Reader question: How best to pack and move delicate, fragile, and oddly-shaped items

In our Ask Unclutterer series, we provided advice about moving to New Zealand. One of the comments on that post was:

What should I do with awkward items, like framed artwork? I know it comes down to how much am I willing to pay to keep the item, whatever it is. It just pains me to think about keeping the art and ditching the frame, then paying again to have it framed. What about antique lamps? I have several floor & table lamps that are not only sentimental, but gorgeous. Three of them have very delicate glass shades. *flinch* Rewiring shouldn’t be an issue, just the packing. Should I use spray foam and pack like drunk elephants will handle everything?

Thanks for a great question. I have moved 13 times in the past 28 years, including two trans-Atlantic moves, and I have learned quite a bit about transporting household goods — not just from my own experience but from other military families as well. The first step is to get a professional to service and prepare for moving any:

  • Items with interior moving parts such as grandfather clocks and other time-pieces;
  • Large musical instruments like pianos, harpsicords, harps, etc.;
  • Items that require special skill to disassemble and reassemble such as billiard tables, sculptures, antique furniture, etc.

If possible, hire a professional moving company to pack any irreplaceable, sentimental, fragile, or expensive items. If you wish to pack the items yourself, we’ve listed some advice below.

For transporting artwork and delicate items, the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian states that you need three layers of protection; a protective wrap, a shock and vibration layer, and a protective outer shell.

Protective wrap covers the surface of your item and prevents scratches. The material used depends on what you are transporting. Cottons and flannels can be used with many things but they can stick to varnishes and some paints. Paper can be used with some items but make sure it is archival quality (acid-free and lignin-free). Plastic sheeting can also be used but moisture may build up and damage your item.

The shock and vibration layer protects against sudden blows (shock) and persistent small bumps (vibration). This layer should be “springy” meaning it needs to have an elastic memory to allow the cushioning effect to occur repeatedly. This material is often a type of foam. The type and thickness of foam depends on the weight of the item and the type of shock anticipated. A good option is pick and pluck foam — pre-scored foam sheeting that allows you to remove bits at a time to create a custom-shaped hole in the foam to protect your item. Check out this video on how it is used.

The protective shell is the outer layer. It provides a hard, puncture-resistant wrap in the event of rough handling. (The drunk elephants you mentioned above.) The hard, outer layer also allows delicate and oddly-shaped items to be closely placed or stacked. The protective shell can be an extra-thick, reinforced, cardboard box with corner supports, or a custom-made plywood box. I do not recommend using household plastic bins for delicate items on long distance moves. They are not sturdy enough. You would need heavy-duty plastic totes that will not be crushed if they are dropped or if other boxes are stacked on top.

About your artwork… I would suggest that you leave it in the frames. It may be more susceptible to damage both physical (rips, scuffs) and environmental (warping from humidity) when removed from the frame. During transport, the frame can act as a protective case for the artwork if it is packed properly. Consider wrapping it in a soft cotton or muslin fabric (protective wrap), add edge protectors (vibration protection), and package it in a heavy-duty cardboard or plywood box (outer wrap). Alternatively, you could pack your artwork in a flat screen TV packing kit.

The final step is to ensure that all of your fragile items are properly labelled FRAGILE and if required, THIS SIDE UP, and DO NOT LAY FLAT. If English is not the language spoken at your destination, you should print your own stickers with the translations to be sure the unloading crew understands.

For those that are interested in how museum artifacts are transported, take a peek at the photos and descriptions at Inside the Conservator’s Studio.

Thanks for your great question. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

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3 Comments for “Reader question: How best to pack and move delicate, fragile, and oddly-shaped items”

  1. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Sheet styrofoam insulation is dirt cheap and can be used for glass and edge protection. Tape it down. Big cardboard can be had from furniture and appliance stores. (If you have young children, get a whole box and let them make a castle/fort/playhouse while you are packing.)
    Last step is a comforter or duvet. If you don’t want to risk your good bedding, get a thrift store model.

    The odd-shaped glass and ceramic items can be packed in discard clothing or newspaper. Check the recycling center or put an ad in Freecycle to get styrofoam peanuts. Pack everything in a great big garbage can with wheels on it. The moving men will thank you and you will have a great can when you get to your new home.

  2. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Professional organizer here w/28 yrs of experience. I second EVERYTHING that Jacki Hollywood Brown suggests. The 3 layers approach is perfect. And do leave your art in their frames. The boxes used to pack/transport glass/mirrors are the same as the boxes used for art. If you have oversized art pieces, experienced movers can fabricate an appropriate container for it/them.

    If you have the funds, consider hiring professional packers, (with art work experience) for packing your more fragile things. You pack what you’re comfortable w/packing.

    I once successfully packed a small private art collection, 50 pieces or so, including some 3 dimensional ones. It was a great challenge and very rewarding to work closely with the client and unpack all those beautiful works at the other end.

    Best of luck!

  3. posted by Charlee on

    GREAT info & links!! Thank you so much, Jacki. Thanks for your comments, Skip & Ruth. 🙂

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