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Packing and Shipping Paper Artifacts

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Transporting Objects to NEDCC

It is important to ensure safe transport of collection materials to NEDCC for conservation and imaging treatment. Hand-delivery of materials is the safest option, but shipping may often be necessary.

Even under the best of circumstances, shipping by common carrier involves some risk. Objects may be exposed to crushing, puncture, shock, vibration, and the elements, including drastic changes in temperature and relative humidity (RH). Conservators often see examples of objects damaged in shipment. The possibility of damage can be minimized by packing objects securely and choosing a reliable carrier.

Descriptions of shippers and packing instructions for a variety of materials follows. In addition, NEDCC recommends the following:

  • Follow the packing instructions below. Pack objects securely and hand-deliver objects if possible. Use a commercial shipper to transport materials only when necessary.
  • Packing materials need not be archival quality (pH-neutral) if they are not in direct contact with the objects. Specific materials for inner and outer wrapping and packaging are described below.
  • Ship on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday to decrease the risk of a weekend-layover in a warehouse. If possible, do not ship over major holidays or during periods of extremely cold, humid, or stormy weather.
  • Enclose a packing list of all objects as well as your name, address, phone number, email address and any special instructions.
  • Call NEDCC if you have questions, especially if the stability of the object(s) is an issue.

Commercial Shippers

Fine Arts Shippers: These companies offer door-to-door trucking with special handling for valuable or irreplaceable objects, and most offer packing and crating services. Fine arts shippers are very reliable and usually expensive. Companies can be found through a web browser search, the yellow pages, or a recommendation from your local art museum.

UPS and FedEx: These carriers can provide a cost-effective solution when you cannot visit NEDCC in person or when a fine arts shipping provider is unnecessary. UPS and FedEx may set limits on the amount of insurance they will provide for certain types of materials including artwork.

  • FedEx limits each package to 150 lbs. maximum and a combined 165 inches (length + 2 times width + 2 times depth). Maximum length is limited to 119 inches.
  • UPS limits each package to 150 lbs. maximum and a combined 165 inches (length + 2 times width + 2 times depth). Maximum length is limited to 108 inches.

U.S. Postal Service Registered Mail: The U.S. Postal Service offers cost-effective shipping of artifacts of moderate size and value.  Choose “Registered Mail” shipping — not merely Insured, Certified, or Priority Mail.  

  • Registered Mail limits each package to 70 pounds and a combined 108 inches (length + 2 times width + 2 times depth).
  • Registered Mail packages must be sealed with water-activated brown paper packing tape or cloth tape. Glossy or self-adhesive tape must be covered with paper or cloth tape. Use a permanent marker to address a package; do not use paper labels.

Shipping Containers

The Sandwich — for flat objects

First Wrapping. Wrap each object in a clean smooth paper such as glassine or tissue paper. It is often desirable to place a stiff, non-acidic paper or cardboard behind especially fragile objects to support them.

Second Wrapping. The objects should be placed between stiff boards and secured to one of the boards with envelope corners and tape by placing the envelope corners around the four corners of the wrapped document and then taping the corners down to the backboard. The boards should allow an extra 2 inches of coverage around all four sides of the object for protection in case the package is dented. The boards should be taped together and wrapped in a sturdy material such as Kraft paper.

You may be tempted to use water-resistant sheeting such as polyethylene, however, the use of non-breathing, impermeable material is not recommended. If the package is subjected to abrupt temperature drops, condensation can form inside. When using this type of material, be sure to first wrap the boards with paper as a barrier layer.

Outer Boards. A lightweight, rigid, paper product like honeycomb display board (either ¼ or ½ inch) is ideal, because it can be cut to size with a mat knife and costs less to ship due to weight savings. If possible, supplement the honeycomb board with a layer of 3/16 inch corrugated cardboard to protect against puncturing. For small objects, several layers of sturdy cardboard may be used in lieu of honeycomb board. The cardboard must be rigid and dense enough to resist puncturing or bending. If layers of corrugated board are used, place each sheet with the grain perpendicular to that of adjoining layers for increased rigidity.

The sandwich package should be sealed at the edges with packing tape or filament tape. All the seams on USPS Registered Mail packages must be sealed with brown paper tape or cloth tape (no glossy, self-adhesive tapes are allowed by the Postal Service for registered packages unless they are covered by paper or cloth tape).

Boxes and Crates — for books or three-dimensional objects

Books, boxed documents, and other three-dimensional items and objects that need ample cushioning should be placed in boxes or crates. Each object should be wrapped individually and packed with cushioning to prevent shifting in the crate.

Boxes. Corrugated cardboard boxes offer a cost-effective choice when crating is not strictly necessary. Use boxes that are clean and structurally sound. Dirty or damaged boxes may place your objects at risk. Limit the weight of individual boxes to what an average adult can safely handle.

For added protection against crushing, puncture, shock, or vibration, consider double-boxing your objects by placing a smaller box inside a larger box with ample cushioning/void fill inside both boxes (see Cushioning below).

A good reusable, prefabricated option for artwork may be obtained from companies such as Airfloat and MasterPak. Both companies offer a product called a “Strongbox” which contains customizable foam on the inside that can be sized to fit any artwork.

Crates. Plywood, especially MDO (Medium Density Overlay) is the material most commonly used by museums for crating. Custom-built crates may be obtained from fine art shipping companies and can be built with a vapor barrier, such as hard Tyvek®, on the inside. If you make the crate yourself, use flat head screws. Nails are not as strong and are difficult to remove when unpacking. Removing nails may cause jarring of the contents and damage to the crate, which might otherwise be reused. Large crates should have handles or battens that allow them to be lifted and moved easily. Crates with nothing to hold onto are apt to be dropped, pushed, or tumbled.

Cushioning. Cushioning material helps to absorb shock and keeps objects stable during transit. It may also provide thermal insulation and a humidity buffer. Cushioning materials are essential especially for fragile objects or those with insecure media, and objects that must be sent framed or under glass.

These materials are usually made of plastic. Polyethylene or polypropylene foams with brand names like Ethafoam®, Volara®, or Microfoam® are especially popular with museums for packaging. Some polyethylene or polypropylene foam products are even suitable for long term storage. They come in sheets of various thickness or in blocks that can be cut to cradle and support three-dimensional objects. Polystyrene foams such as Styrofoam® can also be used, but are less desirable due to chemical instability for long term storage and the mess created when damaged.

Filling the crate with plastic peanuts also provides a cushion. As always, the objects should be wrapped first.

Packing with bubble wrap is another option, but, because bubble wrap is a sheet that does not breathe (with the possible exception of perforated bubble wrap), it should not be completely sealed around the object. In addition, bubble wrap can stain or mark objects and should never be used in direct contact with a document, artwork, or book cover. Avoid larger bubble packs which can be easily deflated in transit and lose their cushioning effect.

Procedures for Specific Collection Materials

Books. Books should be shipped in crates or boxes with each volume in the box wrapped individually. The first wrapping material should be clean, smooth, paper such as tissue, glassine, or kraft paper. If the volume is bound in a paper wrapper or a limp binding, corrugated boards should be cut to the size of the volume and placed on the outside of the front and back covers before the volume is wrapped a second time.

The second wrapper should be a padding material such as bubble wrap, ethafoam, or corrugated wrap that will both absorb shocks and buffer changes in temperature and RH. The whole book, including spine, fore edge, top and bottom, should be covered. The book or books should then be placed horizontally in the shipping container surrounded by cushioning void fill (see Cushioning above).

The number of volumes shipped in one carton should be determined by value, weight and size.  Remember that other people will need to be able to safely lift and move the box. An overloaded box is also more likely to burst. When in doubt, double-box the shipment for added protection.

Objects with Friable Media. Special care must be taken with objects with friable (insecure) media, such as pastels or charcoal drawings, which are especially vulnerable to vibrations and smudging. Such materials should be hand-carried whenever possible. If pastels must be shipped, consult with a conservator first.

Objects Framed Under Glass. If the object is framed with glass and cannot be safely removed from the frame, it is best not to ship it. If sending such an object is absolutely necessary, apply strips of masking tape or a sheet of Glas Skin® (a wide, low tack adhesive film) to the glass. The tape may not keep the glass from cracking, but it will hold the glass together so there is less danger of damaging the object. Masking tape should cover the entire surface of the glass in parallel strips that are both vertical and horizontal. To absorb shocks, framed pictures must be cushioned extremely well.

After taping the glass, place sheets of corrugated cardboard over the front and back of the frame and tape the sheets together using packing tape with strips of paper placed between the tape and the frame surface to prevent adhesion and damage to the frame. Use a cushioning material such as bubble wrap or microfoam to protect the package and either double box it with ample cushioning/void fill, use a Strongbox, or (preferably) crate it using foam cushioning on the interior.

Rolled Objects. Paper artifacts should be shipped flat whenever possible, but rolling is often more practical for very large artworks, maps, and documents. To avoid crushing, such objects are best rolled around the outside of a wide diameter (4-inch +) tube. The tube should first be covered with a clean, smooth, barrier layer of paper, glassine, or polyester film. Roll the object around the tube and wrap another barrier layer of paper or film around it before placing it inside a larger tube. Allow the wrapping to extend beyond the ends of the smaller tube so the receiver can pull on it to extract the inner package. Pulling the object itself may cause unnecessary damage. Use a layer of cushioning material such as bubble wrap if necessary to prevent movement inside the larger tube. Consult with NEDCC’s Registrar or a conservator first, if you deem the item to be fragile or unstable.