If you ship and receive guitars regularly, over time you’ll see evidence suggesting every manner of weird accident. A shipping box might appear to have been crushed by a heavy object or punctured by an errant forklift whose operator was having a bad day. Or a box might look as if a bunch of Sasquatches had played with it—my best guess as to what happened to a client’s Harmony on the way to my shop! You can’t control everything that happens to a guitar while it’s in transit, but there are steps you can take to protect the instrument during shipping and handling—and to protect yourself from the heartaches and hassles that come with shipping damage.
First, a word about having your instrument packed at a shipping store: I don’t recommend it. Here’s the rub: While a lot of the damage I’ve seen has happened when a shipping store did the packing, none of the guitars that I’ve prepared for shipment have been harmed in transit. Stores that do the packing for you often offer guaranteed reimbursement for any damage that occurs in transit, but don’t mess around. I recommend doing it yourself to make sure it’s done right. Here’s a step-by-step guide to packing your guitar well enough to withstand that sasquatch touch football game!
Secure a Shipping Box
First, get the right box for the job—a good way to find one is by hoofing it to your local guitar store. If the shop sells new gear, then it receives guitars shipped in boxes just like the one you need, and you can often get one for free. It should be a sturdy cardboard box, just the right size to accept a hardshell case with padding around every dimension.
If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to score the cardboard inserts that pad below the rear end and to either side of the neck. In lieu of the inserts (or to supplement them), you’ll need other packing materials—newspaper or other sturdy paper, large bubble wrap, or pieces of foam—and two-inch, heavy-duty packing tape to close the whole thing up. I don’t recommend using Polystyrene peanuts as packing material. They’re terrible for the environment, they get everywhere, and they can shift such that a guitar case comes into contact with the walls of the shipping carton—exactly what you are trying to avoid.
If you don’t have a music store nearby, you can order a box online specifically designed for guitars. Another more economical possibility is to find a discarded shipping box from a large appliance and cut the cardboard into the perfect-sized shipping carton yourself. Just make sure it’s big enough to fit your case with three or four inches added in each dimension.
Pad Inside the Case
Your next step is to do a really bang-up job of packing the guitar in its case—ideally, a sturdy hardshell. Cases with arched tops are the strongest, but any hardshell should be protective enough. If you have a chipboard case, you’ll have to be extra careful with packing materials.
Make sure that any parts on the guitar that could cause damage during shipping are removed. First, carefully extract the endpin and put it in your case’s string compartment. If the rear end of your guitar were to take a hard whack during shipping, the endpin would bear the brunt of the impact, and the instrument could end up with rib cracks spreading out from the endblock—no fun! If you have a magnetic soundhole pickup, remove it. The output jack and internal wires can stay put.
Slacken the strings on your guitar—this is one way to help prevent headstock damage in the event that your package takes a nosedive in transit. If you’re sending an archtop, remove the floating bridge, secure the two pieces with a rubber band or tape, and put it in the case. Then, wrap some padding around the tailpiece to protect the soundboard. Lastly, add some padding inside the case compartment so that the parts you’ve safely stowed there aren’t banging around and at risk of being damaged.
Immobilize the Guitar
Now secure the guitar really well inside its case, so well that it’s completely immobilized. This part of the job is absolutely crucial—especially around the headstock, the area most vulnerable to shipping damage like a nasty crack, or whiplash, as the luthier and repair expert Paul Hostetter calls it on his great website, lutherie.net.
Start by padding behind the headstock. Insert enough bubble wrap, crumpled newspaper, or foam so that you have to press on the guitar a little to get it to sit where it usually wants to. If you’re concerned about foam or paper marring a perfect finish, use a clean T-shirt against the guitar and put the padding between the shirt and the case.
Make sure to add material all the way around the edges of the headstock so that it can’t move laterally, either. Pad the top of the headstock equally well—you should have to press on the top of the case to get it to close. This is crucial: suspending the headstock in packing material that will absorb impact is the key to protecting it if the shipping box were to do a belly flop, tip over, or land hard on its front.
Moving on to the body, if there is any room for it to wiggle around, put some soft packing material behind and on top, and pad all the way around the body. Take a moment to make sure there is protection between the endblock and the inside of the case. Your work is done when you need to use some extra pressure to close the case. Give it a shake—with the latches closed!—to make sure the guitar is held completely secure.
Think Inside the Box
Putting your case inside the shipping box involves a similar process: With the box standing upright and open at one of the small ends, place an inch or two of good packing material at the bottom to create a cushion between the box and the rear end of the case.Slowly lower the case in, and keep adding padding anywhere that it will go—to either side of the body, up on either side of the neck so that the whole thing can’t move, and in the skinny areas in front and back of the case. Make sure there are a couple of inches of good padding between the headstock end of the case and the top of the box as you replace the flaps and close it up. The goal is to have the guitar immobile in its case, and the case immobile in its box.
By the way, I don’t recommend shipping a guitar without a case, but if you’re in an absolute pinch, you can build a smaller cardboard box that surrounds the guitar and pack it very sturdily inside, then put the whole thing in the bigger shipping box with packing material around it: a box within a box. If you take this route, be really thorough with the packing material—go wild—and know that there’s nothing but cardboard and newspaper protecting your beloved instrument from that forklift!
Send It On Its Way
Now it’s time to ship your guitar. I’ve had the best luck using UPS, with USPS Priority Mail close behind. Whichever service you go with, consider what day of the week you ship a guitar. If you use UPS 3 Day Select, for example, send it on a Monday or Tuesday. You don’t want to chance the instrument spending the weekend in a shipping facility or packed into a truck. This is especially important to think about when it’s really hot or really cold outside in any of the regions the box may pass through.
Finally, make sure to insure the guitar for its full replacement value and to record your tracking number. A neat feature of shipping these days is that you can go online and track your guitar’s progress along its route. If you take these packing precautions, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done your part in ensuring that your guitar will make its voyage in one piece.