How to Build A Shipping Crate

November 22, 2011 by davidslonim

Yellowstone Remembered (60 x 48)

I need to ship a 60 x 48 oil painting to Denver.  One small problem– the exhibition requires a wooden crate, and I have never built one before.

How do you build a shipping crate?  Beats me!  So I called three artist friends and one gallery director to ask.   Here’s what I learned:

Step 1)  Get advice. Call somebody and ask every dumb question you have.

Here’s the basic idea for a crate:

  • Build a wooden box / frame from 1 x 6 boards to make the sides
  • 3/8″ plywood for the front / lid and back / bottom.
  • Line it with  1 1/2 ” rigid foam (extruded polystyrene insulation foam, sold in 4 x 8 sheets at Menards, Lowes, Home Depot, etc).
  • Put handles on it.
  • Write opening instructions on the lid to make life easier on the crew receiving it, and to reduce the risk of damage to the artwork

How do you determine the dimensions?

Length and width: I measured the outer dimensions of the frame (49 3/4 x 61 3/4), then added 3″ (1 1/2″ of foam all around) to both dimensions.    Now it’s 52 3/4″ x 64 3/4.  The 1 x 6 walls of the box are really only about 3/4″ wide, so adding the walls of the box brings the outer dimensions of the crate to 54 1/4 x 66 1/4.

Height: The frame is 2 1/4″ high + 3″ foam liner top and bottom = 5 1/4″ tall.  A  1 x 6 board is really only about 5 1/2″ wide, so that will be a perfect size for the box frame.

Lid and back: The length and width of the crate will be the dimensions of the plywood lid and back.   But because plywood only comes 48″ wide by 96″ long, and the lid needs to be 54 1/4″ wide, the lid and back will be made from two pieces of plywood each.  The seam in the middle will be reinforced with a 1 x 4 glued and screwed.

Foam liner: The foam liner for the back of the crate and for the lid side will need to be 49 3/4″ wide, so those will also require two sheets each of polystyrene foam.


Step 2)  Plan. Draw a picture.  (This is the easy part– you’re an artist!)  Make a supply list to take to the store.

Shopping list:

  • (4 ) sheets of 3/8″ plywood
  • (2) 1 x 6 boards 6′ long
  • (2) 1 x 6 boards 5′ long
  • (4) 1 x 4 boards 5′ long
  • 1 1/4″ wood screws
  • (4) pieces of extruded polystyrene foam insulation 48″ x 96″
  • (1) tube of foamboard adhesive (to glue the foam liner to the wood)
  • (1) roll of plastic sheeting to wrap the painting (protection from foam crumbs and dirt)

Total Cost:  about $230.00

Since I’m not gifted in carpentry,  I took a faithful companion shopping with me – my fear of failure.

The supplies loaded in my van.  I spent about three hours shopping at Lowe’s and Menard’s.

The freight elevator in my building.



  • razor blade or snap-off knife
  • circular saw
  • cordless drill/ driver
  • wood glue
  • tape measure
  • pencil
  • caulking gun
  • safety glasses

I was going to build this alone, but by chance I mentioned to my friend Steve what I was up to that day and he offered to come help.   Here’s what I learned– and this was the biggest lesson of all: 

Step 3)  To build a crate this big, GET HELP. Unless you are a master carpenter or an octopus, you will need another set of hands to stabilize things while you are drilling, screwing, measuring, and assembling.

Steve didn’t really want to be in the photos, so he took most of the pictures.  But trust me, he was involved in every step and his help was absolutely essential. I could not have done this project alone.

Crate Building Rule #1:  NO FRIEND = NO CRATE.

Step 4)  Cut foam. A razor blade works well.  So does a cheap retractable snap-off blade knife.

laying out the pieces

Step 5)  “Measure twice, cut once.” Once the supplies were all unloaded into my studio, the first thing I did was lay the 1 x 6 boards for the sides of the crate out, with the foam liner pieces cut and positioned against the frame.  I wanted a tight fit with no wiggle room.   Before firing up the saw, I measured several times to be sure there were no mistakes.

The hallway was a good place to use the circular saw.  My apologies to the offices on my floor for the noise!

Step 6)  Join the corners of the frame. I used wood glue, then 1 1/4″ wood screws.

Step 7)  Drill holes for rope handles. I could have bought metal drawer handles but decide to try making rope handles.  Don at Lowe’s cut the lumber and the nylon rope pieces to 14″ , burning the ends to keep them from fraying.

As smoke from the rope curled up from the hot wire coil, he told me about his four tours of duty in Afghanistan– how he’s been shot at, how he was almost taken out by an incoming rocket while standing in line for lunch, how he had an I.E.D. blow up on the scoop of his front-end loader as he was clearing a construction site.  Amazing stuff.   He’s going back for another tour.  I thanked him for his service, and headed to Menard’s for the foam insulation.

Building time, Day One:  2 hours.


Step 8)  Make the back side of the crate. Tip:  have the lumber store cut the 1/4″ plywood slightly bigger than you need.   I laid the pieces on top of the frame, then marked them for cutting.

Step 9)  Pre-drill pilot holes, then screw the plywood to the frame. Pre-drilling keeps the plywood from splitting.  It speeds things up to have two drill/ drivers, one for the drill bit, one for the screw driver.  (Not to mention having a friend to help put screws in.)

pre-drilling screw holes

Step 10)  Glue foam pieces to sides of crate. I used glue specially made for foam.  Works just like caulking.

cutting the bottom foam piece

We inserted the frame into the box to see if the fit was good.  In two corners we had to carve the foam out.

Here’s the finished back side of the crate, complete with rope handles and –for that professional touch–two foam pieces that look like chew toys for a dog.

Step 11)  Make the front / lid. Two pieces of plywood.  We stabilized the seam with a 1 x 4 glued and screwed on the inside and one on the outside.


Total time building the crate:  4 hours.   But hey, it was my first time.

DAY 3:

Here’s the painting framed.  Metropolitan Picture Framing made the frame.  Another beauty.

To protect the painting from dust, saw dust, dirt, and foam crumbs inside the crate, I wrapped it in thin plastic sheeting.

The painting was lowered into the crate, a layer of 1 1/2 ” foam covered it, (not glued to the lid) and then the lid was slid into place and screwed on.   (The lid gets no wood glue so it can be opened easily.)

screwing on the lid


Last step) Put opening instructions on the lid.   I also painted my last name on the crate so the exhibition crew can easily identify it.


Fed Ex will be handling this.  Their freight department quoted this Indiana to Denver shipment at $325.00 but then offered to try and find me a better rate.  They transferred me to Doug at their  “Heavy Freight Desk”.  He found me a fantastic rate:  $195.00. Everybody on the phone at Fed Ex was professional, friendly, communicated clearly, and was eager to help.

To be diligent, I also called another shipping company, whose initials are the same as Uncle Phil’s Shuffleboard.  Talking to them was like dealing with customs officials in a third world country.   They did not seem at all eager to help me get the best rate, or even answer my questions.   Their quote:  $1,100.00.






Posted in A Work In Progress Blog | Tags: | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to How to Build A Shipping Crate

  1. Rob Shavr says:

    Being on canvas, I just assumed you would roll up the painting and put it in a tube… Silly me :)

  2. Cara says:

    This how-to is a godsend!! Thanks so much for writing it. Did your painting arrive okay??

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