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Oy! Packing and Shipping Woes

Practical advice on packing an instrument for safe shipping

I bet you all read the title and said, “Kebo is throwing us a fluff piece.” Well, I guarantee you will learn a heck of a lot from this month’s column. If you don’t, feel free to send me hate mail.

Sooner or later, we all ship an instrument. Not everyone who “knows how to pack” does it correctly, and if you pack an instrument poorly, the consequences can be dire. You would not believe some of the horrendous packing jobs I’ve received.

For example, a “professional” packing service recently shipped me a ’70s Jazz bass for a customer. Lacking a proper carton, the shippers improvised a container from two small coat boxes. They jammed the bass in its gig bag upside down in the boxes, threw in half a sheet of bubble wrap, pinched and taped the boxes together, and called it a day.

When the bass arrived, I was sure it was totaled, so I took photos and videotaped us unpacking the container. But fate smiled on my client David. Amazingly, his bass arrived without a mark. It was still in tune! But you don’t want to trust fate, right? It might not be so kind to you.

Do your homework.
Before you even pack the bass, make sure you can get it to your destination. Some carriers do not ship to PO boxes, and not all carriers service every foreign city. The biggest myth is that USPS ships a $1000 bass for $120 to Europe. I’ve even been called a liar when I told a customer this wasn’t possible. Sometimes you have an overvalue issue, sometimes it’s a length issue. You have a 50/50 shot of success shipping your bass with USPS overseas. All the carriers have a website where you can get an accurate rate quote, so get this sorted out right up front.

A word of advice: Never ship a bass only in its case. Trust me, your claim will be denied. A few years ago, I bought a Bi-Centennial T-Bird at an online auction. The bass was shipped only in its case, and when I received it, the case was wrapped in cellophane with a sticker that informed me the case had come open during transit. The bass arrived safe and sound, only by the hand of the bass gods.

Get the right supplies.
Look, you don’t want to be dumpster diving at 2 a.m. in the rain because you don’t have a carton. Check the web for carton-supply vendors who have the proper 50x9x20, 275 pound test cardboard boxes, sold in five-packs. They also have peanuts, tape, and everything else you’ll need to do the job right. These vendors can be up to 70 percent cheaper than going to a retailer and purchasing single-volume supplies. If you sell a few basses over the course of the year, you’ll come out way ahead getting your supplies online.

Another good option is to beg for a bicycle box. These are usually heavier duty than instrument cartons you might find at a music store, and bike shops seem to be happy that you’re taking some of their garbage.

Be aware.
Certain basses require special care when you pack them. Gibson Thunderbirds from 1963 to 1979 come in two variations: Those with repaired headstocks, and those with soon-to- be-broken headstocks. Let’s eliminate the latter category! You have this giant headstock on top of a lollypop-stick nut fighting insane amounts of tension. Any weird tap can break the neck, but that’s only half the battle. The G-tuner and the tip of the headstock rest on the inside back of the case, and Thunderbird cases are simply too narrow. When shipping one, remove the G-tuner and saddle, store them in a zip bag and tape it inside the case pocket.

When shipping Rickenbackers and other basses that have box-back Grover tuners, wrap a sheet of newspaper around the headstock and secure with masking tape around the headstock and the back of the tuners. I’ve seen these tuners come apart in shipping—you will lose parts and they’ll mar the finish.

This next tip is insanely critical. Cold weather could check your finish and hot weather could make your finish “furry.” Express shipping will certainly help alleviate weather concerns—it can be an important decision.

Packing Tips.
Inside the carton, your bass needs to be in a case or gig bag. And be sure to clean it prior to shipping. If a dirty bass is exposed to heat, the dirt can become embedded right into the finish—I’ve seen this happen. Never under any circumstance wrap your bass directly in bubble wrap or let it contact peanuts or any other plastic-based products. The worst case of damage I’ve ever seen was a bass shipped to my friend Jim Singleton, at Jim’s Guitars. He received a ’78 Sunburst P-bass wrapped in bubble wrap that melted the finish. Newspaper is fine. Use just enough to prevent side-to-side or back-and-forth movement.

Tape any small, loose parts—such as truss rod wrenches and keys—into the case or bag pocket. I’ve seen lots of key scratches. Tune your bass down a step or two to reduce string tension against the neck. This way the bass has a better chance of surviving if the box gets whacked.

If you are doing the packing, remember this rule: Gravity kills. When you tape the bottom of the box, tape the entire bottom in both directions. I’ve seen more boxes where the top is sealed tight, yet the bottom has only two pieces of tape. After the box bottom is taped, slide the bass case or bag into the center of the box. Thoroughly pack around the bass and lightly compress your filler. Tape the box top the same way as the bottom. And make sure your bass is packed with the neck up. Draw arrows pointing up, and mark the box “fragile.”

Place your shipping tag on the top of the box rather than its sides. This will give you a better shot of shipping right side up. You must check the carrier’s website to see how much padding is required in case of a claim.

When a professional does your packing, confirm that if there is a claim, they assume the liability and not you. Also confirm that they have successfully packed and shipped a bass before and determine what they are using to pack your bass. Ask questions—make sure they know what they are doing. If you sense they don’t know a bass guitar from a striped bass, give them a copy of this article and tell them KeBo sends his love.

I’d like to dedicate this column to my dear pal, Zeb Cash-Lane, who passed away in February. Zeb, rock on in heaven, my brother!

Kevin Borden has been playing bass since 1975. He is the principal and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works (visit them online at You can reach Kevin at Feel free to call him KeBo.