How to Ship Artwork

Shipping artwork is challenging. It's expensive and delicate. Many conventional shippers (like FedEx) refuse to handle it. There doesn't seem to be a lot of information in the internet about it, and I did not find one place that could answer all my questions. Here is what I've found and done and what works for me; some useful resources are listed at the bottom. Suggestions and tips are most welcome!

Payment
It is important to let your clients know up front if you expect them to pay for shipping. Shipping art, especially heavy works of art, is expensive. I will photograph custom artworks, send the picture to my client, and ask for them to approve the piece in writing before I ship. This is an important step, because there are serious repercussions if you are operating through Paypal or ebay and your customer complains. If you are shipping artwork to a client, be certain their payment has CLEARED and the money is in your account before shipping. Be certain you know the cost of shipping, and that your customer has also paid that amount (or that it is included in the price) before shipping. I prefer to use Paypal as my payment method, as it is quick, international, and they have a fair rate of exchange across currencies. I can then send them an electronic receipt via email, and they also get notification through Paypal. This eliminates the complications or confusion that can arise if you include the receipt in your package. I never give out my personal information or back account number or credit card number to customers, especially international customers.
Packing
If you can’t stand on top of your package without damaging the contents, you probably haven’t packed it well enough. If you can’t drip it from a height of at least 4 feet, expect it to be damaged. If you can’t hit it with a broom stick and feel confident that nothing was damaged, you are a fool. You’re already saving money by packing the artwork yourself, so don’t be cheap about the materials. For example, only use real packing tape to seal cardboard boxes.
Generally, I pack artwork in double-walled cardboard boxes. You can buy flat boxes for shipping mirrors at most local shipping stores or moving rental companies (such as U-Haul). They come in many modest sizes, up to about 3 feet (1 meter) square. I will also check behind furniture stores (sometimes in the cardboard recycling bins) to pick up big sturdy boxes and trim them down to fit. Ski shops will often have extremely sturdy and very long boxes for shipping skis. These are ideal to use if your artwork can be rolled up. What is nice about these boxes is that they are often designed to telescope, so they can fit any size. I’ve also heard that stores that sell Persian rugs have large heavy-duty cardboard tubes for shipping the rugs that they give away free. You can use a hack-saw to cut them very easily to the proper length, but you’ll need to create some kind of “Lid” for the end.
Generally, I pack artwork in double-walled cardboard boxes. You can buy flat boxes for shipping mirrors at most local shipping stores or moving rental companies (such as U-Haul). They come in many modest sizes, up to about 3 feet (1 meter) square. I will also check behind furniture stores (sometimes in the cardboard recycling bins) to pick up big sturdy boxes and trim them down to fit. Ski shops will often have extremely sturdy and very long boxes for shipping skis. These are ideal to use if your artwork can be rolled up. What is nice about these boxes is that they are often designed to telescope, so they can fit any size. I’ve also heard that stores that sell Persian rugs have large heavy-duty cardboard tubes for shipping the rugs that they give away free. You can use a hack-saw to cut them very easily to the proper length, but you’ll need to create some kind of “Lid” for the end.
I usually cut a piece of Masonite or “Soundboard” big enough to cover the front side of my artwork, same size as the wall of the box it is shipping in. I’ll slide it in the box, between the front side of my wrapped artwork and the wall of the box. Soundboard is great: it is cheap, it is relatively lightweight, it is spongy yet strong, and it can be cut with a box-cutter instead of a saw. It’s made out of pressed sawdust. It is sold in many building supply stores or the insulation department at Home Depot. It’s a little messy, so do the cutting outdoors. I am confident that one of my paintings, packed inside a double-walled cardboard box, protected by a layer of soundboard and bubble wrap, will not be damaged by anything short of a bullet or nail gun. I’ve never had a piece arrive damaged.
If I am carrying my box as luggage, I’ll go to the local fabric or backpacking store and buy some nylon webbing. This is the stuff that backpack straps are made of. A long enough piece that it wraps around the box two times, and leaves enough extra for handles that I can sling over my shoulder to carry. Use lots and lots of tape for the handles if you’ll be carrying it around.
I custom-build plywood boxes for bigger or very heavy (50 pounds or more) works of art. If you do not have basic carpentry skills, I suggest hiring a professional to build your box. If you are unsure, you can ask your shipping broker what would be most appropriate.
You can find used pallets lying around most industrial neighborhoods if you need one. Many packages on a single pallet will need to be wrapped with a plastic film, which you can buy at shipping centers like FedEx/Kinko’s or moving companies like U-Haul. Sometimes, your shipper will do this for free if you know to ask before arriving.
Overview of shipping methods
Depending on weight and size, there are many options for shipping artwork. You or a trusted courier could travel with it as personal luggage, or, more conventionally, you could hire a shipping company to send it either terminal-to-terminal or door-to-door.
Traveling with artwork
It is almost always fastest and least expensive (per package) to travel with your artwork, and to carry it as luggage. This only works if it is small enough to be allowed by your carrier. Expect rough handling, even if it is marked “fragile”. I pack my items so that they could be dropped from a height of at least four feet (1.5 meters), or buried under many heavy suitcases without being damaged. Any time I carry something internationally, I include a letter INSIDE the package indicating what this thing is, who it is going to, and what it is to be used for. Expect your package to be opened and inspected. I will carefully mark my boxes so that it is clear how they should be opened to cause least damage.
Shipping terminal-to-terminal
It is cheaper by far to ship terminal-to-terminal than to ship door-to-door. For example, I can take a 20-pound package containing a 3x3 artwork to a Greyhound terminal and ship it to any other Greyhound terminal in North America for a VERY inexpensive rate. This is my favorite way to ship, because it also arrives very quickly. Only catch is that my customer must be willing to pick it up at their local Greyhound station. Amtrack (train) also has very reasonable rates.
Terminal-to-terminal also has the advantage that your package will be held safely at the terminal, rather than being left on someone’s porch. The client is able to stop by any time during business hours, which is much better than being required to stay home for the entire day waiting for the truck to arrive if they don’t have a business address that can accept the delivery.
You can ship very large and very heavy crated items terminal-to-terminal through trucking companies. This can be tricky, as trucking companies use a complex system to determine the DENSITY of the package (weight per cubic foot) as well as a rating system for the contents. This is why using a broker is helpful, as they know the system and can negotiate on your behalf. I found that the broker I worked with gave me a better price that I was able to get on my own.
In both cases, I tell the shipper that I am shipping a custom-made business sign. Since I have clients that are actually using the works in their Yoga studios, this is technically true. Most carriers will NOT ship fine art, due to theft and liability issues.
Finally, keep in mind that terminal-to-terminal shipping is NOT GENTLE!!! You must pack with great caution, and sturdy enough that a man could stand upon the package.
Shipping door-to-door
Door to door is more expensive than terminal-to-terminal. The most convenient – and very most expensive – method is to ship by a fine arts shipping specialist. The benefits include careful handling, climate-controlled storage, security, and insurance.
If your package is moderate size or small, the least expensive method is good old USPS parcel post. The post office has great rates and they arrive relatively quickly. Don’t expect it to be handled gently, even if marked “fragile”, but you don’t have to worry about a forklift driving over it like you would with a random budget trucking company.
Shipping by Fedex or UPS or DHL (DHL is great for international shipping; see below) is fine so long as your package is lightweight and small. The cost is still very high, but using these companies is extremely convenient and fast. Again, you’ll need to indicate what is in your package, and none of them will carry fine art due to liability issues.
Trucking companies will ship door-to-door, but there is an added fee for pickup and another fee for drop off. So if you bring it to their local terminal, but they drop it off at your customer’s house/business, then you only pay one fee (usually $50). There is an added challenge that your customer must be present during the window of hours they are likely to deliver
Shipping internationally
International shipping is a much larger and more expensive challenge. As always, a fine arts shipper makes everything much easier and more reliable. You get what you pay for! That said, DHL does a great job for a fraction of the cost of a fine arts specialist.
You will be required to fill out a customs form describing the contents of your package and the value. (If you are selling product to a customer overseas, you must pay tariffs.) Any time I ship something internationally, I also include a letter INSIDE the package indicating what this thing is, who it is going to, and what it is to be used for. Expect your package to be opened and inspected. I always carefully mark my boxes so that it is clear how they should be opened to cause least damage.
If you are carrying your artwork as luggage, you will probably be asked about the contents. Usually, I am just carrying a gift for a friend who lives in the city to which I am flying. I know my friends’ name and his (or her) address and how I am getting to his house or my hotel. I know how long we’ve been friends, and how we met. I also know why I am visiting and how long I am staying. I expect to be asked at customs, so I review these questions and prepare myself to answer simply, easily, and without hesitation. I usually carry a copy or print-out of any reservations that I have in town.?
Resources
Peter is the shipping broker I used for my last project. He was very friendly, thorough, gave me a great rate, and my client was satisfied. Though he is based in a different part of the country, it was just as easy as working with someone down the street.  Here is his contact info:
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
LTL Logistics Coordinator
Access America Transport- Minneapolis (Office)- 866-453-6146
(Cell)- 763-276-5749
(Fax)- 866-254-6486

USPS Shipping
Greyhound Shipping
Amtrak Shipping
UPS
FedEx
DHL
 
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