How To Pack

Vintage Computer collectors can get equipment from almost anywhere. From yard sales to junk yards there are always interesting old items available for those who are interested.

When the equipment is located close to home it is a simple matter to get the collectables into the collection in one piece. When the items are located far from the home; purchased online, bought on vacation, etc, then the prospects of getting them back in one piece get more difficult.

The typical shipping services don't make things easy, either. The United States Postal Service, for instance, isn't exactly gentle with packages and UPS and Federal Express are sometimes downright nasty to what they transport. Smaller freight and shipping companies can be better, but not always.

So, what is a collector to do?

The best answer is to pack your items very, very well for shipment and go with the service that makes the most sense in your delivery area.


Boxes are the easiest thing to get wrong when packing an old computer. When a manufacturer creates a new product the packaging for that product is engineered to match it. Styrofoam inserts are designed to conform both to the box and the contents and the box itself is sized and built appropriately to fit and protect the contents.

With old computers the original packaging is rarely available and if it is then preserving it is almost as important as preserving the machines. We are usually forced to re-engineer the packaging for the machine which means, for starters, selecting the right boxes.

For most equipment I strongly recommend double boxing. This has two advantages. First and most obvious is that it affords extra protection to the contents. Second, in the event of damage, double boxing makes it easier to file a claim against the shippers insurance.

The outer box is the most important item since it will bear the brunt of any handling. It should be as strong as possible and should have originally held an item of a similar weight to what you are shipping. Thinner cardboard boxes originally designed to hold children's toys on a pallet, for instance, offer little protection to 50 pound computers being shipped via UPS.

I usually look for strong equipment boxes from modern computer systems or monitors. They are typically made from extra strong or even double-layered corrugated cardboard and often have reinforced corners. Any box that could protect a 19" monitor in transit is probably an excellent candidate to protect a 25 year old computer. Keep in mind that the box will have to be big enough for what you are packing plus the packing materials needed to protect it. In most cases it should be at least six inches larger then your item(s) in all dimensions.

Once the outer box is selected an inner box, if you are using one, needs to be found as well. This box doesn't need to be as strong as the outer box, although that wouldn't hurt, but it does need to be big enough to enclose the item(s) to be shipped plus packing materials. Look for a box that is at least three inches bigger then your item(s) in each dimension. Don't make it too big or you'll need too much packing material and you'll spend extra on shipping.

Avoid creating boxes if at all possible, especially for the outer box. Created boxes are usually made by sizing down larger boxes or by taping smaller boxes together. These are rarely strong enough to support the intended contents.

Packing Materials

Packing materials are what pad the spaces between your boxes and your items. These materials should be selected carefully. Poorly packed items are usually that way for lack of padding rather then poor boxing.

My first rule of packing is simple. Styrofoam peanuts are evil. Avoid them at all costs. There are a variety of reasons for this but the biggest is that they tend to disintegrate when pressure is applied and the small, statically charged chunks of Styrofoam are a real pain to clean up. Formed Styrofoam packaging from other items is just as evil if not worse since it usually has to be broken up to fit the items being boxed.

One of the best packing materials is bubble wrap. Heavy items should be wrapped in at least two or three layers of large bubble wrap and smaller items at least one. The bubble wrap should be taped around the items, not to them, so that it stays in place but can be easily removed without damaging the wrapped items. A good bubble-wrapping also has the benefit of being water resistant which adds an extra level of protection.

For especially delicate parts (such as LEDs, front panel switches, etc.) cardboard or foam padding can and should be formed to secure and protect them from jarring. I've even seen the cardboard cups from egg cartons cut out and used to protect switches.

For particularly heavy or delicate items foam-in-place packaging is even better then bubble wrap. Foam-in-place is a substance that is sprayed into a box to fill up voids. The spray will foam up and then solidify creating form-fitted packing for the items. This service is offered by packing companies (The UPS store, for instance, offers it at some locations) for a fee. Expect to spend $20 on up per box for this. It's well worth it for valuable items.

Preparing the Items for Shipping

Most computers and related items should be prepared for the rigors of shipping before they are put in the box. This means securing loose items and padding or packaging fragile ones separately.

For system units that contain cards, for instance, the moving process will typically put strains on these cards that they are not designed to handle. In older systems these cards are rarely secured in their sockets and will often fall out and bounce around inside of the computer. This is usually a bad thing.

Ideally, all cards should be removed from the system unit and packaged separately in a static safe package such as pink bubble wrap or anti-static bags designed for that purpose. These cards can then be packaged safely outside of their slots. Be sure to make up a map of where the cards and connectors go, especially for slot-sensitive systems.

Even if you are confident that the cards in your system are secure in their slots it's still a good idea to put some static-safe padding between and around the cards just in case.

Disk drives are another area of concern and care should be taken to ensure that these delicate devices survive their trip.

Hard drives should be "parked" if possible. This puts the heads over a crash area that doesn't hold data in case they get bumped badly. Most hard drive based systems came with a utility to do this when it was needed. Some later drives automatically move the heads to a landing area when the power is removed.

Floppy drives are also sensitive and should be packaged with something to protect the heads. Ideally this will be the shipping cardboard that comes in every drive. Since few of these survive even the first day of computer ownership a scratch disk will work as a substitute. Just don't pack the systems only boot disk or your most valuable data in the drives for shipping.

Cases themselves can be roughed up in transit if they aren't properly secured. Be sure that all screws are in place and tightened firmly to prevent case parts from moving around and damaging each other. For screw free cases (such as the Apple ][ case) you should either wrap the system tightly to keep the parts together or simply wrap them separately.

Packing the Items

It's not enough, unfortunately, to just bubble-wrap everything and toss it into the box(es). The way things are tossed into boxes is almost as important to keeping things intact.

The first rule of thumb should be to isolate heavy items. This is best accomplished by boxing these items separately or, if they share a box, making sure that there is lots of padding and extra protection between them. For instance, if you are packing a CPU and a monitor it is usually best to put each in a separate box and then, if possible, pack those boxes into a larger outer box or even to ship each in separate containers. If that can't be accomplished then at least put a piece of heavy cardboard between the wrapped items to help isolate them further.

Smaller items can be packed in with bigger ones to help provide isolation or to fill voids. Manuals and boxes of disks, for instance, aren't heavy enough to damage equipment and, when wrapped, can provide extra padding between bigger pieces.

Items should be packed into the center of the inner box and padded to the edges of the box with filler materials such as extra bubble wrap, foam or crumpled newspaper. Enough padding should be used to fill all of the voids between the items and the box firmly enough to prevent the items from shifting.

If a second box is being used the inner box should be placed in the middle of the outer box and padded around all six sides with crumpled newspaper, bubble wrap or, in an emergency, styrofoam peanuts.

Before sealing the box always place something with the delivery address inside the package in case the external lables get lost or damaged.

Once everything is properly packed and padded the boxes should be securely taped along all edges. I usually apply a double or triple layer of tape to each flap and then use a single layer on the edges.

Be sure to use proper packing tape. Never substitute masking tape or duct tape when sealing your boxes. It doesn't hold up as well and it can make insurance claims more difficult.

Picking a Shipper

The one common theme amongst shippers is that they really don't care about your package as much as you do. If they did you wouldn't have to worry about packing as carefully as described above.

With that in mind you should assume that your shipper will not treat your package well regardless of how many "fragile" stickers you use on it. You should, therefore, select your shipper for cost and convenience and then just pack as well as you can to prevent rough handling from damaging your items.

Federal Express offers a ground service which is priced very competitively with UPS Ground. Both services will deliver a box from coast to coast in about a week and both will pick up and deliver to almost any address. I generally prefer FedEx Ground myself, but your experience will depend on your local hub and drivers more then anything.

If you are located in an area served by only one or the other then your choice is easy. If you are served by both then you can comparison shop rates or try both services until you figure out which one appears more gentle.

The US Post Office also handles packages and, for some, they can be the best option. If your items fall into the guidelines for Media Mail, for instance, you'll be hard pressed to ship cheaper via any other service. For normal parcels I usually don't go with the post office because they are either slower or more expensive then the other shippers and because they don't seem to take any better care of the packages they handle.

For larger items both UPS and FedEx offer a freight service as well. This service is usually comparable in price and quality to what is offered by smaller freight firms. You'll have to use freight on items too large or heavy for the normal parcel shipments.

Insurance and Other Additional Services

This is more a factor of comfort level then anything, but there are three things that should be strongly considered for any package of value:

  1. Tracking so that the shipper and the recipient can determine where the package is and when it will arrive.
  2. Delivery Confirmation so that there is a record of package delivery.
  3. Insurance to cover any losses, partial or full, that might be incurred.

For Federal Express and UPS these options are all provided for the cost of shipping with insurance usually covering the first $100 of value. Additional insurance can be purchased from each company and should be for more valuable items. For USPS packages each of these is optional at additional cost.

If Something Goes Wrong

Sometimes even the best packing efforts go unrewarded and the contents of your package are damaged. When this happens you will need to file a claim with the shipper. For UPS and FedEx it's usually as easy as calling and telling them about the damage. They will collect the package and contents and do an internal investigation to determine what, if any, responsibility they will bear. If the item was well packed and there is obvious damage to the outer box you shouldn't have an issue with a claim. Just be sure you can document the condition of the item(s) both before and after they were shipped.

On claims that the shipper pays for your items are forfeit. If your claim is denied then you should get the items back. If you ask, however, you can often get the insurance settlement and then buy back your damaged items from the shipper. Just be sure to let them know you'll want them back since they do get discarded pretty quickly.

If your claim does get denied, don't give up. Call back and bump the claim up the line. Who knows, you might get lucky! If you still get denied but you think you have a good case you can always try small claims court. . .

One thing to remember is that the shipper is responsible for filing claims, not the recipient. If you buy old machines online you either have to trust the buyer to follow through on the claim or you have to send pre-paid shipping tags with your payment. For any items I'm concerned about (which is most of what I buy) I do the latter. You can print tags from both the UPS and Fedex sites.

Quick Tip Sheet

  • Pack items very well
  • Separate large or heavy items into multiple boxes
  • Isolate big items from each other so they don't bang together
  • Double box as appropriate if possible
  • Bubble wrap is your friend, Styrofoam is not
  • Tape the boxes securely and thoroughly
  • Choose your shipper carefully