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December 2011

December 2011 -- Ships

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  • Shipping Your Art
    by Tiffany Toland-Scott

    Everyone has heard horror stories about prints and paintings lost or mangled in the mail, and shipping your artwork safely can seem like an impossible task rife with questions like, rolled or flat? To insure or not to insure? It doesn't matter whether you are just starting out, or have shipped artwork to all 50 states and a few other countries to boot, shipping can be quite a conundrum. In this article I'll try to break down the pros and cons, the choices you have, and the things you'll need to start shipping artwork safely.

    The first thing you will need to decide is whether you will be shipping your artwork rolled up into tubes, or flat in envelopes or boxes. Many artists will tell you that rolled is the only way to go, but in some cases it's just not possible to send something rolled up, and shipping in tubes is not as foolproof as many people think.

    There are some reasons that shipping in tubes is preferred over shipping in envelopes and boxes. It takes less care to insure that an order in a tube will arrive undamaged, but you also can't throw a print in a tube and call it good. Tubes also tend to be lighter than boxes, but heavier than envelopes, and tubes take up less space to store than boxes but are still usually space-hogs compared to envelopes. It also doesn't generally occur to a postal employee to try to bend a tube, and they don't have a flat surface area to have things set on them and ultimately be crushed or dented. But tubes are not impervious to damage, and if packed incorrectly prints can actually damage themselves in transit.

    I personally prefer envelopes and occasionally boxes. The reason for this is that I sell things that can't be rolled up, such as matted prints and stretched canvas prints, and having tubes, envelopes, and boxes on hand at all times gets expensive. There is also the fact that prints shipped in tubes usually have to be flattened before they can be hung up, and while that's pretty minor, the less the artwork has to be handled, the better.

    I have used tubes in the past, and after a couple of spectacularly bad experiences I decided not to continue using them. After receiving photos of a few orders that looked like they'd been stepped on, I tried ordering a box of thicker tubes only to discover that the thicker tubes were so heavy they increased my shipping costs by quite a bit. Tubes also tend to be more expensive. To purchase one hundred plain brown shipping tubes that are 9" long and enough plastic caps to seal them from Uline.com is $57, but one hundred brown bubble mailers large enough to fit an 8.5"x11" print inside comes out to just $36. However when you ship in tubes you can't include backing boards, so you do save some money there.

    If you decide to use tubes, you'll need to remember to put tissue paper between each print, or to seal each print in a clear bag before putting it in the tube. Prints that are not wrapped in plastic or tissue paper can scratch other prints or even themselves with their corners and edges. Sometimes the scratches are almost impossible to see, but other times the scratches are huge white streaks where the ink has been completely lifted from the paper. You will also be limited in the types of paper you can print on, unless you want to buy massive tubes with a diameter of 4" or more. Glossy and satin papers usually roll up without damage, but fine art papers like matte or watercolor surfaces tend to cockle and are sometimes left with permanent crescent-shaped dents.

    You will also need to remember to stuff tissue paper or other packing material into the ends of the tube to keep the print from sliding back and forth inside the tube and crumpling the edges each time it hits the plastic caps. If you use tubes that are just barely long enough for the print to fit in you may not need to do this, but you will have to have several sizes of tubes on hand if you offer more than one size of print. It is also important to remember to staple the end caps on in at least two places and then use waterproof packing tape to seal the end caps, otherwise the caps may come loose in transit or leak water into the tube if they are exposed to inclement weather.

    If you decide to ship flat, you'll probably want to buy plastic bubble mailers that are waterproof and seal each print in a clear bag with backing board, which you can find at clearbags.com. You'll also want to sandwich the print between two sheets of cardboard that are cut to be a little larger than the print itself. I usually tape all around the edges so the print can't slip out and have its corners bent. You can also use foam board instead of cardboard, and I actually prefer to use foam board even though it is more expensive. It tends to hold up better and feels harder, which will discourage anyone from trying to bend the package to make it fit into a post office box. Cardboard is usually easier and cheaper to come by though, and just about any cardboard box can be cut up into sheets for shipping. You will also want to get some stickers that say "DO NOT BEND". Don't bother buying the stamp the post office sells. It never dries and will usually leave a red smear on anything it comes in contact with if it's stamped on a plastic mailer.

    The next thing you will need is a scale. Scales can be purchased at your post office for about $30. These are extremely accurate scales, but it is important to remember to round up to the nearest ounce. If you are shipping larger packages, you'll probably want to buy a scale from a company like Uline.com that has a larger surface area for packages to rest on. You can also buy scales from Uline.com that have the rates for UPS, FedEx, and USPS programmed into them and can be updated just by downloading new rates from the internet.

    Now that you have all the necessities, what service will you use? I almost always use the postal service because it is cheaper than any other shipping service, and if you already get mail delivery at your house they will pick up your packages for free. If you don't get mail delivery they charge $15 to schedule a pick-up. Depending on the number of packages you have to ship, the $15 pick-up charge might be worth it. For more valuable or fragile packages, like original paintings, I use UPS or FedEx. USPS has recently begun to instruct their employees to ignore stickers that say "Fragile" and to handle all packages, including "Fragile" packages, the same. UPS and FedEx on the other hand don't ignore those warnings, making their services superior for fragile items even if they are more expensive. Both of those companies also offer pick-up service.
    All three companies also offer the ability to print postage online. I prefer to print my postage myself since it saves so much time and people in line behind me are probably glad that I do this as well. If you choose to print your own postage, you will need labels to print the postage on. The postal service sells special labels online, but I prefer to buy the Click-N-Ship Express Mail Labels available from LabelUniverse.com. They are usually more affordable and they don't require your printer to be calibrated to print exactly on the label. You will want to make sure that your printer uses waterproof ink. Most Epsons will fit the bill. You can put tape over most parts of the label, but USPS asks that you not tape over any bar codes since the plastic can prevent scanners from reading the codes correctly.

    Now, about that insurance. Your art may be priceless. You might think it is worth $500. Unless you have a piece of paper saying that you've sold something for $500, the post office will give you a few bucks for the paper and paint. I know, I know, this sounds like crazy talk, but it's true. If you can't prove that you sell your prints for $20 a piece, the post office will decide the value is something like $1 and that's all you'll get, since that's what it costs you to replace the item. And even worse than that, the post office may not even reimburse you for original paintings if they weren't sold when they were shipped. For example, if you send it to a show with a price tag of $1,500, but no one buys it, and USPS destroys it beyond repair, how do you prove to them it's worth $1,500? Maybe you just made that up! However if you sell the same painting on eBay for $1,500, and have an invoice showing that the customer paid that much, and USPS destroyed the painting, they have to give you the $1,500. Well, maybe.

    See, USPS wants to make money, so if they don't have to pay out for insurance claims, they won't. Can they say this was your fault? Maybe you should have added one more layer of bubble wrap, or put the painting inside of a box inside of a bigger box, with three inches of lead between the two boxes, and an anti-gravity field. You didn't do that, so it's not their fault your painting is mangled! Good bye!

    So, to insure, or not to insure, that is the question! I frequently don't. Why bother? 99 times out of 100 the package arrives fine or only slightly bothered, and once framed the bent edge isn't visible anyway. No big deal to the customer, no big deal to me (although I always do feel horribly bad when it happens). The one time that something goes wrong, I generally replace it myself, or do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. It might cost me $5 to send another print, but at least I don't have to deal with USPS the 99 other times, who might not give me my money back this one time anyway. If, however, the order is $50 or more, I will generally insure it even if the customer doesn't pay for it. One $15 print is one thing, but 10 $15 prints is another.

    UPS and FedEx also offer insurance and for some services $100 of insurance is included. They are much better about paying out for insurance claims than USPS, which is one more reason I prefer those services for valuable and fragile items.

    In the end, shipping artwork can be scary and does have risks involved, but if you never take a chance that something could get damaged, you cut yourself off from customers all over the world. I've been shipping art for five years and in all that time I have only had a handful of packages receive considerable damage. And there is nothing saying you have to do it perfectly the first time! Everything I outlined above I have learned from years of making mistakes and observing the damage that packages received in shipment. If you are really worried about your packages, just start with small inexpensive items and go from there. Good luck!

    Tiffany Toland-Scott
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