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Packing instruments for shipping

 

As a general rule I always advise clients to bring their horns in for repair in person, but I do understand that this might not be possible for various reasons. This will mean having to send it in by post, and that can be a risky business. But there are a few things you can do to minimise that risk.

By far the most important thing you can do is ensure that the horn is properly packaged - and it's worth going into this in some detail as it's not always obvious what that means.
You might suppose that simply putting the horn in its case ought to be good enough, but a horn case is really only designed for lugging the instrument to and from gigs etc. Few cases are designed to cope with what you could call 'unaccompanied travel'. Those that are are typically referred to as 'flight cases' - for the simple reason that they're designed to protect the instrument from the rigours of airline travel. They are not cheap, and they're not at all practical on a day-to-day basis. Some cases offer a reasonable compromise - but these will almost always be from aftermarket manufacturers rather than the case that was supplied with your horn. And again, they're not cheap.

By far the biggest problem with a typical case is that it often doesn't fit the horn very well. If the instrument is able to move when the case is closed, the chances of it taking some damage in transit increases considerably. It's a bit like not wearing a seatbelt in a car; if the car hits an object large enough to stop it dead, you'll go flying out of your seat. It's much the same with horn cases - if you drop a sax case onto the floor and the horn inside it is able to move (even a little), it'll be thrown against the case with quite some force. You might suppose that the padding inside the case would prevent any damage from occurring - and yes, it may well limit it, but there's never going to be enough of it to dissipate all that energy. And that's when nasty things happen.
I call this 'case shock'. This is distinct from impact damage', which occurs when/if you drop a horn onto the floor. This usually results in a large dent or two, some bent keys and a hefty repair bill.
Case shock is much the same except that you're a lot less likely to see any dents. Bells can be bent out of line, pillars can be knocked over, keys can be thrown off...and yet there won't be a mark on the horn. It's still expensive to fix.

But before you even consider packing a horn up for shipping, you should get busy with a camera and take some photos. If the worst happens and your horn gets damaged in transit, it'll be helpful to have some 'before and after' shots when putting in a claim for damages. Take a good few shots of the horn, and take some of the case too. Cases are expensive - and it might turn out that it's the case that gets damaged rather than the horn.
If your instrument turns up here with obvious damage, I'll provide the 'after' shots - along with a detailed report if required.

The next thing to do when preparing a horn for shipping is to ensure that it's a snug fit in the case (including any accessories, such as the crook/neck). It doesn't really matter what you use to accomplish this. Bubble wrap is a popular choice, foam is good (the denser the better) and even some old rags will be better than nothing. But what you must do once you've fitted the extra padding is close the case, pick it up and give it a good shake. If you can't hear or feel anything moving about, you're good to go. Note that although some people advise that you clamp the keys down, I don't recommend it. The keys are designed to go up and down, and even a sharp impact won't move them with anywhere near as much force as soloist on a good night...and in the event of a knock the action of the springs will absorb some of the force of the impact.

A very well-packaged saxYou'll need a box to put the case in, and much the same rules apply. You need to aim for a snug fit - but you also need to aim for quite a lot of padding. The shock damage principle applies; if the package takes a tumble and hits the floor, the case will have to absorb much of the force of the impact. This is what you want to avoid.
My recommendation is that the box be large enough to take the case...with at least 80cm (3 inches) of padding all the way round. This last point is extremely important. If you skimp on one area you can bet your last Rico Royal reed that that's where the box will take a whack. If you have a big enough box and plenty of packing material, feel free to go larger with the padding.
For the padding itself the very best option is foam. Polystyrene is also a good bet. Packing beads will work, but it's very important that you pack them in tightly. If they're at all loose then case may well shift in transit and leave all your packing up one end of the box...and very little at the other.
Bubble wrap can be OK, but like packing beads you do have to pack it in rather tightly. It's less likely to move but not quite as good at absorbing the impacts. Similarly, foam underlay can work quite well.
Cardboard and paper (even rolled up) are my least recommended options. An alternative to filling a large box up with padding is to go for a suspended box. This is typically a very large box with either two or four end pieces that the case sits in - and the rest of the box is just, well, air.
Such boxes are very hard to come by though - but if you recently bought a vacuum cleaner or a set of large hi-fi speakers, you might find (with a bit of tweaking) that your horn will fit quite well.
This Yamaha alto turned up in just such a box. Not only was the case fitted between two polystyrene ends, it was sat on a pair of empty cardboard boxes. It's about the best packaging I've ever seen - apart from the client who sent his soprano in a well-padded box, inside a well-padded wooden crate. I doubt many of us would run to excess - but as long as you 'go big' you're unlikely to go far wrong. Just don't be tempted to put the case inside a small box and hope for the best. It's just asking for trouble.
If all else fails, just imagine holding your horn in its case at around head height, then dropping it onto the floor...with your thinnest area of padding inbetween. It's usually quite sobering.

Once the horn is boxed up make sure you tape it up extremely well. There should be at least two bands of tape that wrap around the entire perimeter of the case - one widthways, the other lengthways. I like to put two bands widthways, one lengthways and then tape up all the open seams as a minimum.
You now have to choose a courier, and I tend to recommend UPS. I would like to be able to say that they have never damaged a horn in transit, but I can't. I can say, however, that of all the services I've used down the years, they seem to be the most reliable - and because they always turn up in a very distinctive van you're a lot less likely to get scammed (something that's on the increase these days).
Damaged sax caseYou may want to consider adding some insurance to the cost of the delivery. Insuring a horn for its full value is likely to be very expensive (typically around £70 for a £4000 horn) - but £300's worth of insurance usually comes in at around £25-30 and will very likely cover you for any damage the horn might receive in transit. I appreciate it's all a bit of a gamble, and if such things concern you you should check the courier's terms and conditions very carefully.
When it comes to my sending the horn back to you, I will use UPS and bill you for £300's worth of insurance. I will also use the packaging your horn came in - so it's worth making an effort in this respect.
I mentioned earlier that bringing an instrument in personally is the best bet - but a good compromise is that of sending it in by courier and then collecting it in person. If that's at all feasible I really do recommend it.

For more advice about packing a horn for transit, check out this useful series of videos on YouTube.

And if all of that isn't enough to convince you of the need for good packaging, here are some shots of a horn that wasn't as well-packed as it ought to have been.
They made two big mistakes. The first was that although the box was big enough to provide plenty of room for padding around the sides of the case, the ends of the case were touching the box and so had no impact protection at all. They also used crumpled-up paper and bits of cardboard for the packing - which isn't very shock absorbent at all.

Impact damaged altoThe first sign that all was not well was the state of the box. It looked rather crumpled - though there was no sign that the cardboard had been pierced. When I pulled the case out I found that it had a huge dent in it.
I can't even begin to imagine what sort of impact could have done this much damage to the case. It's a Hiscox case; they're very good cases - perhaps not the best-padded cases out there, but the fibreglass shell is practically bombproof. Something hit the box hard enough to go right through the padding and bend the aluminium weather strip out of shape.

It didn't bode well for the sax inside - and sure enough, the bell had been knocked clean out of line. That low C/Eb key is supposed to be straight; the whole bottom bow has been twisted round.
The client has been lucky (well, reasonably lucky); the horn's bell brace absorbed a lot of the impact, and the bottom bow joint gave way and allowed the bow to twist. Had this not happened, or had it been a vintage horn with a soldered bow joint, it would have been very much worse indeed. As it happens, a straightening out of the bell brace and resealing the bottom bow joint once the bell is aligned will pretty much sort this horn - with perhaps a couple of new pads. And there's not a mark on it. That's case shock for you.

 

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