How To Pack A Guitar for Shipping Safely

This one’s a bit long but it’s an important topic. Even if it’s not relevant to you now, bookmark it, or Evernote it, or scratch it in tiny writing into your se7en notebook, because someday, your guitar or bass might need to travel. It might have to go through the post, or a shipping service, or in the hold of a plane.

The are dangerous places for a guitar. The following tips should go a long way to making sure your guitar makes it safely to the other side.

The Case

First up, don’t even think of shipping your guitar if it’s not in a decent hard case. Once or twice, I’ve had instruments turn up by courier in flimsy gig bags. While they made it ok (luckily/weirdly), this really is playing Russian roulette with your guitar.

Hard case! Hard. Case. OK?

The Box

Now, pop to your friendly, neighbourhood guitar store and wear your nicest smile. Ask the nice person behind the counter if they have any packing boxes that might fit your case. Usually they’ll have some cardboard boxes that their own guitars arrive in and—if you’re pleasant and charming—they’ll usually be happy to let you take one.

The best one is a box that your case will fit in with room to spare at the bottom, top and sides. Find the sturdiest one you can. If you can find a double-thickness one, brilliant.

Got the box? Great. You’re on track. We’ll pack it later. First we need to get the instrument snug inside the case.

Preparing The Instrument For Packing

Don’t just pop your guitar in the case as if you’re heading to a neighbour’s house for a jam. Your instrument will probably receive some punishment on its travels so take some precautions.

  1. Detune a little. You don’t need the strings flopping or anything but drop it down a few steps.
  2. If you’ve an archtop, remove the bridge now and place it in the internal case pocket. Same goes for any raised pick guards—unscrew and pop in the case pocket. Now place a little padding (a little foam, or a flannel, or similar) between the tailpiece and the body.
  3. If the endpin can be removed on your acoustic or archtop, do so and place it in the case pocket.
  4. Place some padding (a few sheets of folded newspaper or a towel) between the strings and the fretboard/nut.

Packing The Instrument In The Case

This part’s really important.

The main danger areas of an instrument shipped in a case are

  1. The headstock: It shouldn’t touch the back or top of the case when the guitar’s packed.
  2. The heel: Often, there’s a ‘gap’ between it and the case. We need to pad here.
  3. The endblock: Especially on archtops and acoustics. A whack here can shove the endpin, cracking the sides or even the endblock.

You’re going to need newspaper. Lots of newspaper. Bubble-wrap also works great.

First, take a bundle of newspaper pages (or cut some hunks of bubble-wrap) and crumple them up individually. You’ll end up with load of newspaper balls.

Start under the heel area (where the neck joins the body) and add some of your paper balls. What you want to do is to fill any gap that exists between the rear of the guitar and the case. You can also use a folded newspaper/magazine like I’ve done in the photos below. Don’t worry if doing this raises the neck off the case’s neck-support a little—that’s pretty much what we want.

Pad under the heel area of a guitar when packing for shipping

Folded newspaper (or crumpled sheets) work well

Now move to the headstock. Fill all around with crumpled paper, being especially careful to ensure the rear/end of the headstock does not touch the case at all—we don't want to 'transmit' any shock through the case to the headstock. 

Crumpled paper under the headstock helps prevent broken necks. You want most support as shown.

Fill up other gaps with more crumpled paper

Down to the end of the guitar. Pad around the endpin with folded sheets of paper or bubble-wrap. The idea is to prevent that endpin taking all the force of an impact in this area. Pad out the area around it but not the endpin itself.

Now, back to the neck. Pad under the neck—between the neck and the neck support of the case. Our previous padding should have raised the neck a little and that’s good. We don’t want that support acting like a sort of ‘fulcrum’ for the neck. Some paper balls between the neck and the case support (usually where the pocket is) will help here.

Nearly there.

Back at the body, check for any sideways movement. Anywhere there is a gap or some movement, pad it.

You’ll end up with something like the photo below.

Headstock, neck, endpin, sides, and heel padded to cushion and prevent movement.

Some people like to pad the top but I don’t like to do this on an acoustic or archtop. I think it adds more risk than it saves.

Phew. That was a lot of work and we’re not finished yet.

Packing the Case in the Box

Hopefully you’ve been able to find a good, sturdy box with room to spare around the sides of your case.

Start with the bottom (end).

We need some protection down here. Use a rolled or crumpled hunk of bubble-wrap. Or, use some heavy packing paper crumpled up (newspaper’s a bit flimsy for this bit).

Empty plastic bottles can also work. I’d advise you unscrew the lid, give ‘em a little squeeze, and re-screw tightly. This ‘slightly under-inflated’ condition gives them a little more resilience to bursting in the event of a hard knock. Use whatever sizes are needed to fill a layer at the bottom.

Then, in with the case.

Now you want to fill any gaps between the sides of the case and the box. Packing paper is good here too. Same routine—crumple it up and wedge it in. You want to stop any movement inside the box.

And, with that in mind, if there’s a gap at the front and back, fill it too. Extra sheets of cardboard are great here if you can get some.

Packing peanuts suck a bit. Almost nobody uses them properly (they settle) and it means whoever unpacks has to deal with them. Personally, I don’t like them. If that’s all you can get, though go for it. Better than than nothing.

Once all the gaps are filled well, seal it up. Packing tape is the order of the day. Go and buy some—don’t use wimpy gift-wrap/stationery tape. Don’t use duct tape either—it’s great for many jobs but this isn’t one of them.

Outside The Box

If you’re courier-shipping, don’t write addresses, in huge black letters, on the box. The couriers will stick on a small label and ignore everything else.

Write ‘Fragile’ on the case or print off a few of those ‘broken wine glass’ symbols from the internet and stick ‘em on.

Now Insure It

Check what insurance cover your shipping company provides. Some are woefully inadequate. Often you get what you pay for, so you need to make a careful decision about what cover to take. I know you’ll be tempted to undervalue but think very hard about that. If you’re shipping a nice guitar (or a valuable guitar—they’re not always the same thing), don’t scrimp.

Whatever you choose to do, read the small print and make sure you are happy.

For some valuable instruments, you may already have a separate insurance policy. If so, call your provider to make sure that shipping is covered.

The Bottom Line

This is a LOT of hassle to do properly. I know that. I also know what can happen if you don’t do it properly. I’ll be happy to repair your guitar if it’s broken in shipping but I’m guessing you’d rather I didn’t have to.

And, I should mention, none of this guarantees your guitar will arrive at the other end unscathed but it drastically increases your chances.

If you’ve got a guitar you care about, I reckon it’s worth the trouble.