Efficient Crating

Mannerisms and Proclivities #1, 4 ft. 6 in. (1.4 m) in height, earthenware, underglaze, found objects. Photo: Amanda Wilkey.

I have come to crate the way I do for a few reasons specific to me and my type of work. I want to begin with a very clear caveat—I do not claim this method to be the most secure, most foolproof, or aesthetically pleasing. It is, however, the most practical way I have found to crate large sculptures on a budget; hopefully some may benefit from seeing this method and eventually come to improve upon what is outlined here for their own needs.

I build crates with the following considerations in mind:
ease of moving, storing, and unpacking/repacking for both myself and the gallery
stability and protection in transportation and storage
cost in terms of money and time

Crating for Gallery Convenience

As an artist in residence at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I was involved in installing and deinstalling exhibitions. Working on the gallery side of things gave me a new appreciation for well-packed and clearly labeled boxes and crates. As a result of this experience, I always attach a clear plastic folder to the outside of the crate that has my contact information, information on the work, a picture of the work inside, and clear, numbered instructions on how to unpack and repack the piece. I only use star-bit screws when building crates, so I make sure to drop a star-bit in the folder as well. Star-bit screws, also referred to as torque-bit screws, are difficult to strip and are therefore great for multiple uses. I write the name of the work on the front, label all sides of the crate (as back, front, etc.), and make a note of the weight of the crate once the work is inside. It’s a good idea to have that information on the outside so that the package will not have to be reweighed for every delivery.

Additionally, I always build my crates with casters to make moving them easy for both me and the gallery. Some shipping companies will not allow wheeled crates. When this is the case, I remove the casters and attach strips of wood thick enough to gain 4 inches of clearance so that a hand truck or forklift can get under the box.

Crating for Stability, Protection, and Efficiency

Crating each sculpture presents a puzzle to solve within a box. My work needs to be supported at particular points in order to minimize contact with the cloth portions of the sculptures. Constant and prolonged pressure will cause the cloth, foam, batting, and stuffing used in the work to become misshapen. Unfortunately, sometimes the bracing must be in a less-than-desirable location to ensure stability and compromises must be made.

1 Frame the walls by attaching 1-inch pine strips to the smooth side of the OSB panels.

2 Use a clamp to hold the framed panels in place while securing the first two walls together and then to the base.

I do not want the sculpture to move independently from the crate. Minimizing rattling and shaking are my biggest concerns. Keeping a sculpture rigid inside the crate means that any sudden force applied to the outside will be distributed evenly throughout the crate and bracing. The crate and sculpture should act as one object.

Again, I want to stress that I have found that this philosophy of packing works well with my type of sculpture. Others feel that cushioning the work within the box is the best form of protecting their work. I can tell you that I had two large works in the back of my truck traveling from Portland, Oregon, to Helena, Montana, when I hit a patch of ice and slammed head first into the concrete interstate barrier. The truck didn’t fare too well, but the sculptures were unfazed—even though I collided into the wall with enough force to bend the screws holding the two crates together. However, no crate is impervious to a forklift arm penetrating the wall and hitting the work inside (I’m looking at you, unnamed major shipping company).

With tall sculptures, it is very important for me to be able to lay the crate on its back. Doing so allows me to load the crate into the back of my pickup truck without help by tipping the crate over into the bed on the pivot point. Additionally, being able to lay the crate down greatly improves my gas mileage by reducing the wind drag that occurs when crates are taller than the truck cab during transport in an exposed truck bed. Lastly, this versatility maximizes space in long-term storage and/or pull-behind trailers. Flexibility in orientation, though, requires rigidity.

3 The sculpture in its crate, designed so that the base fits snugly against the back corner.

4 Secure the base in place by mounting wood strips on the floor. This will greatly help gallery staff in repacking the work.

Crating to Minimize Costs

Crating and shipping work, especially of the larger sort, can be a crippling investment for an artist. I use materials that are readily available at a hardware store and fairly inexpensive. I primarily use pine 2×4s (that I rip on a table saw to 1 inch wide) and OSB (oriented strand board) for the bracing and walls of the crate. My base is made from a sturdier ¾-inch plywood. It is important to note that all crates to be shipped across US borders must be made from pressure-treated wood (substitute layered 1-inch strips of plywood that are glued and screwed together in place of the pine).

When it comes to the inside of the crate, soft foam is the ideal stabilizer and buffer. However, it can be prohibitively expensive to purchase new, so I am always on the lookout for cheap sofas and cushions that are in decent shape at thrift stores or being given away on the side of the road. Cutting strips of foam for only the places that will be in contact with the work helps to make the recycled material last longer.

Crating Process from Start to Finish

I start by taking measurements of the work. I add a minimum of 2 inches of air space to the points closest to the walls (not including plinth) and then add in the thickness of the wall panels (1½ inches per wall (½-inch OSB + 1-inch pine strip × 2). So, if the work is 24 inches wide, my base will be 31 inches (24 (width of work) + 4 (2 inches air space on each side) + 3 (thickness of two wall panels) = 31). I prefer to have front and back panels span the entire width of the base, while the two sides will have to be 3 inches shorter to accommodate the thickness of the walls.

5 Staple pieces of foam to areas on the braces that will come into contact with delicate parts of the sculpture.

6 Add bracing to the top of the base. The sculpture is now secure from moving left to right or up and down.

I have found that ripping down pine 2×4s makes for much straighter wood to work with and is more cost effective than buying 1×2s. I frame each panel by screwing 1-inch strips of pine along the perimeter of the board, making sure to attach the frame to the smooth side of the OSB. Both sides of the board are equally water resistant, but the smooth side catches less dirt and allows for water to run off with more ease (1). Placing the frame on the outside of the board serves a few purposes. It makes for a solid connection when screwing the panels together, creates a helpful place to grab when maneuvering the crate around, and serves as a buffer to keep objects from hitting the OSB directly.

I place the back panel and one side panel on the base, clamping them together so that they will stay in place while I screw the walls together and then to the base (2). At this point, I place the work in the crate (3). Cardboard can be used to keep the wood of the piece from rubbing against the OSB. This figure needed extra space on the front and right side since it overhangs its plinth, so I secured cleats to the floor to keep the wooden base of the piece securely in place. Each piece of wood is clearly labeled by number and orientation of where it lines up with the floor (4). The cleats will need to be removed and later reinstalled, so it’s good practice to eliminate any guess work for the gallery staff that will be repacking the work.

Inside the crate, I want to protect the ceramic surface from coming into contact with the hard wood of the braces, but too much foam will enable the work to move around. To reach a happy medium, I staple foam to the bracing only in the specific spots where the work and bracing will make contact (5) and compress it with plastic wrap so that the foam is as firm as possible. Make sure any material that touches the work will not leave any sort of residue or mark. Larger pieces of foam are used to secure non-ceramic attachments when necessary.

7 Aerial view of the sculpture in the crate. Note the cross bracing that keeps the piece from moving front to back.

8 Apply cross beams where necessary to stabilize the piece, but keep them easily accessible and clearly labeled for the gallery staff unpacking the work.

With the cleats in place to eliminate lateral movement, the next step is to prevent the work from any upward movement (6). I usually try to have at least three sets of braces (also made from 1-inch pine strips): one around the feet, one set around the head, and one around the half-way point (7). These braces are fit in place and secured by drilling from the outside, inserting a star-bit screw through the panel and into the end of the pine strip. I wrap the areas that will make contact with the work in plastic for further protection. These braces are all clearly labeled with the set number, left/right indicators, and front/back arrows (8). I also apply tape or marker lines around where the brace meets the panel (9). Sometimes it is necessary to have a brace at an angle and these indicators help to make the intended slant very clear. After screwing in the front panel and top, I paint the heads of the screws that need to be removed in order to open and uncrate the piece, making them easy to identify.

I have come to genuinely enjoy making crates just as much as the other processes that go into my work, due the creativity, problem solving, and engineering it requires. Making it a point to build a crate after finishing a piece, regardless of whether or not it is to be shipped to a gallery, helps with organizing and preserving the sculpture (10). And, as anyone who has opened a crate to find that their work has been destroyed in transit knows, a well-built and packed crate is a priceless investment.

9 Outline each brace in heavy-duty tape or paint. This will ensure each piece of bracing is reinstalled at the exact angle from which it was removed.

10 The finished crate (with top and front panels removed).

the author Richard W. James is currently an assistant professor of art at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He received his MFA from the University of Kansas and has been a long-term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Richard has written for Ceramics: Arts and Perception, Ceramics: Technical, and Ceramics Monthly. To learn more about James’ work, visit http://richardwjames.com.

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