Art Shipping Horror Stories (and how to avoid shipping problems)

Several weeks ago we received an order through our website for a painting by an artist from Europe. We contacted the artist and asked him to ship the piece to us (the client happened to be local). The piece arrived within a week (amazing, considering the artist shipped it to us via parcel post) and the box appeared to be in good shape. Unfortunately, when we opened the box we found a problem. The artist had wrapped the painting in bubble wrap, the smaller bubbles. The bubbles had stuck to the varnish on the painting, and, upon removing the bubbles, we found that we had a bubble wrap pattern in the surface of the piece. Normally we would have shipped the piece back to the artist for repair, but it seemed that we would be risking additional damage with the piece crossing the Atlantic two more times.

After talking to the artist we decided to have a local artist assist us by re-varnishing the piece, which was easily done and the piece looked great again. Had the artist take just a small precaution however, it would have saved everyone the trouble and concern.

Over the years I have been involved in (directly and indirectly) thousands of art shipments. The vast majority of the shipments are delivered without a hitch. Unfortunately, as you can see from the picture above, from time to time, things go terribly wrong. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:

  1. If bubble wrap will be in direct contact with the art, turn it so that the bubbles face out. We never let the bubble wrap come in contact with the art – instead we use palet wrap as our first layer of protection. You can see what we use by clicking here. Keep in mind that this stretch wrap can create an air-tight seal, not something you want if the art is going to be in transit or storage for a prolonged period of time. Carefully cut holes in the wrap so the art can breathe.
  2. Invest in high quality tape. I know we are all on a budget, but packing tape is not an area where you want to skimp. Think about it, you might save $4-5 by purchasing low-quality tape, but is it worth it if your box comes apart in transit and you have hundreds or thousands of dollars of damage as a result? I also find that high-quality tape requires less taping, so in the end you might not even be spending that much more. Having said that, don’t skimp on tape or other materials.
  3. Try buying your materials in bulk. This is especially important if you start shipping a higher volume of art. Buying boxes at the corner shipping supplier is not an economical way to go. The mark-up these retailers put on the boxes is tremendous. Ask other artists in your area if they have a local supplier (most major metro areas will have several commercial packaging suppliers), or order them online.
  4. Plaster your boxes in “Fragile” labels. I know there will be many out there who say that this is a waste of time and money, but I don’t care, I use the labels. I know that the delivery companies don’t pay a lot of attention to these labels, but at the very least I feel it helps my client know that we care. I also think that the freight companies don’t set out to damage art (okay, maybe some of them do) and if a fragile label occasionaly helps them identify the more fragile packages, it’s worth the small investment.

Several years ago I did an extensive video podcast on shipping paintings, take a few minutes and check it out at http://www.xanadugallery.com/Webinar/Shipping/index.asp . I also gave one on shipping sculpture: http://www.xanadugallery.com/Webinar/Shipping/shipping2.asp.

 

Do you have additional tips about shipping art? Have you had your own personal shipping horror story? Please share in the comments below. Please refrain from using the names of the offending shipping companies – we all know who they are and I don’t want to unfairly target any one company – they’ve all messed up at some point.

 

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51 Comments

  1. I start with a layer of acid free paper over the painting . This assumes that the painting is completely dry of course. I will never ship before I am certain of that.

    More importantly, don’t forget to add a few goodies in the package. A hand written note, a calendar of your work or even a business card will be a nice touch. It sort of breaks the silence of a package if you know what I mean.

  2. Several years ago I took a shipment of work to a gallery in Dallas who represented me at that time (Karen Mitchell Frank Gallery–closed about 10 years ago). The works were on acrylic on paper framed with plexi-glass. Heat (probably from being in the trunk of my car during transit) had caused the plexi-glass to adhere to the painting. We didn’t realize this had happened until a customer wanted to change the frame on one of the paintings. Luckily, the gallery manager figured out to use a hair dryer to reheat the plexiglass which caused it to come loose from the painting. She told me it was a tricky process, but she managed to do so without damaging the painting at all. She reframed the painting and sold it.

  3. I was taught by my mentor to use Tyvek; it is a water-proof, clothlike, reusable paper that protects the surface of the art. You can ask me for the address of the company I use in New York.

  4. why wrap in plastic then cut airholes so it can breathe? wrap in a breathable material instead. i use good ole fashioned brown paper. then for padding i re-use the styrofoam i get from my frame supplier. i re-use their boxes too.
    dr

  5. To fill the final spaces between the initially wrapped art, I purchase 1/2″ or 1″, 4′ x 8′ insulation panels from Home Depot or Lowes and custom cut panels for all sides of the box. Light weight, firm and easy to cut. High density panels, though slightly more expensive, are not as messy as the looser-density, white foam panels. My goal is to always have zero movement in the shipping box. I agree regarding bulk supplies. Shipping cartons, spools of bubble wrap and often free, high density foam scraps or end pieces come from a local packing company, such as Tucson Container in Tucson, and a case of 3″ tough, strapping tape from Uline. When boxes come back to me, I save everything for re-use if in good condition. If neighbors are moving or buy large items such as furniture, TV’s, frig, etc., they readily donate the boxes to me, from which I cut the useable panels, so I always have cardboard on hand to cut for one of the initial layers of framed, painting protection.

  6. I’m always looking to save money and increase profit. If you have a good relationship with your local art supply/framer, like Michaels, ask them to save their frame shipping boxes and packing for you. They just dispose of them every night. The boxes, foam and bubble fillers are perfect and they won’t charge you a cent !

  7. I always put a sheet of foamcore over the painting front and back and then wrap with bubble wrap. I reinforce the sides and bottoms of the boxes with more scrap cardboard or foamcore and so far have had everything arrive in good shape. In fact, I get compliments from show directors for my good packing.

    A couple of times when I had to ship two paintings to the same place, I’ve used two boxes taped together rather than shipping them separately. This saves on shipping fees, and I think the two boxes together are sturdier than one alone. These are for relatively small paintings up to about 16×20 plus framing.

  8. When shipping heavy crates tell the shipping company AT LEAST FIVE times that two people are required on the truck! Make that six times.

  9. Several months ago I faced the dilemma of sending a 3 ft. by 4 ft. acrylic painting to Seattle from Hannibal, MO. Everything I came up with would not have worked. I found a company in Mississippi that makes art boxes especially for shipping paintings and prints, etc. The cost was $200. Its a very nice, substantial box. My client will return the box to me and I can reuse it. I also created an account with FedEx which simplified shipping. They came to my house and picked it up. The piece made it to Seattle without damage or incident in four days. Everyone was happy!

  10. After the expense of framing a collage properly, and with glass not touching the acrylic coating, I have had my ups and downs, but learned my lesson quickly! I had sent a 30 x 40 inch within the state by a carrier, and felt I did an excellent job packing, but used cardboard, wrap, popcorn, foam, packing tape and fragile stickers. I think they jumped on the box as it was delivered to a show in Tucson shattered. Luckily I had insured it, and my husband knew the the boss of the shipping company, so I was able to collect the insurance and also get one of my favorite pieces back. Knowing how to remove the coatings of acrylic gingerly, I was able to repair it as good as new.
    One of my smaller pieces, 22 x 22 in. just came back from the Sky Harbor Exhibit. I shipped it there and they shipped it back, and I was complimented by the shipper when he came to my door. I had easily created a wooden box of 26 x 26 inches using four 2 by 4’s (as the sides) and screwed them together with long screwws. then added a 26 x 26 in. piece of plywood to the bottom screwing that into the 2 x 4’s. I then bought some foam pipe insulation at the hardware store and cut it into four pieces to fit each side of my art frame. I slit it vertically on one side so it would fit around the frame’s sides. I placed egg crate foam in the bottom of the box and also stapled egg crate to the inside top of the plywood. Placed the top over 2 x 4’s , (art within with round foam around the frame sides) and then screwed the top on with a drill making a top for the box. They are more heavy for shipping, but having a piece damaged is costly too, and you can always add the shipping in since if it’s a sale, you won’t be getting your box back.
    Kathryn

  11. I have shipped sculpture and fiber art via several shipping companies. I have not had any problems , except for sleepless nights until the art arrives safely. Thank you all for your advice and comments.

  12. I ship sculptures, but this can also apply to paintings. Use brown packing tape when taping bubble wrap. The color contrast of the brown tape with the clear bubble wrap makes it easier to untape the package.

  13. My dad was the packaging engineer for Studebaker/Packard, and he taught me how to “package”. Since my pieces are NOT paintings, my solutions differ from one piece to another. It’s better to make every package unique to your piece and not to use pre-made packaging, making the art conform to the package instead of vice versa.

  14. And, now what about the encaustic artists? It is a shipping nightmare in the summer (and winter). It is either so hot the work may melt or so cold that the encaustic wax may crack–we have many artists in the Northwest how have wonderful shipping instructions but it is always a gamble–the key is to always double box your work–just my thoughts.

  15. Ive shipped thousands of paintings and yes bubble wrap will stick, especially the international shipping where the art sits in a box waiting to clear customs for god knows how long! A very simple solution is wrapping them in Butcher paper , it resists moisture and once wrapped ,a nice “thank you” and a signature with a grease pencil on the front makes the whole experience a little better. The best part is I buy it from the same people who sell the boxes I use. Stay creative!

  16. Ever since the UPS stores opened up I have been using them for all my shipping. That’s at least 7 years ago.I’ve chosen to use their name because of the level of integrity I’ve experienced with them. I’ve had an almost totally perfect (99.9%) satisfaction with them. Because I’ve moved twice I always make sure the I have an excellent rapport with the store owner or manager. We’re in a very tourist city, Asheville NC and the majority of our major sales gets shipped. I always ask for a thorough description of their packaging procedure , to that I did request to add parchment paper warp before any bubble wrap or foam boards. Once they know they’ll get all your business they generally are very cautious and very thorough. They have made custom heavy duty cardboard boxes for paintings up to 8 feet long and I’m extremely pleased with their service. The customer always pays for all packaging and shipping costs. WE only had one incident when a flat boxed painting was put on a narrow conveyor belt at one of the transfer stations along the way and at certain point the painting got caught between two steel bars and one side of the box was slightly crushed in with consequent damage to the stretcher bar of the painting inside but not the canvas. UPS immediately took full responsibility and paid for all repairs. rebuilding the stretcher bars, re stretching the art and minor touch up on the paintings . All that to my complete satisfaction . The client was very patient and realized that it was a UPS equipment handling fault , not ours and not our local UPS store. The client had to wait unfortunately about 2 weeks but was refunded all shipping costs. Other than that it’s been a great means for shipping for us.

  17. I use wax paper first then cardboard on both sides of a stretched canvas. I just tape wax paper to the side of
    the cardboard that faces the painting and tape it to hold it in place. Never have had any painting stick to it.

  18. I once trusted packing and shipping of a very large painting to a local shipper, and came to regret it. The painting arrived badly damaged, partly due to inadequate packing, but mostly due to the carelessness of the shipper, who, I found out later, specialized in shipping heavy equipment. In the end I borrowed a van and drove the painting hundreds of miles rather than shipping it again… that is, after making some extensive repairs. Yes, there was insurance, but the whole episode left a bad taste, for me and for the collector. Not good. Pack it yourself, or find someone who has experience with shipping art. I learned the hard way. Oh, and *always* insure.

  19. Fragile stickers: I use 4″x4″ size, 1 on each edge of the box, 2 on the face and back. I’m thinking any shipment worker that would damage a box with so many fragile stickers will have a lot of explaining to do with his boss. I never had a problem with damage.

  20. I make plastic/foam bags using padding that is normally used under carpets. Purchased from a home improvement store, it comes in gigantic roles that can make several large bags. One side of it is cushioned and the other side is a slick plastic. It works better than bubble wrap, it’s cheaper, and the bags are reusable.

  21. Use glassine paper. (Google glassine; Wikipedia has an explanation of what glassine paper is and its uses, and Google will also list several sources from which you can purchase glassine paper.)

    Glassine paper has proven to be about the best choice for protective wraps that won’t stick to the surfaces of paintings, photos, etc., especially acrylic.

    Secure the glassine around the art, then a double layer of bubble wrap securely taped in place and as suggested in the article bubble side away from the artwork. I am a little paranoid so I use a box just slightly roomier than the securely wrapped art and stuff all of the air spaces with wadded up newspaper to boot.

    I agree 100%: don’t skimp on the quality of packaging/wrapping materials. Use plenty of good quality tape, and yes, “Fragile” labels everywhere! It also doesn’t hurt to write on the box “Fragile: Paintings” (or photographs).

    And always ship work insured for the amount of its worth.

    In this manner I have shipped my paintings and photos to Norway, Canada, Ireland…and all have arrived safe and sound as in as good a condition as they left.

    One other consideration: you might take photos front and back of your art before you wrap and ship it in case there are disputes about conditions later (or in case you have to file a damage or loss claim).

  22. I find it unusual that no one has mentioned “Airfloat” crates. Incredibly strong, I’ve had three survive a direct hit by a fork lift with NO damage to the work. Reusuable. Your piece snuggles down in a Temperpedic bed. I wouldn’t ship in anything else, and I’ve shipped all over the world.

  23. I also use cardboard to mail my artwork, plastic can get stuck to the varnish very easily especially if you are mailing in the summer and it is hot out.. Cardboard really works well protecting the painting from getting damaged. I don’t use bubble wrap at all but rather several layers of cardboard and a final wrap using a large piece of corrugated cardboard roll and I have mailed over 2000 paintings (internatinally) with only 3 getting damaged in shipping using this method (one package had tire tracks across it.. lol). Never let the canvases touch each other either because they can get stuck to each other, always surround fully with cardboard.

  24. Very useful information…..

    ….but the professor in me won’t let this one go:

    There is a big difference between ‘palette’ and ‘pallet’……

    You use PALLET wrap for shipping – I double anyone would want to wrap their palette (…it would be very difficult to use the paint on it!)

    Thanks for the information which I will pass-on to our art center’s gallery manager.

    Rob Wallace
    Ames, Iowa

  25. I am interested in information about shipping sculptures internationally. What is the best and cheapest way to do that?I got into an international biennial recently but could not participate because the shipping was just too expensive – at least the information that i got. Anyone out there with could international shipping info? Thanks. Leslie

  26. I use Strongbox packing materials for all my shipments. They’re made strong enough to be used multiple times and allows the gallery to return my work in the same box after an exhibit. Plus, they’re great to store the paintings in between shows. Several companies sell Strongbox online under their own label: Elite Pak, Masterpak and Uline among others. True, they’re relatively expensive, but my paintings are worth it.
    I once started working with a new gallery in Key West. Upon arrival of my paintings the gallery owner called me to let know the paintings had arrived safely. He went on and on about how nice the shipping boxes were—but said nothing about the paintings. C’est le vie.

  27. I ship dozens of large framed oil paintings to galleries every year, and it is the frames that are prone to damage. Use extra rolled pieces of bubble wrap around the outer edges, or use pool noodles–their size is perfect! Also, mark
    arrows and and the word OPEN to indicate to the receiver where the box is to be opened. You will save money by using an account and especially by shipping ground rather than air.

    1. Hi Rani, I’m going to be shipping an oil painting I completed about 10 weeks ago (I had used Liquin for quick dry). It is completely dry to the touch, but will need to be opened immediately once it arrives at its destination. Would you recommend plastic wrap or glassine paper for this young oil painting? I don’t want the glassine to stick since it has not been drying for 6 months, however, I also don’t want plastic wrap to stick to it. Do you have experience with this? Thank you in advance!

  28. Hi Jason,
    So here’s a big question — I hadn’t thought to ask you before, but I’ve been struggling with this for awhile in terms of art shipping and storage: I abhor plastic. It is not good for the environment, never goes away, kills wildlife. It looks fine when it is new but quickly becomes unsightly. I currently store my work (watercolor on paper) in plastic sleeves, but I am not happy about using plastic. If I ship in sheet protectors, I always ask people to return them to me so that I can use them again rather than buy more plastic. Sometimes I ship my paintings between pieces of cardboard, but that leaves them vulnerable to moisture. Have you come across plastic-free solutions for display and shipping?

  29. Three times in the past five years I have had borrowing institutions have their”experts” pack our very fagile collection; once I packed to avoid “killing” the expert, second we had a valuable piece of sculpture broken and even repaired is now worth half its original value, third time had a wood piece broken with no one admitting it had been repaired [not too well]. Fourth time: I will contract packers for the borrowing institution.

  30. I ship my stone sculptures and have only once had a break and that was when a gallery shipped it back to me with two in one box. I always double box. In the first smaller box I bubble wrap the sculpture and then use the eco-peanuts around it and then put that box into another box that has at least a 3 ” clearance of packing. I used to use DHL.. They were great and economical but they now only do overseas. I highly recommend them. I now use fed ex more expensive but they don’t demand that the piece not be one of a kind.

  31. I use the white foam as an initial layer for acrylic paintings ( http://www.uline.com/Product/Detail/S-2962/Foam/1-8-x-24-x-350-UPSable-Foam ). I use blue painters tape and some stretch wrap to keep it all in place. Then the bubble wrap and the packaging tape that you use with the bubble wrap never have a chance to come into contact with the painted surface. Kraft paper can adhere to acrylic paint if there is pressure and heat; white foam won’t adhere, no matter the pressure and heat.

  32. Many thanks for these helpful tips. Just yesterday I shipped a giclee on stretched canvas and had second & third thoughts about how to pack it with concern about the potential effect of bubble wrap. I went with the intuitive (wrapped in paper then bubble wrap with the styrofoam blocks surrounding it) and now I feel much better learning that my intuition was right on!

  33. My packing horror stories always have to do with estimating the price of shipping! Perhaps I “overpack” but I was quite nervous about sending a large, framed commission painting from California to Connecticut so I padded the corners and had a sheet of lucite cut to fit the front of the framed painting. I cut the same size, in doubled cardboard to the back. Then I bought large styrofoam corners from U-Haul packing and a large mirror box which fit it exactly. Taped, and ready to go I confidently brought it to FedEx and — here’s the crazy part — they would not let me insure it for full value UNLESS THEY PACKED IT — which meant them putting their box OVER my box. Total cost of shipping materials and shipping was $350. (But the local Pack and Ship place wanted $600 total.)

  34. I ship paintings all over the country , to different societies. I use spacers to prevent the mat from touching the painting.
    I use airfloat strong boxes. And so far have had excellent results

  35. I ship watercolours which are framed with glass. To prevent the glass from breaking, I cover the entire glass with masking tape. Just be sure the tape is removed before too long so it doesn’t leave sticky glue on the glass. Then I cover all four sides of the frame with styrofoam tubing (insulation tubing) to prevent marking and/or scratching.

  36. For shipping flatwork, turn the package on edge and place the mailing label on the “thin” edge. This MAY encourage the shipper to stack the painting in transit the same way it would hang on the wall, so they can get to the label/barcode, instead of laying it flat and then piling other containers on it.

  37. Several years ago, accepted in a juried national show in the Midwest, I carefully packaged my pastel painting. The shipping company literally ran it over before it got to the show. Apparently it had been removed from the truck to access another package, and then it was overlooked. When it got back to me, there were tire tracks on it. The shipper paid the insurance; but I’ll never know how well the painting would have done in that competition. The best of precautions are still no guarantee!

  38. When shipping framed artwork I used foam corners , a piece of fomecore as large as the frame on both sides of the artwork, wrap it in brown paper , then bubble wrap and cardboard box it OR, to be absolutely sure, then bubble wrap the box and box it again as if the first box were the artwork! I have shipped glassed watercolors successfully this way.

    As a science teacher years ago I received some laboratory material with the accurate label FRAGILE CAUTION: BIOLOGICAL SPECIMENS IN GLASS. I have occasionally used this wording on a fragile three dimensional artwork. Add a bug in a small bottle to be truthful!! Scares the daylights out of delivery people. Incidentally, buy stock in cardboard manufacturers. Shipping is big business these days.

  39. 3 simple rules:

    1. To protect the surface, don’t let anything touch the surface. Use folded cardboard corners to hold material (such as cardboard) suspended above the surface of the painting..
    2. To protect the entire piece, suspend it: a kind of box inside a box. The first box containing the painting is suspended by soft stuff (crumpled newspaper, foam peanuts, whatever) in a larger box. Damage to the outside of the package won’t come near the painting. The package can be dropped and the piece will be fine.
    3. Ship express whenever possible. Expensive, yes, but packages are handled MUCH more carefully when they’re shipped express (which is by air). Plus, less time in transit–less time for damage to occur.

    If you have the money, try buying a “masterpack.” (google them) They specialize in containers for fine art shipping.

  40. Great and helpful article. Reusable shipping box companies like Strongbox and Airfloat will offer a discount to art club members. They are great boxes. May seem expensive but they are durable and mine have been used multiple times without problems. Also, it’s helpful to the Gallery to tape on a copy (photo) of your piece on the inside of the box lid and then a tiny copy on the side of the box. This is helpful when a show ends and its time to ship everything home in the correct box.

  41. I have used the Airsafe Art Boxes from Clear Bags (http://www.clearbags.com/box/shipping/airsafe-art) for shipping many of my textile artworks to galleries and for exhibitions. All of my shipments have arrived in A-1 condition using these boxes and the few pieces that have not sold and been returned in them look like they have only been shipped one direction, not two. I have used the 16×20 and 20×24 boxes myself so I assume that the smaller sizes work just as well. They are also my source for clear plastic bags as well. I don’t do art cards but they have presentation boxes for that as well.

    The company also makes custom boxes but I have not had to utilize them for that service yet so I can’t speak to that aspect.

  42. Strip frame the painting, easily done with wood strips nailed into the stretchers. Make sure the strips protrude above the painting surface, lay a piece of corrugated board on top of the strip edges and over the painting, then tape in plave. Not very aesthetic, but VERY effective.

  43. A friend has just contacted me absolutely distraught after unpacking her container and finding that news print paper (used for packaging by shipping co) had stuck to parts of a very textured oil painting. Any tips or tricks for safely removing it? Thanks in advance

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