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Fig. 1: Side chair, attributed to Peter Scott, Williamsburg, VA, 1745–1760. Black walnut, oak, and yellow pine. H. 373/8".

Have you ever wondered how those blockbuster art shows are moved between museums across the country and around the world? Many of the basic principles involved in packing art objects for museums are also relevant for collectors. The key to any successful “wall-to-wall” transfer is the handling, shipping, and especially the sound packing and crating of objects.

The first step in the packing process is to assess the fragility of an object—the materials (solid wood or gesso, for example), construction (secure or wobbly), and condition (for instance, stable or peeling paint). When transporting valuable collections, it is advisable to consult with a professional conservator who can provide advice on specific objects and their special requirements. Be sure to handle objects carefully when preparing them for transport. For example, do not lift a chair by the crest rail as it may separate from the chair, and do not carry a teapot by the handle as it may break off.

The second step is to determine the appropriate level of packaging. Critical factors for consideration are protecting the object from its immediate environment, such as varying weather conditions and the abrading or soiling of surfaces; the level of training of the handlers; and method of transport. Additional preparations should include gathering materials for wrapping and cushioning—as a general rule of thumb, the neater an object is packed, the better it is usually handled; gauging an object’s weight and center of gravity (this will aid in assessing the method and quantity of protection); clearing a staging area for packing; gathering flat dollies to ease loading and moving objects among rooms; and having enough strapping to secure packing materials to objects. While it may seem secondary, reserving the appropriate vehicle is important to the successful transport of an object. For instance, a heavy-duty rental truck with stiff suspension may be necessary to move a grand piano, but the same vehicle could easily damage an uncrated gilt looking-glass. In addition, since temperatures can reach extremes inside transportation vehicles, organic and water-sensitive objects such as veneered furniture or textiles usually require special climate-controlled trucks. Proper planning and consideration of the above points will expedite the packing process and increase the probability of an object’s safe arrival.

Fig. 2: Chair completely soft wrapped in furniture blankets and rubber straps.

Fig. 3: Chair, soft packed and enclosed in a cardboard box.

There are three general categories of packing, each appropriate for different levels of protection: soft packing, boxing, and crating. When an object (Fig. 1) is soft packed, it is entirely cocooned (Fig. 2), which provides some protection against temperature and humidity shifts and protects the surface from unwanted abrasions.1 Soft cotton furniture blankets2 are well suited for this kind of wrapping and should be secured with rubber straps or old sheets torn in strips; try to avoid using packing tape as it has a tendency to find its way to fragile surfaces and remove sensitive material. What soft packing does not provide is significant shock absorption. For effective cushioning of an object against rough transport—or worse, being dropped—more extensive packaging is required.

Perhaps surprising to some collectors is that valuable antiques can be moved in cardboard boxes (Fig. 3).3 Together with an initial layer of soft wrapping, double-fluted corrugated cardboard boxing provides a second line of defense against environmental and physical hazards. Since standardized cardboard boxes do not always conform to the varied sizes of objects, it may be necessary to cut, refold, and tape them so that they snugly surround the object within. Additional cushioning around the edges of the object can be achieved with packing foam (see crating section below). The cardboard can also be cut on the sides for hand-holds, and the tops can be taped open to accommodate tall items and to remind art handlers not to stack the boxes.

Fig. 4: Chair covered with Tyvek™ and packed in a C-grade crate (note no battens on lid), left. Closed A-grade crate, right.

The most thorough and most expensive way to pack artifacts is by crating (Fig. 4). Most crates are plywood boxes reinforced with wooden battens around the edges. This frame provides an outer shell into which built-in cushions are strategically positioned around all the sides. Professional art handling companies will typically offer different grades of crates, from (open) skeletal slat crates to single-venue C crates to multiple-venue top-quality A crates. The best quality crates feature thicker materials, more batten reinforcement, and lids with bolt plates; lesser quality crates are lighter and feature lids that simply screw into place. Further options that a professional can select for your particular needs include handles and pallet jack or forklift skids for heavy objects; painted or stenciled instructions for clear identification, handling, and unpacking information; inner vapor barriers and lid gaskets for water-sensitive materials; and the use of bolts, screws, or nails (depending on how frequently the crate will be opened or closed).

A portion of the crating expense, which can range from $500 to $1500 per crate for a chair, lies in the expertise necessary for designing the box and cushioning system. As with boxing, superior quality polyethylene and polyester urethane foams (Styrofoam is not recommended as it is abrasive and has potential for corrosive off-gassing) are preferred for shock absorption.4 To minimize abrasion from the cushioning, many objects are first wrapped with a thin barrier such as a Tyvek™ cover—no soft packing is usually necessary. This soft material also resists liquid, but effectively passes water vapor, allowing the object to breathe.5 Wrapping objects directly in plastic or glassine paper is not advisable because of the risk of moisture condensing around the object.

Fig. 5: a.) Crate showing the cavity-packed inner box and custom mount. b.) Inside same crate. Note the instructions on the inside of the lid.

Small objects such as ceramics and glass can be cavity packed in boxes. Using this method, a cavity is cut into a block of packing foam to accommodate an odd-shaped or fragile object (Fig. 5a), which is then fitted in a cushioned box or crate (Fig. 5b). This box-within-a-box method ensures that a fragile object is well supported all around, with vibrations or sudden shock absorbed by the foam. An alternative method is to wrap small objects in acid-free tissue paper or bubble wrap, and then place them in padded boxes within crates. If using tissue or bubble wrap, surround objects in many layers before boxing.

Separate elements, such as lids and plates, should be individually wrapped and labeled for ease in identification when unpacking. Flat art, such as paintings, mounted prints, and drawings, usually travels on edge in a cushioned box or crate (Fig. 4); unmounted flat ephemera should be placed in acid-free folders within archival boxes. Pastels must ride flat due to the nature of the unbound chalk. Decorative frames travel with their picture if in sound condition or are sometimes mounted on auxiliary travel frames within a crate.

Remember that packing must protect an object from the environment (water and soil) and from shock (vibration or direct blow). Whether shipping a collection of French Impressionist paintings overseas or carting a tall case clock across town, a successful transfer depends on the method and quality of packing the object.

Christopher Swan is Furniture Conservator for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA. He has lectured on many topics such as caring for and photo-documenting collections and making and using reproductions in a living history museum.

1 This method should be used when an object’s surface is stable and not flaking or brittle. If the surface is unstable, consult a conservator prior to packing.

2 Professional art packers and movers such as Fine Art Express or Artex often choose closed-cell polyethylene sheet foams such as Microfoam® and Astro-Foam®, available from Surepak Inc., 612-542-8351, or Kimpack® cellulose wadding soft wrap, available from NPS Corporation, 800-558-5066.

3 Antiques packed in cardboard boxes should be shipped through art carriers; shipping by this method through standard ground mail is not recommended.

4 Two of the most common are Ethafoam™, Dow Chemical Company’s closed-cell polyethylene foam, available from Foam Design, Inc., 919-596-0668, and “Esterfoam,” Polyester urethane foam available from Willard Packaging Co., 301-948-7700. Both come in varying densities.

5 Tyvek™, a spun-bonded polyolefin long-term storage wrap, and Nomex®, both by Dupont, and other sheet soft wraps available from Masterpak, 800-922-5522.

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