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How to Ship Items Safely

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How to Ship

How to Ship Astro Items Safely

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 the net, 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, which 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, mid span or on 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” (blue) 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 at the shipper 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.

7. Place an extra label inside the box with both addresses on it. If the outer label is destroyed, the shipper can find the one inside.

8. If you are reusing a box, make sure every old label and barcode is completely obliterated. Packages are read by machine and just drawing a line through a barcode does not keep the machine from reading it and sending it out to Egypt.

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 astronomers can't afford even a single loss.I have been asked a few questions, some in posts, and some in private that I will address here also:Isn't the manufacture’s packaging enough? That’s how it came to me!


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 manufacturers packing as justification for not properly packing the scope as per the guidelines I gave you, remember this: the Manufacturer is making a profit in volume. They will do the math and say; if better packing would cost $4 per unit more, and we loose only one scope in 50 due to shipping damage, we are still ahead by using the cheaper packaging (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 FREIGHT 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 “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 less than 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, allow 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, not the **** you got at the dollar store. 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 _” plywood, mirrors over 36” get strapped to a pallet, and a _” box.

Paul at Spectrum Coatings has a great tutorial on his web site on how to pack a mirror (note, he does everything right!): http://www.spectrum-coatings.com/packing.htm

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 if at all possible (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!

Remember, usually only the original person who sent the package can file a claim, not the recipient.

Be persistent about your claim, they will likely deny you two or more times before you finally get a check. Good luck to you, and clear, dark skies.

Dave Bonandrini

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