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A realistic guide to packing astro items

Posted by Dave Bonandrini   06/11/2004 12:00AM

A realistic guide to packing astro items
[ARTICLEIMGR="1"]In a past life, I used to design shipping packaging for electronic testing equipment. Most of the equipment we sold cost between two and ten thousand dollars. Most of the equipment had glass screens, like an oscilloscope does. It was my job to make sure that these very expensive and very fragile items arrived in one piece and still in calibration.

I noticed while reading the posts on Astromart, that the same posts would appear again and again: “never use UPS”, “FEDX warning”, “USPS insurance is worthless”. I would read these with great interest (having had been in the biz, so to speak), and would often shake my head in disbelief. I want to state now that I am not publishing this guide in response to any one post. I do not wish to offend anyone or make anyone defensive. I have never worked for UPS, FEDX, USPS, Roadway, Yellow or any other common carrier. I make no warrantee on your personal results of using the information I gained in two years of package engineering. In the time I worked there, we had about 2 boxes lost completely by UPS. We never had a single claim for shipping damage. On the other hand, customers returning items to us for calibration, who didn’t save the original packing materials, had damage on a bi-weekly basis.


At first, these are going to seem crazy to you, as they did to me, the first day on the job. But, rest assured, these are the MINIMUM standards you are going to need to follow for fragile astro items.

1. Each item must be packed in a way to survive a fall of ten (10) feet, on to a concrete parking block, not a flat surface. The said item could fall on a corner, midspan or end. So when you are packing up that scope, are you confident you could throw it off of your roof and have it land on the driveway or the stairs safely? How about 3 times in a row?

2. “foam” peanuts are ONLY used on items UNDER 2 POUNDS! What happens with foam peanuts is that vibrations cause heavy items to sink to the bottom (whatever way the package is oriented) and the protection is lost. The item will not remain in the center of the package, believe me. I can’t tell you how many times a customer would return an item for calibration, wrapped in bubble wrap and laying in a bed of peanuts. It would always be smashed. Even after we would warn a customer “DO NOT SHIP IN FOAM PEANUTS”, they would do it anyway and state, “I know you said not to, but I used A LOT of peanuts!” As if using more peanuts would somehow keep the item from shifting and being smashed.

3. Packaging must be form fitting, allowing NO PLAY WHAT SO EVER. This means you can shake the package as hard as you can, and nothing moves inside at all. Nothing. Not a sound.

4. Everything must be double boxed to survive a 2” penetration. What this means is that you have said item, packed in form fitting foam, packed into a box, surrounded by 2” of foam, inside an outer shipping carton. If an item weights more than 30 pounds, you surround the inner box with 3” of higher density foam.

5. If anything can vibrate loose in four days of constant vibration (even longer for international shipments), either lock it down with a low grade of LOC-TITE (yes, they make it in grades from “easy” to “heat me with a torch”) or just remove it altogether. Whenever I would read another post about how a secondary “came loose”, destroying itself and the primary, and now the carrier does not want to honor the insurance, I would sigh. How would it be the carriers fault? Nobody working there opened the box up and removed those screws!

6. Remove batteries before shipment. The last thing you want is the item somehow turning itself on and overheating in all of the packaging. Or possibly worse, leaking somehow all over the optics. In fact, unless the item takes some kind of weird or expensive battery (laser collimator, for instance) just leave the batteries at home.

Someone out there is going to start crying that "we shouldn't have to do all of that!" , "they should be more careful!", "they should hire all nice grandmas to carry my boxes!". But that is the reality of the shipping business. You could always drive the package there yourself if you don’t like it (you still might get into an accident with a UPS truck). We used the above standards, and we were a huge company that could afford a few losses. We fellow Astromarters cant afford even a single loss.

I have been asked a few questions, some in posts, some in private that I will address here also:

Isn’t the manufacture’s packaging enough? That’s how it came to me!

NO! Many times the original manufacturers packing you get as an end user is just the inner box, as the store or warehouse has removed the outer packing for display or more than one inner box came in the larger outer box. You would be very wise to keep the original boxes, because they usually have the form fitting foam that keeps the product from moving around in shipping. You would still need to add the outer box with the 2" of foam on every side (NOT PEANUTS!). If you are looking at the manufacture’s packing as justification for not properly packing the scope as per the guidelines i gave you, remember this: the manufacture is making a profit in volume. They will do the math and say if the better packing cost $4 per unit more, and we loose one scope in 50 due to shipping damage, we are still ahead (you would cry if I showed you what Orion pays for the xt-10 scope). You, on the other hand, are not making a profit in volume. You are most likely making or loosing a few dollars over what you paid for the scope. You cannot afford a denied claim for insufficient packaging.

What about “motor freight”?

Motor freight companies are good choices if you are not in a hurry and may be a better bargain on heavy items, or multiple items. You should strap the item down to a pallet, tightly (remember the no movement rule), after packaging it as above. You will also want to state “TOP FRIEGHT ONLY”. This means you do not want any items placed on top of yours. Expect to pay a premium for TFO, it’s worth it. For very large or fragile items you can “crate” them. This means they are completely surrounded by wood (picture a movie scene where a rare item is removed from a wooden crate in a museum).

How do I ship a mirror or corrector plate?

The best way for mirrors under 25” is to get some 2” foam at Home Depot (the hard pink stuff that comes in 4’x8’ sheets). Do not worry about the price of the foam, it is worth every dollar. In a box that is at least 4” too big in both directions:

1. Place a layer of foam on the bottom of the box. It must fix exactly, with NO play what so ever.

2. The next layer of foam gets a cut out in the center, EXACTLY the size of the mirror. Again, no play at all. Carefully, place the mirror into the cut out. It should fit snugly. Place a sheet of tissue paper over the face of the mirror.

3. The next layer of foam is the same as the bottom layer.

4. Tape up the box with some REAL shipping tape. Shake box, no play? Good!

5. Place this box into a second outer box, line with the same pink foam to take up any slack, and you are ready to ship

Mirrors over 25” get a box made of ¾” plywood, mirrors over 36” get strapped to a pallet, and a ¾” box..
Paul at Spectrum Coatings has a great tutorial on his web site on how to pack a mirror (note, he does everything right!):

What about the “UPS Store”?

The UPS Store used to be Mail Boxes Inc. They charge a premium over the rates you would pay if you went right to UPS itself (or had them pick it up at your place of employment). On a 22” mirror they wanted $14 more than UPS to SHIP. On the Insurance part of the bill, they wanted $38 dollars more! That’s a huge difference.

What do I do if I have to make a claim?

Make sure the driver notes, AT THE TIME OF DELIVERY, all of the damage to the outer carton. Open box with driver present (never let any shipper just leave packages at your door, no matter where you live). Some companies will take the damaged item and packaging right on the spot, if they do, take lots of pictures of the item and carton before the driver leaves. If for some reason you open the box without the driver present and find damage, disturb everything as little as possible, take lots of pictures of the outer box, call customer service immediately (as in, that very second). Do not throw away ANY of the packaging. Shippers see lots of damaged goods every day, do not try to exaggerate the damage to the carton or item in any way, they can smell a skunk a mile away!

Good luck to you, and clear, dark skies

-Dave Bonandrini


Here are some additional notes on this subject by another AstroMart contributor:

As a (25 year) UPS employee, I have some knowledge of what kinds of things can happen to packages. I tell my customers that if you re-use a box and leave the original labels on, it's 50/50 that the package gets to the consignee, depending on which label a sorter / loader is looking at. Knowing the system, and shipping things myself, I always double box and use lots of bubble wrap, fill all of the voids with bubble wrap. Remember that your package could be at the bottom of the UPS trailer, with 8 ft. of packages on top of your box. I use new or like new boxes, seal the box at every seam , and cover the tracking label and address label with tape. UPS has many mechanical diverters, slides, conveyors, etc., as well as people sorting and splitting packages, sliding them across a belt, abrasion is a given. Use enough tape, it's cheap and it helps to assure your box stays together and the label stays on. Scotch® brand packing tape is much better than the junk you get at the dollar store, use the good stuff. Don't use masking tape, electrical tape, first aid tape, etc. If by chance your label should come off the outside of the box, it is wise to enclose an additional label (or two!) inside the packaging, and/or affixed to the item being shipped. The article about shipping posted by Dave says to have the driver note damages and to never let a driver just leave a package on your porch. UPS delivery methods don't ask for, require, or mandate a notation by the driver to note any damage to a box. This isn't a requirement, nor is there a need for this. If it makes you feel better, you can ask the driver to note in the remarks column, to key in "damage" or "open" or "crushed" etc. There is aprox. 10 characters that he can type in. Bare in mind UPS doesn't require this, ask for this notation, look at this, or even refer to this notation in the remarks column when processing a claim, this is simply for your peace of mind, nothing more. Also, if you live in a DR (driver release) area, a UPS driver will leave your package on the porch. A shipper can pay extra to require a signature on a package. That is done on the shipping end, and if you want to assure someone signs for the package, you must designate this on the shipping end. One way around this "signature required" cost would be to have your item shipped to a commercial/business address, where a signature is required for every delivery.

Mel Campbell