Packing Non-Fragile Items

The Boxing Match

Things you'll learn:

  • Basic packing strategies: what cartons, what items, what matters.
  • Zeroing in: bathrooms, plants and 'the untouchables.'

Extra Effort On The Less-Breakable Items

Packing non-fragile items isn’t rocket science. Books, towels, kids’ toys and Grandpa’s sweaters – what could possibly go wrong?

You’d be surprised…

Yes, it is hard to seriously screw up when you’re packing clothes and bedding. But non-fragile does not mean indestructible; a CD may not break if you drop it, but a hundred of them in a box in their plastic cases can mean a major screw-up if proper care isn’t taken. Besides, we don’t want to simply not screw up, we want to wow our customers. We may never see that wow; we might be long gone by the time the customer gets around to unpacking their boxes. But nailing the pack job will increase our chances of a great review.

So let's nail it.

When you arrive at a job where you are doing some packing for the customer and you find some boxes have already been packed, mark those boxes “PBO” (packed by owner). This is important! Since the customer packed them they are responsible for what they packed and how they packed it. Making this clear can save you from having to pay claims on these items down the road.

“PBO” (Packed by Owner)

‘PBO’ as ‘Preventative Box Organization’! It may be a good idea to explain the concept of PBOs to the customer at the outset of the pack and move rather than try to convince them after the fact, when the damage has been done and they are looking for compensation.

General Household Items: Putting Things in Their Place

For any box you pack, the general rule is: pack heaviest items on the bottom, fill as much space as possible, and fill in extra space with packing paper.

Sounds nice. Let’s see how this concept actually applies.

In the ‘Boxes’ section we ran through the various types of cartons most commonly used in the industry. Now we’ll talk more about what goes in them – and how.

Book Boxes (1.5 cubed feet)

Book boxes are meant to hold small and heavy items that generally do not break. Yes, like books. But be aware: if these cartons are not fully packed when they are placed on the bottom of the truck load the stability, the integrity, the safety of these boxes and their contents can be noticeably compromised. In other words, books, photo albums and magazines are not indestructible. Pack them tightly.

Putting the heaviest books at the bottom of the box with the lighter books on top seems a reasonable strategy. But bookcases in the real world tend to hold books of all different sizes, and more often than not we have to put big and small books side by side, playing a sort of Tetris in trying to fit in exactly 1.5 cubed feet of matter into that carton. Do your best to pack books horizontally, only placing them vertically to fill empty spaces.

Customer Care Tip

Books normally don’t require any padded protection but lining the box with a sheet or two of packing paper is one more way to show the customer you care about their belongings.

Thought experiment:

Imagine you are in your attic. (If you don’t have one, imagine you do and go up there.) You are looking for your box of old trophies amid the clutter. Where do you walk? That’s right, on the joists. Because if you step on the sheet rock you’ll fall right through into the room below. Remember this when you are packing book boxes.

As stated above, the density (tightness) of a box lends strength. A book box packed solid with books can be placed at the bottom of the load on the truck without much worry. But what about a book box packed with VHS tapes? CDs in those plastic cases? Three-ring photo albums that just won’t stack right? These items too may be fine when packed tightly, but uneven pressure from above can do damage to these items more than to books. If you are going to pack video tapes or CDs in a book box that will likely end up bearing a fair bit of weight upon loading, try to stack books in there as well, on each side, up to the top. Like the joists in the attic, they will hold up to the weight of whatever is placed on top of the carton while protecting the CDs or video tapes that are also in there.

Medium (3.0 cubed foot) Boxes

Medium (3.0 ft2) boxes, aka 3-cubes, are meant to hold non-fragile items: clothes, pots and pans, toys and games, a tray of silverware, the contents of a desk drawer, a mantelpiece’s worth of dusty knick-knacks and small picture frames.

What’s that? Picture frames aren’t fragile??

Not like stemware or china, no. Sure, picture frames and knick-knacks and even stuff in a desk drawer can be considered ‘breakable’, but that doesn’t mean everything not made of cotton or titanium has to go in a dish pack. Once again: the integrity of any packed and loaded carton is found in its density. Put a roundish lump of granite in a book box at the bottom of your tier, and the carton will collapse under the weight of the boxes on top of it. Pack a book box tight with bottles of wine (sufficiently wrapped and padded with packing paper, please!) and it will hold up.

Unless you drop a lump of granite on it, of course.

Likewise, a 3-cube filled with small picture frames, if they are wrapped well and packed firm and tight, will be fine mid-tier in a properly loaded truck.

By the same token, a carton should have a bit of ‘give’ on the top, bottom and sides - enough to pad against a little incidental impact and the absorb the pressure from the weight of the boxes loaded on top. The key is making sure you use enough packing paper, crumpled up (sometimes two sheets at a time) and covering the bottom of the box as well as the top. For a stable cushion, roughly fold a few sheets of packing paper and put them at the bottom of the carton. Roughly because if you flatten and neatly crease the paper it will have no thickness and thus no padding quality. Cover this rough layer of paper with crumpled packing paper, and cover this with another roughly-folded layer. Doing this you create a kind of paper mattress for whatever you are packing. After wrapping and packing the box tightly make another ‘mattress’ on top.

This will go a long way in keeping those semi-breakables healthy.

For folded clothing, simply line these medium-sized boxes with paper and arrange items neatly and snugly.* And as you look over all those small picture frames and knick-knacks all over the top of the dresser and the night stand, remember: clothes provide instant cushioning for many of these bedroom items. Do use caution, however, as neatly-folded clothing may not be particularly cushiony and may not protect particularly fragile items like statuettes and ornaments. If you end up with a box only half-filled with folded clothes, find those less-than-fragile items to wrap in paper and use these bundles to fill out the box from the middle, safe among all those shirts and jeans.

*Box Density Sizing

A point about a box’s density or tightness, if you can’t find enough bedding or linens - or pots and pans or books or canned goods - to fill the carton firmly, consider cutting the box down to size. Cut each corner vertically, from the top of the carton down to the top of the items inside. Then just fold over and close your extended flaps, just as you would an unadulterated box.

Four-Fives (4.5 cubic foot) and Sixes (6.1 cubic foot) Boxes

Save your ‘four-fives’ (your large 4.5 ft3 boxes) and your ‘sixes’ (x-large 6.1 ft3) for items that weigh little relative to their size. This means bedding, pillows, sweaters, jackets and coats (that aren’t going into wardrobe boxes), as well as stuffed animals, plastic toys and lampshades (which we will discuss below under fragile item packing). Bedding and sweaters can only be packed so tightly, so these cartons will not hold up under a lot of weight and therefore will be kept nearer to the top of the load. Even though Grandpa’s sweaters won’t suffer if the box they are in gets crushed, once a carton begins to give the stability of the load is compromised. (This is another reason to allow the books in those book boxes do some of the weight-supporting work.)

Keep In Mind

From time to time you will find it convenient or even advantageous to pack a shelf stereo, a desktop printer, maybe the matching table lamps in the master bedroom in a four-five rather than a dishpack. (Four-fives are not as expensive as dishpacks. Or you may not have any dishpacks left.) Use judgment and discretion and get those things packed. Done properly - using plenty of paper! - table lamps and desktop printers and other such items can go safely in a regular large carton.

Best to keep filling those extra-large sixes with bedding, though.

Pack Linens by Room

When packing the bedrooms and bathrooms, keep linens from each room separate from the others. This makes unpacking a lot easier for the customer. Also, use their cushiony qualities to your advantage. Tuck that clock radio or alarm clock or small photo frame on the nightstand in the middle of that box of blankets and comforters; place the bathroom scale in between those bath towels.

AND… mark on the boxes that these items are inside, or mention it to the customer, who otherwise might not think to take care when pulling pile after pile of blankets and towels out of all those boxes.

Packing Awkwardly Sized Items

On occasion we will come across an item that simply will not fit in any size box we have on hand. Time to get creative! Take a tall Oriental ceramic vase, for example; it won’t fit in a dishpack but a wardrobe would be overkill - and would require additional creativity to give it a snug and safe fit. Solution: Use two dishpacks, or a dishpack and a 3-cube; slip one over the top of the other and tape it in place to create one tall carton. For another item two 3-cubes combined might readily suffice. It depends on the item in question.

For a particularly wide item like a chandelier: try taking two dishpacks and cutting each in two opposing corners to create four corner pieces that can be fitted to form one large carton. Doing this will leave a hole in the middle of the bottom, as well as in the top; use whatever extra cardboard you have on hand to completely enclose your new, impressively-fabricated box.

Packing Wardrobe Boxes

When packing wardrobe boxes, remember the whole purpose: to keep the clothes from getting wrinkled. Take some care in hanging the customer’s shirts, slacks, dresses or whatever. Put enough so as to be economical in your use but don’t overstuff them – this can quickly defeat the purpose of using wardrobe boxes and, with too much weight, the bar can bend and then you have more of a mess, not to mention a collapsing load. In their video below, DN Van Lines suggests 10-12 hangers per 18” wardrobe box - and presumably, proportionately more for a 24” wide box. Consider though: twelve sport coats hardly resemble twelve dress shirts in terms of girth and heft. As always, use your best judgment in deciding when to say when.

The (usually) empty bottom portion of a wardrobe box can be used for lighter items such as pillows, blankets or, since we are already in the closet, shoes. Wrap them with packing paper to avoid scuffing and place them neatly inside. Shoeboxes can of course also go into the bottom of the box, under those shoes only in paper. If you can, build up layers of shoes rather than just dropping them in. Try to fill up any extra space at the bottom with packing paper to keep the shoes from ending up in a haphazard pile - which might happen anyway but it is worth a moment of effort.

Another way to make the most of your wardrobe boxes (and if your customer sees fit to want to keep his or her kid’s clothes completely wrinkle-free) you can make two tiers of children’s clothes with a bar going through the handles of a wardrobe box. This will save space on the truck while saving the customer a few bucks on materials. Plus, as small as kids’ shoes are, they too can be placed at the bottom of a wardrobe - even one with that second row of clothes hanging on that lower bar.

Safety Tip

In taping the top of a wardrobe closed, tape over the exposed ends of the metal bar. While wardrobes have hand holes in their sides it is common enough to grab them around the top, to move them or get them into a position to be lifted. One slip and you or your crew can cut a hand or a few fingers on an uncovered bar.

To make the most of your wardrobe boxes (and if your customer sees fit to want to keep his or her kid’s clothes completely wrinkle-free) you can make two tiers of clothes with a bar going through the handles of a wardrobe box. This will save space on the truck while saving the customer a few bucks on materials.

The (usually) empty bottom portion of a wardrobe box can be used for lighter items such as pillows, blankets or, since we are in the closet, shoes. Wrap them with packing paper to avoid scuffing and place them neatly inside. Shoeboxes can of course also go into the bottom of the box. Try to fill up any extra space at the bottom with packing paper to keep the shoes from ending up in a haphazard pile. If need be, build up layers of shoes rather than just dropping them in.

Food for Thought

Some people simply are not as neat as others. We’ve seen all kinds, including people who have clothes piled on shelves, on chairs, on the bed – and want them packed for their move. You could spend your time and their money getting mountains of t-shirts and sweats in order but consider: a customer who has his or her clothes in a pile and calls it ‘ready to be packed’ probably isn’t a neat freak.

Ask if the clothes can just go into the box as they are. No matter what the answer is, you’ll be on the same page with your customer and there will be no questions (‘Why are your guys moving so slowly?’) or surprises (‘Why did your guys dump my clothes into boxes like that?’).

For folded clothing, line medium-sized boxes with paper and arrange items neatly and snugly.* As with the linen boxes described above, clothes provide instant cushioning for bedroom items like small picture frames, small jewelry boxes and random knick-knacks. Do use caution, however, as neatly-folded clothing may not protect particularly fragile items like statuettes and ornaments. If you end up with a box only half-filled with folded clothes you can fill up the rest of the carton with items wrapped individually or in small bundles.


Photo credit: wwarby on Flickr

Here we find two extremes in the wonderful world of packing. In the closet you have towels and washcloths and maybe a bathrobe or two; line a medium or large-sized carton with a sheet of packing paper and drop those soft, light, unbreakable items right in. Ba-da-bing ba-da-boom, let’s see what else there is to pack in here.

And then you open the cabinet drawers, the doors under the sink, the medicine chest – and find a thousand health care and toiletry items of varying kind, age and hygienic state. Your first thought might be to get a book box and just dump the loaded drawers right in. (Your second thought might involve protective rubber gloves – or an incinerator.) But a few simple steps can turn this seemingly ugly job into a tame and manageable task.

First, back up a step: use those towels and washcloths to cushion the bottom (and, at the end, the top) of your ‘medicine cabinet box’. Next, you might find certain items you can eliminate from the pack: bottles of hydrogen peroxide, bathtub cleaner, rubbing alcohol, aerosol forest morning aroma and economy-size wintergreen mouthwash. (On a local move these can be taken if handled with enough care so they don’t spill; on a long-distance haul it’s best to let the customer decide what he or she might want to do with these containers of messy potential.) Then take whatever is left, semi-similar items grouped together if feasible, and make wrapped bundles using packing paper. Not only does this keep the box more stable, the customer will appreciate the extra care you took with their half-empty pill bottles and years-old individually-wrapped heat compresses.

You’ll often also find, in the bathrooms you pack, ceramic toothbrush and soap holders, hand-held hair dryers, sponges, toilet and shower brushes, small mirrors, small wall hangings and pictures, glass jars of pot pourri, seashells, fake flowers, jars of petroleum jelly, face cream, hand cream, skin moisturizer, hand moisturizer, you-know-what moisturizer and a thousand other things that can break or leak or ooze. Make use of those towels and linens in the closet, keep those small breakables padded inside your medicine cabinet box, and consider keeping a handful of Ziploc bags on hand so those moisturizers don’t moisturize everything around them. And, of course, label any cartons with liquids inside as such.

Plants: Fighting Dirty

Using care and common sense should prove adequate for moving a customer’s plants on a local move. Placing the pot in a plastic garbage bag to keep dirt and water from getting away is a good start. Avoid wrapping the entire plant in plastic though; an appropriate-sized carton, loosely closed (or even left open) at the top, a few air holes punched in the sides maybe, and some packing paper on bottom around the pot to keep the plant from shifting are all good ways to keep a plant alive and intact in the course of a move. (And yes not letting the box get crushed in the truck is another good strategy.) Taller house plants can go in wardrobe boxes or in no box at all – though in this latter situation arrange the plant between other items for support so that it does not fall over in transport.

Moving from one state to another often requires some amount of regulation regarding living plants. Check with the appropriate states’ Department of Natural Resources to cover yourself and/or your customer on interstate moves, even if it’s ‘just over the border’. Also, the gypsy moth is one little bugger the US Department of Agriculture does not take lightly. Read this booklet to find out if you are in a state with restrictions and how to handle the situation.

For house plants in general, read the following from

Most states require plants coming in to be grown indoors in sterilized potting soil. You can purchase sterilized soil at your local lawn and garden shop. The labels will show you which mix contains the loam, peat, or sand your plants need.

If you cannot take your potted plants, consider cuttings. Wrap the cuttings in wet moss and newspaper and place them in unsealed bags. Place the bags in a carton and fill in around them with light packing material. Cuttings can survive several days of travel and take root when potted at your new home.

The ‘Untouchables’: Keeping it Clean

For safety reasons – like not wanting the customer’s belongings (or the truck) to catch fire and/or explode during a move – certain items are best left for the customer to handle personally. Some things are obvious: lighter fluid, propane tanks and the kid’s chemistry set. Other items may not present a readily-perceived problem but pose a hazard nonetheless, particularly in the warmer months and in hot climates: aerosol cans, paint thinner, cleaners and weed killers. Check out the items United Van Lines calls ‘unallowable’ (we think untouchable is a cooler term).

Also on United’s list – and, hopefully, in your observant mind – are certain categories of food, lumped into the ‘perishables’ category. Certainly this is much more crucial an issue on a long haul rather than a move across town or even the county but it is never a bad idea to discuss things with your customer beforehand. (In this industry, the proverb ‘It is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission’ definitely does not apply!)

Note also our suggestions on which important, personal items the customer should move themselves (or, in the case of a local move, keeping a special eye on these things): cash, jewelry and other forms of financial attraction; items of sentimental value like photographs and home videos – which in some cases can never be replaced; documents like financial records, medical reports, car titles, deeds and other papers which can be replaced but what a nightmare that can be. As with plants and other potential items of minor or major catastrophe, point out these things to your customer and agree on an acceptable way of handling them.

One of our listed helpers, DN Van Lines and Storage, has produced a helpful compendium of videos. check them out for a good tutorial for yourself or your guys or even to get a few new ideas to add to your expertise:

How to Pack Wardrobe Boxes

How to Pack Unpackables

How to Pack Plants