Shipping Artwork

Artists love to show their work: it’s an artist’s stage and performance. Transporting artwork to a local gallery is comparatively simple, usually involving only the time to carry the pieces to an exhibition. Shipping to a distant location, however, can be more difficult. And more disappointing if the artwork is returned damaged. Or not returned at all. A modicum of planning should make this process more successful, and relatively anxiety-free. However, one should remember Murphy’s Fourth Law: Mother Nature always sides with the hidden flaw in the system. Since the “system” includes a huge transportation network, one should be prepared for the occasional, often incongruous, surprise.


Whenever possible, give the preparation, packaging, and shipping of artwork the time it deserves. And well before the deadline so you won’t be hurrying. Uh-huh. And the rest of us humans should seriously consider shipping to an exhibit at least a month before the opening. Imagine a gallery operator receiving a hundred pieces of artwork the same week as an exhibit opening, and I’m certain you can also imagine that some of the artwork won’t receive the care and attention it deserves.


Gallery operators are often time-stressed individuals without adequate staff. It’s therefore imperative to label your artwork clearly, including your contact information if problems should arise. There are a jillion ways to do this, including taping your name and contact information on the back of the artwork. One should use Magic tape to do so, as it can be removed without damaging the substrate if the piece is sold. Another way is to use plastic tags with key rings, or luggage tags, affixed to the hanging wire. The label should include the title of the art piece, your name, return address, email address, and telephone number.

Gallery Address

Never send artwork without verifying the address of the gallery or institution. This is especially true of sending any work out of the country. Almost all galleries have email and English-speaking staff members, and asking for the correct address only takes a few minutes. If the address in the email or telephone reply is different from the address published for that particular exhibit, contact the exhibit coordinator for clarification.


Before packing artwork for shipment, place it inside a plastic bag. Water can be as damaging to the artwork as rough handling. The best place to get a bag is a frame shop, which will have the right sizes, with the right length to allow folding the end of the bag. Don’t crimp or shrink-wrap the bag, as one is protecting the artwork from spray and coffee, not immersion. Hopefully. And a loose bag is easier to reuse when the gallery returns the artwork.

There are plenty of ingenious ways to ship artwork. If you decide to do the packing yourself, there are two things you should consider. First, avoid using the ubiquitous Styrofoam peanuts. They are messy and annoying, as the peanuts have to be dumped out to repack a piece. Use bubble wrap instead. The second is to double box, as this will very much strengthen the package. This is especially wise if you’re using spare boxes, which are often not in the best condition

Boxing with Bubble Wrap

Bubble wrap makes packaging easy. It comes in a variety of bubble sizes, including pint-sized bubbles that can easily fill spaces around the outside edges. Here’s a suggested method for double boxing.

  • Wrap the artwork with at least two layers of bubble wrap – in this instance, the larger bubbles usually work better. Cut the wrap more or less even with the artwork. Don’t tape, as the box and/or packing will keep the wrap from unrolling. If you are sending two pieces in the same box, place them face to face (with the hanging wires on the outside) and put a sheet of bubble wrap or similar material in between. Tape a note on the separation layer requesting this be repeated when being boxed for return shipment. “Kindly place this separator…..”
  • Place two layers (or more) of bubble wrap top and bottom of both boxes.
  • Fold or roll additional bubble wrap to secure the four outside edges. Tape the ends to keep the wrap from unrolling when the artwork is removed. One can also use foam rubber, Styrofoam, or large plastic air bubbles to fill these spaces. It’s not a bad idea to spot-glue or tape the outside insulation to the sides of the box. This way, repacking at the gallery will be much easier.
  • Fill the outside spaces around the inner box in a similar manner. A two-inch space is more than enough. Write OPEN HERE at the seam between the top flaps of both boxes, and on the outer box, include DO NOT REMOVE INNER BOX. When shipping overseas write any instructions in both English and the native language. Use an online translator, or similar, if needed.
  • Include instructions for repacking, even though in the above suggestions the gallery only has to remove the topside packing from both boxes. Activity during exhibit changes is quite frantic and any effort to aid gallery personnel will be much appreciated. Tape the instructions inside the top flap of the outer box. You might even number the packing pieces and include a quick sketch. If packing is removable add your name to each piece. Without instructions, nothing will come back the way it was sent. Trust me on this.

Containers from Airfloat

Airfloat strongbox

Airfloat Systems in Verona, Mississippi, is a manufacturer of strong cardboard shipping containers designed specifically for artwork. In fact, the product is called the Strongbox. I have a Strongbox that measures 23 x 29 x 3 inches, has an ABS plastic liner affixed inside the top and bottom lids to protect from perforation, and currently costs US $60 plus shipping (see Fig.1) This expense isn’t extreme, as the box can be reused and offers excellent protection for the artwork inside.

The Strongbox conforms to local and international shipping standards and is easy for gallery owners to open, since it only requires taping at two corners. The box contains three layers of protective foam material. The top and bottom layers are egg crate to absorb shock and the center layer is solid. To use the box, a window the size of the artwork being shipped is cut into the center layer of foam. Extra middle foam layers are available from Airfloat Systems if one later ships a different piece in the same box.

To see Airfloat’s products or to order from the factory, check their website at For a review of the Strongbox shipping container, see this article on Some art supply dealers carry a few sizes of the Airfloat Strongbox, but the price is about the same as buying directly from the factory. You may place an order using the Airfloat website, but you must call them with credit card information.

Wooden Box

wood shipping container

The best protection is a wooden box, even though the weight increases the cost of shipping. Boxes are usually made with pine or poplar and ¼ inch plywood. If you build a box, include a removable or hinged top, as removing and replacing all the screws around the plywood on one side is more than time-consuming.

I once took a painting to a client in Ecuador. It would have cost $500 to ship, and $700 to fly there myself. A no-brainer. I took a screwdriver with me to the Boston airport because I knew I’d have to open the box at security. (Yes, they let me put the screwdriver in my checked luggage.) Before the box left security, however, a plastic compound (epoxy?) was worked into the slots of the screws to prevent it being easily opened somewhere along the loading process. It was quite difficult to get the box open in Quito, as the plastic material had to be chipped out of the screw slots. Also, I had a lot of fun at the Quito airport upon return, trying to explain there was nothing in the box! “Yo lleve una pintura a un cliente en Quito……”


* Not to scale. An “X” indicates the end grain of a wood component. Dashed lines represent components beneath the immediate surface as seen. For simplification, not all screws or other fasteners are illustrated. The resource attached at the bottom is a full resolution image of the diagram.


  • A: corner block, because a screw won’t hold in the end grain of softwood.
  • B: ¼ inch plywood, attach using 1¼ inch drywall screws.
  • C: 3/8 inch molding strips to cover plywood edge to keep the plywood from splitting. Attach with 1-inch screws or finishing nails.
  • D: handle, on a long end, with wood block support behind the frame.
  • E: two hinges, if used, with wood block support again. If hinges are not used, put alignment marks on the side with the handle, as in (F.) Otherwise, the box may be returned with the lid nailed on and the screws thrown inside.
  • Attach the lid with drywall screws of sufficient length to clear the lid and penetrate 2 inches into the base frame. Drill clearance holes for these screws through the lid, and a tap hole into the base. Otherwise, the screw will be quite difficult to remove and reseat. See letter (G.) Unless the box is very large, three screws on both long ends are enough. Attach a zip lock plastic bag inside the lid containing an extra set of screws and a note, “Store Screws Here.” Also clearly indicate which screws to remove to open the box. See diagram top view.

Return Shipping

Return shipping labels can be acquired when you take the packed boxes to a qualified shipper. “Qualified shipper” is just about any company nowadays, including the USPS. I usually use FedEx or UPS. There are packaging stores now that use all the private carriers and ship anywhere. They also have the equipment to box or double box anything you want to ship. Return shipping labels can be attached to each piece of artwork (don’t simply lay them inside the box.) Or have the labels attached to the outside of the box in one of those stick-on envelopes. In the latter case write “Return Shipping” on the box next to the stick-on. Depending on the shipper, and perhaps where you are located, you can also arrange return shipping labels to be available online for the gallery operator’s use.

If some of your artwork is sold at the exhibit you will have to forfeit the return shipping costs. If that’s not the way you wish to proceed, return shipping can be arranged with the gallery operator. Be certain to begin inquiring about this a week or so before the exhibit comes down, as the activity in a gallery when changing exhibits resembles that of a termite mound during the rainy season.

Exhibits outside the United States

Shipping overseas presents obstacles that are perhaps best exemplified by a personal experience. Several years ago I shipped a small oil painting to an exhibit in Chile. I included a personal check for return shipping inside the box. Unfortunately, the return shipping cost more than I’d sent. Further, my personal check could not be negotiated in Chile. Fortunately, I have friends in Santiago and the gallery operator sent the artwork to them, and also returned my check by standard letter mail. So I mailed my friend sufficient US bills to ship the package back to the States, and it was taken care of. Three or four weeks later the box returned to the friend in Santiago. It had been rejected by US customs because it did not have a stamp from the Chilean Antiquities Department. Smuggling Pre-Columbian artwork is apparently still in vogue. So I sent some more bills and finally received the package in one piece, two weeks late for another show. The implications are obvious: before shipping any artwork overseas know exactly what is required in shipping fees, shipping methods, and customs requirements. Or build a wooden box and get on the same plane!

Hopefully, this synopsis will help eliminate the major pitfalls of shipping artwork, as well as the painful and frustrating experience of damaged or lost work. In summary, pack your art sensibly and communicate clearly with exhibit coordinators, as they can’t read your mind. Finally, I have no specific recommendations for a shipper. I’ve heard horror stories about all of them, and have some of my own. Keep your fingers crossed and burn incense to the mischievous gods every evening your artwork is away from home.

Most important: continue to show your art!

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