Choosing Packing Materials Before Art Transport

by | Nov 2, 2023 | Art transportation, Blog

When it comes to art transport, ensuring the safety and preservation of valuable artworks is of utmost importance. One crucial aspect of this process is selecting the right packing materials since they play a critical role in protecting artworks from damage during transportation.

Your choices may depend on whether you are carrying out the move yourself or if you have hired a specialized fine art transport company to help you out. If you are doing a big loan for an exhibition, you are likely to have a company and an insurance policy to go with it. However, if you are just moving objects between your main building and your off-site storage or doing any other sort of small collections move, then you’re probably on your own. Yes, we have heard the stories!

In this article, we will explore the key factors to consider when choosing packaging materials for art transport for those times when you’re on your own, which, let’s face it, is most of the time anyway.

Protective wrapping materials

  • Acid-Free Tissue Paper: Acid-free tissue paper is an excellent choice for wrapping delicate artworks. It provides a protective layer that helps prevent abrasion and surface damage. Acid-free tissue paper is pH neutral and free from harmful chemicals that could potentially interact with the artwork. Make sure you don’t just forget about your paper, though. Over time, acid-free tissue paper can become acidic as it absorbs volatile organic compounds (VOCs), so if you intend to keep your moved objects packed for a while, don’t forget to keep an eye on it and change the paper periodically.
    • You can find buffered and unbuffered tissue paper. Buffered paper normally means that it has been imbued with an alkaline substance (such as calcium carbonate) that will absorb acidity. This can be very useful for many materials but can also be harmful for certain types of objects which should never be in contact with buffered paper. Read more about when to choose buffered vs. unbuffered paper.
  • “Archival” Foam: Archival foam is a versatile material that offers cushioning and shock absorption during art transport and storage. It is generally non-reactive and safe for direct contact with various types of artworks – although it never hurts to have a layer of tissue paper or unspun polyester cloth (like Tyvek®) to avoid direct contact with objects. Archival foam can be easily cut and shaped to fit the specific dimensions of the artwork, providing a customized protective layer. Beware of the word “archival” which can be used commercially to mean all kinds of things. Stick to foams you know have been tested such as Ethafoam (polyethylene) and PropaFoam (polypropylene). Be sure to check out the CCI’s Technical Bulletin 32 which talks about foams.

Cushioning materials

  • Ethafoam®: Ethafoam® is a lightweight and resilient material made of polyethylene widely used in the art transport industry. Its closed-cell structure ensures excellent shock absorption and cushioning properties. Polyethylene foam is available in various densities, allowing for tailored protection based on the artwork’s fragility and weight. Small scraps can be used as peanuts, just be sure that no abrasive edges will be rubbing against your objects.
  • Bubble Wrap: Bubble wrap is a popular choice for cushioning fragile artworks during transport. It provides a layer of air-filled bubbles that act as a buffer against impacts. When using bubble wrap, it is important to select a size appropriate for the artwork, ensuring a snug fit for optimal protection. Make sure you never put bubble wrap directly on objects, especially metals, as they can cause the object to corrode with a bubble wrap print pattern on top. This can happen very quickly, even overnight, so make sure you protect your artwork properly with a layer of tissue paper, Tyvek® or foam.

Support and reinforcement materials

  • Corrugated polymer sheets and cardboard: Corrugated board, whether plastic or cardboard-based can be a versatile material that serves multiple purposes in art transport. You can make custom supports and reinforcing structures, such as corner protectors or even full boxes and small crates. Corrugated cardboard should be acid-free just to be on the safe side, especially if you might end up storing objects for longer than initially expected. Be wary of sheets designed to be biodegradable.
  • Honeycomb Board: Honeycomb board is a lightweight, yet sturdy material made of recycled paper. It is often used to create internal supports within shipping crates, and we’ve seen it come with Amazon deliveries and tech products such as printers. Honeycomb board provides excellent strength and stability while minimizing weight, making it an ideal choice for protecting valuable artworks during transport.

When filling a box, make sure you pay attention to where your object needs cushioning and where it needs structural support. If your object is completely surrounded by solid, unrelenting materials, they will not be able to absorb shock as well as the cushioning materials and you could still cause physical damage if the box gets dropped or moved around too much.

Moisture control materials

  • Silica gel packs or board: Silica gel packs are commonly used to control humidity levels during art transport. These desiccants absorb moisture from the surrounding environment, helping to prevent mold growth and damage caused by excessive humidity. Silica gel packs should be placed in airtight containers or sealed compartments to ensure their effectiveness. If necessary, make sure you condition the silica first to the level of relative humidity you require.
  • Vapor Barrier Films: Vapor barrier films, such as polyethylene sheets, can be used to create a protective layer against moisture. These films are impermeable to water vapor and provide an additional barrier of protection for artworks susceptible to moisture damage. It is important to ensure the proper sealing of the vapor barrier to maintain its effectiveness. A common brand used in heritage is Marvelseal®, although it is possible to make your own low-cost version with aluminum foil and plastic.

Secure packaging materials

  • Generally speaking, you do not want to use any kind of adhesive tape for packaging heritage. However, you may use it on the outside of boxes temporarily for labeling purposes, especially if you have several boxes that you wish to be able to distinguish from each other.
  • Tamper-Evident Seals: If you feel this is necessary, tamper-evident seals offer an added layer of security during art transport. These seals provide visible evidence if the packaging has been tampered with, ensuring the integrity of the object inside. Tamper-evident seals are available in various forms, including security labels and specialized tapes.

Choosing the right packing materials is essential for the safe transport of artworks. By considering factors such as the type of object you are moving, protective wrapping materials, cushioning materials, support and reinforcement materials, moisture control materials, and secure packaging materials, collections care professionals can ensure the preservation and safety of valuable artworks during transportation. Remember that just because you don’t have a specialized service for every move doesn’t mean you can’t take the correct measures to reduce the risk of accidental damage to your collections during transit.

As a bonus, check out the carbon calculators for shipping and conservation materials below. They sometimes include information on packing materials.

Check out the very useful resources below too! From DIY solutions endorsed by the Canadian Conservation Institute to brand recommendations and guides on how to select materials, we are sure you will be able to make confident decisions when packing your valuable collections. And don’t forget you can always post your questions about art transport and packaging in the Conserv Community.

Very useful resources

Art Shipping Carbon Calculator free online tool designed to help estimate the carbon footprint of your business. It is based on metrics common to most art galleries in today’s international art world. It aims to be easy-to-use and provide a quick breakdown of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

CAMEO (Conservation and Art Material Encyclopedia Online) by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Carbon Calculator Sustainable Tools in Cultural Heritage_STiCH Allows for easy comparison of the carbon footprint between products to empower the user to select materials with smaller kg CO₂eq, thus making educated choices, truly lowering the environmental impact of their actions.

Préserv’Art by the Centre de conservation du Québec (in French)

MITRA (2021) by University of Delaware Winterthur Art Conservation Program

Products Used in Preventive Conservation – Technical Bulletin 32 by Jean Tétreault for the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI)

Rokbox solutions for reusable boxes for art shipping and transportation. Mostly for paintings. UK-based.

Selecting materials for storage and display by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA)

Turtlebox solutions for reusable boxes for art shipping and transportation. Mostly for paintings. Based in the Netherlands but available internationally.

Working with Polyethylene Foam and Fluted Plastic Sheet – Technical Bulletin 14 by Carl Schlichting for the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI)

If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with your peers or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.

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