Moving, Packing, and Shipping Furniture

What follows are some common sense suggestions to safeguard your furniture, regardless of its value. Most damage to furniture occurs because of human use, abuse and accidents. The purpose of this pamphlet is to offer guidance in avoiding the latter. Most accidental damage occurs during handling and movement of furniture. Some of these hints will seem more appropriate in a collection or historic house museum, but you may still find them helpful in your home. While these guidelines are intended to safeguard antiques and other valuables, you may find some helpful for moving any type of furniture. You never know what will become the next priceless antique!

Remember: "If you don't break it, you don't have to fix it!"

General Rules for Moving and Handling Furniture

  • Treat every piece as if it were the most valuable piece in the collection.  Move very slowly when handling.

  • Examine each piece before moving it to determine whether the furniture is structurally sound. In museum collections, we look for existing damages on each piece before the move, and list them on a condition report.

  • Think through every step--plan ahead. Walk through and talk through the entire procedure before actually handling the furniture. This will help you see the trouble spots before you actually arrive with furniture in hand.

  • Plan ahead to make sure the temperature and relative humidity is the same in the new location as in the present. Sudden changes may cause damage to objects with veneers and other sensitive decoration.

Some Specifics. . .

1. Before moving any item, make sure you know where it will go next.

Prepare the area ahead of time, for instance, by moving any furnishings clear of the path to be travelled. Make sure the route has no obstructions, such as narrow doorways or low hanging chandeliers, or fixtures extending out from the wall. Curled carpet edges can cause someone to trip and fall. Do not smoke or allow smoking by others while moving furnishings. Remove or cover jewelry, watches and belt buckles which could damage surfaces.

2. Never hurry when you are moving an antique.

Furniture can be scratched, dented, and gouged when it is bumped and banged against hand trucks, doorways, and other furniture. Each item needs to be approached individually, without haste, and with sufficient manpower present. Gymnasts work with "spotters" to catch them when they misstep, and a spotter can help avoid crashing into a wall or into another piece of furniture.

3. Never move anything more than once, if at all possible.

This applies to just about any kind of valuable object, but especially to furniture. By knowing precisely where the object will end up, you can avoid the danger inherent in extra movement. If you can plan your moves ahead of time to avoid multiple moves, mistakes and damage can be avoided. There are some notable exceptions to this idea. One is that some very large pieces come apart into two or more pieces. Try to dismantle these, to avoid an upper piece falling off during transit.

4. Always lift furniture to move them by placing at least one hand beneath the item.

Make sure you have a firm grip on the item with both hands. This is not the time to wear white cotton gloves. You must have a firm grip while moving the object. Just remember: handling metal hardware with out gloves can cause corrosion to start, so avoid metal surfaces.

5. Never slide or drag furniture along the floor.

Never drag a piece of furniture . The vibration can loosen or break joints, feet can be chipped, legs broken. . . to say nothing of what this does to the carpeting or finish on the floor. Do not lift a chair by an arm, crest rail, or lift cabinets by handles. While these seem convenient enough, they are often overused and damaged with age.

6. Secure every item into place when using a cart.

This should be done before moving the item to its new location. This can be done with straps over padding, tying down the furniture. Make sure all carts which will transport the furniture are padded with something such as thin carpeting or a blanket. If possible, wrap the piece of furniture in a blanket pad. This will provide extra insurance against bumping and gouging. This is especially helpful if the item is going into storage.

7. Always face forward when moving furniture.

Walking backwards is especially dangerous, since you can be injured if you fall--not to mention the damage that might occur to the furniture. Use a cart to move larger furniture; this will make walking backwards with the object unnecessary.

8. Report all damages as soon as they occur.

This information needs to be added to the condition report on each piece. Be sure to save all fragments from broken pieces for the restorer. Always search padding materials completely before discarding them. There is always a chance that small attachments or broken pieces may be in the wrappings.

Packing Furniture

The packing of furniture is complicated because of the size of most of these objects. Unless you are a skilled carpenter, building an appropriate case is likely to be beyond your abilities. However, a discussion of the principles of good packing will help you understand and specify successful packing. Not surprisingly, most valuable objects require a professional examination to determine the best packing method. These objects should not be used as test cases. However, because of the shipping of electronics, glassware and other fragile items, we have a wealth of guidance available for our needs.

Three layers of protection

We recognize that most furniture and other objects require several types of protection. These may be single-purpose layers, or multi-purpose ones. Let's take a look at the function of each, and then some examples of how they perform. These layers are, from the closest to the object out:

  • A protective wrap

  • Shock and vibration protection

  • A protective shell

1. Protective Wrap

This covers a fragile surface to prevent scratches or loss of paint and other decorations. It will also keep the object clean, and in some cases, waterproof. Not all of the subsequent protective layers can touch an object directly. Some foam material has a very slick surface, and so can touch the surface. This layer is not always a soft one either. In some cases, soft material like flannel can trap dirt which abrades the surface. In the case of a soft varnish, soft cotton can actually get embedded into the surface. Some examples of protective wrap include natural and synthetic papers, plastic sheet, and cloth.

2. Shock and Vibration Protection

This layer provides protection from damaging bumps and repeated small impacts. In a sense, this layer is a cushion but also has "memory," or elasticity. Elastic memory allows the cushioning effect to occur as often as necessary. Sudden blows to this packing layer are distributed throughout, and little of the force is transferred to the packed item. The cushion material is usually a foam or rubber composition. The type and amount (usually thickness) of cushion layer depend upon the weight of the item and the type of shock anticipated.

Vibration can be simply defined as small impacts, repeated at intervals and over an extended period. Vibration may seem innocent because of the small size of force involved, but it can literally shake the paint off a surface. Small cracks can spread due to prolonged vibration. Packing materials such as foams can do double duty as both shock and vibration isolators.

3. Protective Shell

The outer layer of the case provides a hard, puncture resistant "wrapper." The hard case provides protection in the event of rough handling, which we must assume might occur. But the hard outer layer also allows even delicate items to be closely placed or stacked. And, as a practical matter, someone other than a museum conservator can safely move the object. Without this shell, we wouldn't dream of doing these things.

It may also serve as a means to seal in a desirable environment, or slow the rate of change during travel. When a case is sealed by a gasket, the interior serves as a micro-environment for the objects inside. You can also imagine that the sealed case can serve as a barrier to prevent undesirable environmental conditions outside (heat, cold, rain) from ever reaching objects.

The shell is most often made of plywood, which is very tough and easy to work with. The outside surface might be painted to provide more moisture protection. Wooden battens are used for strength, and screws are the best fasteners. Only materials approved for use near objects should be used.

Creative Modification

Not every packing situation calls for the same package. For example, if an object is going across town, perhaps a modification of the ideal is called for. Wrapping and padding (layers 1&2 above) can be followed by careful strapping to the vehicle (to prevent shifting). In this way, the protective shell of the vehicle becomes layer 3. You should carefully consider the needs of the object, as well as the type of move, before designing the packing case. However, there are no set solutions, and this flexibility allows us the creativity to design for each situation.

A final thought. . .

Even in packing and shipping irreplaceable antiques, there is an element of Arisk assessment.@ This means that packing materials and methods are specified for the most likely events that are "normally" encountered. A packing case designed to protect against every event would not be practical, and would be extremely expensive. But, while even the best package design is no guarantee against damage, thoughtful design and careful handling are the best insurance we can offer.

For more information, please contact Melvin J. Wachowiak, Jr., Senior Furniture Conservator, MCI.