter 8 : Packing Tips

Chapter 8 : Packing Tips

Ship Happens

by Mary K. Cloonan and Leigh Taylor Mickelson

Congratulations! You have been accepted into an exhibition. Years of inspiration, perspiration, anticipation and dedication have led to this moment, so don’t skimp on the preparation when packing your work to ship to the gallery. As gallery workers, we have seen the good, the bad and the mind-boggling packing jobs, and wish to pass along our experiences so to avoid hassles and crying along the road (for us and you). Be sure to read through the paper work and agreements the gallery sends you, as each venue may have their own specific terms and procedures. These are some basic guidelines to get you on the right track.

In the shipping battle, choose your weapons well. Your goal is to have sturdy, light-weight, insular materials. Polyester tablecloths and old bed sheets with cartoon characters do not fall into this category. And while the Sunday newspaper (properly wadded and stuffed) might do the trick, it will cost you in the end because of its weight. Begin with gathering the right materials to simplify packing: bubble wrap, styro-foam peanuts, two types of tape, strong boxes in various sizes, permanent markers and practical thinking.

A smart packer will always be on the look out for appropriate and make-shift (meaning free) packing materials. Save and stow away those padded envelopes or air-pillows you may have from other shipments. Suddenly, something that used to go straight into the recycle bin, such as an empty egg carton or a cereal box, becomes packing gold. Take your gathering instincts out of the home and check with retail stores, who often have bubble wrap, boxes and peanuts they are happy to be relieved of. You will soon become a connoisseur and collector of cardboard boxes, adept at discerning their sturdiness and nesting capabilities.

You’ve got your materials. Now it is time to pack. Lay out all your pieces (labeled clearly with numbers corresponding to your inventory list) on a table and begin by wrapping any extremities such as spouts or fingers with an extra layer of wrap. For extremely fragile parts or appendages, tissue paper is a good choice for the first layer of wrapping. You can also stuff the tissue into negative spaces to avoid compression. Pretend it’s going in-line skating and add those pads! Pay attention to any protrusions, lips or corners so that they are protected well. Make sure that no surface is exposed and that there is actual bubble and not just the plastic covering your work. Your art objects should be cocooned in at least two snug layers of bubble wrap, more for heavier, larger pieces. If you tap on the piece, you shouldn’t hear the clink of clay. In fact, you shouldn’t feel anything hard at all, if you do, you need more wrap. Please label and bundle lids together with their corresponding bottoms in the same box. It is frustrating to play mix and match or go spelunking in a box of loose peanuts searching for a rogue top.

How you secure that wrap is important too. It sounds silly, but the type of tape used is an important consideration. Choose a masking tape or brown packing tape to keep it under wraps. By using a visible and removable tape, it speeds up the unpacking and re-packing process, allowing us to see where edges start and stop. And speed is important when we have more than fifty boxes to unpack and pack! We can’t tell you how irritating it is to come across a box brimming with bubble-wrapped objects that have been mummified with clear tape. Such a sight can literally bring tears to our eyes after a long day of unpacking. What ensues is an emotionally filled battle between a mostly-dull matte knife and the unforgiving skin of layers of clear packing tape. What should be a moment akin to Christmas morning, soon becomes a scuffle that can cause damage to your piece (fragile parts can break or scratch during the process), as well as bad moods. Yes, your work made it through the shipping, but will it make it through the unveiling? So, to reiterate, (we can’t stress this enough…) don’t mummify it with tape – your goal is to send it off to the gallery, not send it off to the after-life.

Furthermore, galleries generally re-use your packing materials for the return ship; if it is mangled during the opening it can be less reliable. As its creator you know your work best, whereas for galleries, each box contains unknown entities and we don’t know where the pressure points or top may be. Use logic when wrapping and don’t use an extravagance of tape. Better yet! Don’t use tape at all! For small wrapped objects, rubber bands work swimmingly as fasteners, and are reusable again and again. Cling wrap is swell as well, but please use the tinted kind and repress your urge to swaddle.

Now, what to do with your nicely wrapped art works? Time to pack the inner box. Do you dare let them roam free in the box among loose peanuts? You could, but it is better to make “pillows of peanuts” (p.o.p). This serves many functions. It is cleaner and easier to unpack and pack work, which is helpful considering the turnaround time between shows. Also, heavier items can settle to the bottom of a box when packed in loose peanuts. Fill all of those ubiquitous shopping bags with peanuts, or splurge on some zipper bags to create your own size to fill those gaps.

When packing the inner box, your goal is that if you give it a shake there is no movement or noise within. Not enough material and you’ll end up with the “bumper-car effect” inside your box. Begin by putting some p.o.p.s down in the bottom of the box, then placing your bubbled items in the center, filling in around the edges with more p.o.p.s, finally topping it off with, you guessed it – a p.o.p. The artwork should be centered and surrounded by peanuts between the walls.

Now for your first line of defense, the outer shell. Shipping companies will not pay the insurance for breakable work if it is not properly packed and double boxed. One should always double box, with at least two inches between the outer and inner box. This should allow for any and all abuse it shall receive on the way. Put a p.o.p or sheet of styro-foam insulation on the bottom of the box and place the inner box inside. Wedge more filler between the walls and on top (this is where those egg cartons and cereal boxes filled with peanuts can come in handy), and finally seal with strong packing tape (clear is ok here). Soft upholstery foam is also great for stuffing the outer box. Your packing cross section should resemble a Tootsie-pop, and it should take a lot of licks to get to the center.

When packing, keep in mind the infamous “egg-off-the-roof” experiment you did in physics class. Many omelets were made by poor of construction Picture the Rube Goldbergian labyrinth of a shipping’s sorting center (say that five times fast) with all the conveyor belts and pendulous boots that literally kick your box towards its destination. Writing Fragile on a box is not a protective incantation. The word “fragile” only seems to incite abuse rather than prevent it, provoking the machinery who take it as a personal challenge.

This process works great for small to medium-sized art objects, such as pots and small sculpture. Once your pieces get larger and more intricate, you might want to consider some other options. You can actually use layers of upholstery foam (cut to the size of the inner box) to create a piece-specific protective shell. Place one sheet down first, then proceed to cut out niches in each layer to accommodate the contour of your form. You can use a sharp utility knife, a hot knife, or even a jig or band saw to cut it. It is not an easy or quick process, but it is a good idea for larger pieces or intricate vessels that will be traveling to numerous locations.

Professional shipping companies often use expandable spray foam to surround the work. This can be expensive but worth it if the delicacy of the work merits it. We have seen homemade versions of this technique done with spray insulation and zippered baggies, but it is messy and hard to judge how much the foam will expand in the bag. Be sure to wrap your work in a plastic bag before attempting so that if a blow-out occurs, your work is protected from the wrath of the insulation blob.

For large-scale, heavier work, wooden crates may be a better option than large boxes, which lose integrity and strength with each shipment. Crates can be easily constructed if one is adept and has access to a wood shop. Handles should be sturdy rope or wood mitered into the frame of the box rather than metal ones, which can be uncomfortable to carry or even be torn off during transit. Remember to make your crates so that they will easily fit through your average door. Most galleries and art centers do not have loading docks. That’s something else to consider. If your crate gets to be a certain size, carriers such as UPS won’t take it, and you will have to look into other options, such as freight companies. Not that freight is a bad thing for larger works – it is just an extra step in the process.

Label all of your boxes well: artist name, intended exhibition, which one of how many and where the inventory is concealed. If sending multiple boxes, include a specific inventory in each one so we can see what to expect inside, and if the work does not sell, it can come back to you in a similar configuration. Shows are often scheduled back-to-back and galleries receive multitudinous containers, so some clarification is appreciated to reduce the amount of detective work needed to determine who is bestowing their art upon us.

Packing for a show is a tedious appendage to being a professional artist. However, considering the time you have devoted to your work it only makes sense to invest effort into its packing. It is much more enjoyable to get a call from a gallery telling you your work sold, rather than it arrived broken.