How to ship paintings
The inside of one of the crates used at the Woodson Art Museum for shipping paintings, showing how the Styrofoam is cut to create custom slots for each piece.

There comes a time in an artist’s career when she or he needs to ship paintings across the country for an exhibition. What is the best way to do this?

Andy McGivern, the curator of exhibitions at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, in Wausau, Wisconsin, told us how his institution does it. He first said that if an artist only needs to ship a few paintings, the more economical and efficient way would be to opt for individual boxes along the line of StrongBoxes or similar packaging. “StrongBoxes are strong, sturdy, lightweight, and offer easy access to the painting,” says McGivern. “They are a bit more expensive than making your own, but not every artist has a workshop where they can create something in wood. They can be shipped internationally very easily, while wood has to be fumigated to be free of pests, unless plywood is used. But plywood is wood bound by a lot of glue, which means added weight and higher shipping costs.”

If you have a traveling show or expect to ship a large number of paintings more than once, you are facing McGivern’s issues. McGivern and the Woodson Art Museum are worried about temperature and humidity changes in an airplane’s cargo hold, careless forklift operators, and ease in unpacking and repacking the pieces. His staff builds wooden crates, then utilizes their secret weapon: Styrofoam.

How to Ship Paintings

“The sidewalls have to be strong enough without overdoing it,” says McGivern. “If you use 1/4-inch plywood, a knee or another crate could easily bust through. On the inside, we put a 1” layer of Styrofoam on the bottom and on all four sides, then we cut sheets of Styrofoam to layer inside, creating slots for the paintings. We then measure the paintings we are shipping and cut Styrofoam to stuff along the sides to keep the painting from shifting. Strips are cut to keep the paintings from shifting in the other direction, then it’s sealed up with brackets and bolts. Styrofoam has insulation value, which means modest changes in cold and humidity over time. Up in the cargo plane, it gets really cold and the humidity goes way down. Sudden changes in temperature can damage paintings and frames.”

Crates for shipping paintings at the Woodson Art Museum
Crates for shipping paintings at the Woodson Art Museum

Paintings are packed vertically, which is the safest orientation to prevent damage. McGivern has overseen the shipping of paintings at the museum for more than 30 years, and he says that some of their custom-built crates have been in use for more than 25 years. He reports that he’s never seen aluminum used in shipping paintings, and he recently attended a seminar on packing in Pittsburgh, and that lightweight, strong metal was not mentioned there either. The museum official readily admits that the initial investment is fairly large for a wooden crate, but they last for years. McGivern wrote about the Woodson Art Museum’s packing system in a blog post.

Any last words of advice on how to ship paintings?

“Do not use packing peanuts, ever,” says McGivern. “They get wedged underneath the surface of the painting, and they force the handler to focus on getting the peanuts situated right instead of carefully handling the art. Plus, it’s bad for the environment. Also, I should say that even some major museums use StrongBoxes for shipping even a relatively large number of paintings.”

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