shipping and crating for artists

Shipping & Crating

Artworks that travel can be vulnerable to damage due to poor handling by untrained art handlers, bad weather, rough roads, and poor storage. Never assume that all institutions have well-trained art handlers. Research art-handling companies and get referrals before trusting your art to shippers. You want to prevent accidents that come from negligent handling, and professional shippers and craters are the best guarantee you have that your precious, valuable, and fragile objects arrive safely at their destination.

Advantages of Using an Art Handler 

Art-handling companies specialize in transporting artwork and dealing with galleries and museums. They have trained personnel and specially-equipped trucks and storage areas with which to make artwork transfers. Many art handlers are artists themselves and have worked in museums and galleries. These moving experts use specialized art-handling tools and equipment, and have skills that surpass those of regular movers. They are generally adept at solving problems encountered with transporting art. Although art handlers tend to cost more, they may be essential to safeguard your work. Often they also carry art handling and shipping insurance, but be sure to check this before hiring them.

Assessing Your Shipping Needs 

Identify the specific shipping needs of your artwork before you start to pack. Better yet, think about how your work will disassemble, pack, and ship before you even make it. This planning will help you in the long run and keep costs down. Sometimes working backwards helps make the artwork more durable and archival.

Each artwork may have different specific requirements when it comes to packing and shipping. That is why it is vital that you assess your shipping needs. Some things to consider are:

Determine size, materials, and their fragility. The shape of the work is important.

Consider the weight of the materials and objects you are shipping. You may need multiple crates instead of one large one, in order to safeguard your work and to keep the weight within shipping guidelines.

Think about the distance the work has to travel and how many people will be handling it during transport. Crating and shipping needs may differ greatly if the artwork is being shipped locally, cross-country, or overseas. 

Determine if the work can be moved by hand, in your vehicle, by commercial moving truck, by air, or by sea. Research shipping possibilities before you make a decision, as the costs of shipping varies greatly. 

Determine how long the work will be packed in its packaging or crate. Will it be in storage for a long time, or will it be unpacked soon after it arrives at its destination? Work left in storage for a long time can be affected by materials used and environmental changes, like humidity and heat.

Assess the cost of the materials you will need to build your own crate or research what it will cost to have it built for you. This may dictate the choice you make.

Determine if packing, crating, and shipping the art object would cost more (and carry a higher risk) than to travel yourself to construct the work in its destination. Sometimes it’s more cost effective to reconstruct (or offer instructions for others to construct) the artwork.

Crating: General Principles 

Why crate artworks for transit? A custom art crate is a protective environment designed to streamline transit from one location to another and to provide the ultimate safety for the art object that the crate contains. It must provide a barrier from water (rain, snow, condensation), soil, and shock (low-level vibration, as well as a high-impact blow). 

The art should be packed inside the primary object or container, which is then floated in shock-absorbent materials within a solid outer shell. There must be no movement in any direction (unless the object calls for it), and the floated objects should be a safe distance from the hard surfaces of its protective container. 

The size of the crate or shipping container will be determined by the size and shape of the artwork you are packaging. The amount of packing material will be determined by the shape, size, and weight of the object. It is a good idea to know the limitations of the receiver. If the crate does not fit through the door of the gallery or museum, you could be in trouble. 

Consider if art handlers will be available on the other end to help move and unpack the crate.

How do you ensure safety for your artworks during transit without incurring excess costs or weight? Remember to never over-pack an object. A crate of substantial dimension and weight can limit the possibilities of mishandling during shipping. Your safest bet is to build a crate that is too great for movement by one handler, but too small to require the use of a forklift.

Before Shipment

Before determining the crate size, analyze if the artwork is suitable for travel by determining its physical condition and medium. If an artwork is fragile or in poor condition it will only get further damaged or possibly destroyed in transit. It is better to send a piece that is less fragile and durable. The medium and physical condition of an artwork will affect all crating preparations. The condition of the artwork may require an unusual orientation within the crate: a painting that shows signs of flaking or is still wet will need to be placed horizontally, with the fragile or wet surface up, inside the crate. 

To avoid possible crating problems or surprises follow the steps below:

Schedule a visit by the crate preparer so that she/he may inspect the size, depth, medium, and fragility of the artwork. This meeting will give the crater a firsthand look at your particular shipping needs, and you can get an estimate of how much it will cost to crate and ship your work.

Schedule a visit by all lenders before artwork is crated so they are prepared for installation. Also provide a drawing with the exact measurements of the piece. This drawing should include: height, width, depth, length, medium, and weight. Provide the host venue with shipping estimates and get the payment agreement in writing, especially if operating on a reimbursable plan.

Arrange shipping insurance with either the receiving party or yourself. Most shipping companies offer these policies but there are many third-party companies that can provide the service as well. This is a costly addition to any shipping budget; however, imagine how expensive and time-consuming it will be if you have to make the work again and reship.

When Sending The Shipment

In the crate, provide detailed installation instructions for shipped artwork. Send these via email and attach them to the outside of the package as well. The last thing you want is the people installing the work to make assumptions about how to handle it.

Clearly label all packages with your receiving party’s address, phone number, and email address. Be sure to include your address and contact information in case the handlers or shippers need to contact you.

Mark all sides of the crate with appropriate labels. State if something is fragile, contains liquids or hazardous materials, needs to be handled in a specific orientation, or if it is extremely heavy.  Contact your shipping company if you are unclear how to clearly identify and label your packages.

It may be a good idea to provide unpacking and repacking instructions. These instructions should be in the top of the crate once it is opened or outside the crate. Sending a copy by mail or email is often a good idea. Number the pieces included, if necessary. 

Include an inventory list that travels with the art shipment listing the specific contents, number of packages, method of shipping with tracking numbers, proof of insurance during transit, and estimated time of arrival. 

Photograph all packages and take note of the condition of the crates. This provides evidence in the unfortunate occurrence of mishandling, damage, loss, or theft.  

Coordinate the return shipment of your artwork with the registrar or gallery director well in advance of the close of the exhibition. Make sure you cover the following information: 

Return address for shipment (gallery, studio, collector, home address)

Who is responsible for shipping costs?

Who pays for insurance for the work, both to and from the exhibition space?

Shipping Internationally

If shipping internationally, you are required to provide copies (usually three) of a Commercial Invoice, U.S. Certificate  of Origin, NAFTA Certificate Origin, or Shipper’s Export Declaration, or a combination of these forms. 

The most common requested form is the Commercial Invoice. This is required whenever you ship something of commercial value across international boarders. The Commercial Invoice provides information about the shipment, including a description of the goods, the value of the goods, and shipper information. This document is filled out by you and multiple copies are attached to the shipment.

This form may also be used by the receiving country’s customs authorities to assess applicable taxes and duties. Failing to provide these forms to the shipper and subsequent authorities can result in a delayed or indefinitely-detained shipment.  

Included in a Commercial Invoice for international shipment:

Your contact information along with the shipper’s contact information

Company name and address of the receiving party

Object description with proper dimensions. Provide a short description of the artwork in clear and understandable language. This helps customs agents determine how to classify your object. By providing an accurate description, you can prevent your work from being held in customs. Converting your measurements to more universally accepted units of measure will also speed things along.

Object’s country of origin. This notifies the authorities where this object is from, where it was made.

Number of units.  An inventory list is vital to all shipping protocols, especially international shipping where all items need to be accounted for in order to pass through customs.

Price (USD). Indicate the price or value of the object in U.S. dollars. Or, the price in the country of origin’s currency

Reason for Export. You can list or describe why the work is being shipped. You can state that it is for sale at a gallery, to be exhibited in a museum, or installed in a public square.

Supplies for Shipping and Crating 

Below is a list of packing materials that will assist you in selecting the best corrugated material for a given job and for durable shipping containers. Not only will you need scissors, a box cutter, a utility blade knife, basic shop tools (hammer, drill), but also a clean and adequate space for crating.

Use archival (non-acidic) materials whenever possible, particularly when the materials will have direct contact with the surface of your artwork. Archival materials are generally more expensive than non-archival ones, but they will not harm your work. Additionally, you should always try to purchase materials that are environmentally friendly.

Bubble wrap -  A waterproof, double polyethylene sheet with circles of injected air that provides great cushioning. It is re-useable, transparent, and often available in various thicknesses. Always keep the bubbles facing out because pressure or prolonged contact with the bubbles can leave impressions on work, depending on the medium used.

Cellulose wadding - A soft, shock-absorbent, crepe paper wrapping best used with solid objects without delicate protrusions; opaque; not recommended for re-use.
corrugated cardboard: Cardboard comes in all sizes and thicknesses. Though it has a high acid content and not recommended to be placed in direct contact with artwork, it is fairly strong and makes an excellent protective layer.

Ethafoam™ - A brand of semi-rigid polyethylene foam products whose flexibility, resilience, and light weight make it particularly useful as shock absorbers for solid three-dimensional objects. It can also be used as interior packing in crates where a secondary package is “floated.” It is chemically stable, and its tough, closed-cell structure is capable of high load bearing. It is not adversely affected by moisture.

Felt - A nonabrasive material that can be used as a covering material for foam pads or corrugated dividing sheets, or glued directly to interior crate surfaces; does not absorb shock; very moisture-absorbent, which is a major drawback.

Foam - Polyethylene foam is waterproof and comes in sheets and rolls of varying thickness. It is excellent for cushioning, and does not break down over time.

Foam core - Foam core is made up of a layer of foam sandwiched between two layers of paperboard. It can be made of archival or non-archival materials and is available in various thicknesses.

Foam popcorn, chips, or peanuts -  Made of polystyrene, they come in different shapes and sizes, and are excellent for filling empty spaces and awkward contours around work.

Volara™ -  A closed-cell polyethylene foam that can be laminated (with heat gun or contact cement) to Ethafoam™ blocks to provide a resilient, smooth surface to cushion artworks. Bonding by use of heat gun is permanent and safe.

Gatorfoam/Gatorboard - A series of uniquely constructed, lightweight structural panels consisting of a rigid polystyrene foam core faced on both sides by smooth, moisture resistant man-made wood fiber veneers. The foam and veneers are permanently bonded together in a sandwich construction. The face laminates have been specially developed to provide an excellent surface for painting, silk screening, laminating, and photo mounting. It comes in various thicknesses and is much stronger than foam core.

Glassine - A glazed, semi-transparent archival paper product used for the initial cover of artworks. It can also be layered between multiple drawings, prints, and other flat works on paper that are unframed. It is not water-repellent, thus not suitable for exterior wrapping.

Tissue paper - Used as initial wrapping for three-dimensional objects. Available in both archival and non-archival forms; non-archival tissue paper is very cheap and when crumpled up, it provides excellent cushioning for your work.

Plastic sheeting or bags - Plastic sheeting or bags will form a moisture barrier around your work. If you can afford it, use an archival brand. Use plastic sheeting for paintings. They are reusable but their electrostatic qualities attract and hold dirt, making onetime use more likely. To avoid condensation build up, use ventilation holes and 4mm thickness.

Plywood & Masonite - Plywood should be used to construct crates and other outer containers. Masonite is a hardboard made of pressure-molded wood fibers. This material can be used to protect unframed works. Both are available in various thicknesses.

Masking tape or blue painters’ tape - Used to secure work inside the package or crate, and to protect framed glass from shattering. Painter’s tape is easily removed; masking tape can be quite sticky and harder to remove.

Artist tape - This archival tape is one of the safer options when you have to adhere anything to the original artwork. It isn’t very strong , but it doesn’t leave a mark on your work.

Packing tape - Used to seal your cardboard packages. Best used with a tape gun for efficiency.

Screws, bolts and nuts - Used to assemble wooden crates.


All the above materials can be found at a number of companies that provide shipping materials or shipping. A quick search on the Internet will result in a variety of choices.

Packing Unframed Photographs and Work on Paper

There are several threats to your work when it is in transport from your studio or between shows, including water, temperature changes, humidity, rough handling, or dropping. Proper packaging should protect the artwork against all of the above. Consider these suggestions:

Place a layer of archival tissue or glassine between each work, including a sheet on the top and bottom of the stack.

Wrap the works in plastic or enclose them in a plastic bag to keep out any moisture. Plastic should be archival if possible. Remove excess air, and seal it shut with tape.

Place the package in the center of a piece of Masonite (1/8 inch or thicker) with at least a two-inch margin around each side so that the work does not get crinkled or bent on the edges or corners. Masonite or any other hard board will protect your work from being punctured.

Tape the package at all four corners to the Masonite board to prevent shifting during handling. In some instances you may want to wrap the board and the work. Make sure you do not harm the work.

Place your consignment agreement or artwork checklist on top of the bag. Make sure that there are no staples or paper clips that will damage the work. Additionally, it is a good idea to send a copy of the agreement or checklist through the mail or email.

Take a second piece of Masonite and place it on top of the first one, making a sandwich with your work in the middle.

Take two sheets of cardboard (same size as the Masonite) and place the Masonite sandwich between them.

Completely seal all four sides of the sandwich with shipping tape.

This sandwich may or may not need to be packed within a crate with additional packing materials.

Packing Paintings, Framed Works, and Sculpture

Framed pieces and sculpture should be packed in a reinforced cardboard box or a wooden crate, especially if being shipped any distance.

Cardboard boxes specially designed for transporting art are available in all sizes from several major shipping supply companies.

Crates are generally made of plywood and fastened with screws to allow for easy opening and closing. Crates should always be sealed with several coats of polyurethane to be water-repellent. Label the crates “fragile” or with “keep dry” stickers, or other signage relevant to your work.

The box or crate should be at least two inches larger than the work on each side to allow plenty of room for cushioning. You should always fill in the extra space around the work with cushioning materials, like layers of foam or peanuts

Multiple works should be crated standing vertically with a layer of cardboard and cushioning between each work.

Framed works, paintings, or sculpture should be wrapped with glassine or archival tissue paper, and then sealed in plastic sheeting or bags. Never tape anything directly to the work. Also, use additional padding on all four corners of paintings and frames. You can make your own or order corner padding from a supplier.

The glass in framed works should be replaced with Plexiglas, or it should be removed from the frame and wrapped separately. If this is not possible, make a grid of masking tape directly on the glass to help prevent breakage during transit.

Sculpture should be wrapped in glassine or archival tissue paper, sealed in plastic sheeting or bags, and then floated within the crate to allow for plenty of cushioning on all sides.

Wrapping: General Principles

By wrapping artwork for shipping you are keeping the art clean and dry from airborne dirt. Always use clean materials and a clean work area to prevent dirt from accumulating on artwork. Keep wrapping simple so that there is no damage to the artwork in the process of unpacking. Wrapping should be taped only to itself; tape should never touch artwork, including the back of a painting or its frame. Avoid excessive taping for it will only be more difficult for the recipient to safely unpack the artwork. Excessive taping can also damage the packing and render it unusable for repacking. To waterproof work, use plastic sheeting.

Precautionary Measures 

When shipping, always insure the work for the maximum retail price.

Packages and crates should always be clearly labeled with handling instructions on the exterior. Use these symbols: a broken stem glass to indicate that the package is fragile; an umbrella to indicate that the package needs to remain dry; and an upward arrow to indicate the top side; write ‘face’ on the exterior of the package to indicate the face of the artwork inside.

Write a condition report listing any prior damage or potential vulnerabilities. This should be included inside the package to be sent. You should include photographs of previous damage or diagrams of the work if it needs to be reassembled once unpacked.

Make a detailed diagram of installation instructions for the crated piece, which should be placed inside the crate, as well as sent separately to the exhibition site.

Who Should Pay For Shipping? 

The answer depends on the exhibition venue. Make no assumptions.

Gallery Exhibitions (both for- and nonprofit)

It is standard practice for the artist to pay the cost of shipping to the show and for the gallery to pay the return cost. Always include this information in your consignment agreement. If you are lucky, the gallery will pay shipping both ways.

Juried Exhibitions

The artist is expected to pay the cost of shipping to and from the exhibition.

 Museum Exhibitions

The museum usually pays for shipping in both directions.


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