Packing a sewing machine

I've bought a quite a number of sewing machines that arrived damaged, some badly. The sellers were surprised that a 'well packed' machine could arrive thoroughly smashed up. Most had put effort into the packing, but effort is not the same thing as results. Some mistakes are only obvious in retropect.

Mailing a vintage 35-40 pound sewing machine, especially if it's in a fragile wooden case, requires far more care than it may seem. Most senders put machine in a case, lock it shut, pack the case in a big box full of styrofoam peanuts, or toss an unprotected head into a box of crumpled newspaper and mail it on its way. A machine packed this way is nearly guaranteed to arrive badly damaged. Carry cases are only designed to hold a machine upright and are usually more fragile than the machines they're supposedly protecting. Cast iron is far more brittle than you might think. The best you can hope is that the case will get wrecked, sparing the machine. More often, both will be damaged.

There's no need to follow these directions exactly, but it's important to do a similarly complete job. This is approximately the minimum required for successfully delivering an undamaged machine.

Shipping insurance

So you may think to yourself, "Isn't this what shipping insurance is supposed to protect against?"

"No". Insurance is not a substitute for adequate packaging, and a poor packing job is not gambling as much as it is a near-guarantee of failure. Most carriers (including UPS and USPS) will not honor an insurance claim if there's no sign of damage to the outside of the packaging. The majority of the damaged machines I've received showed no hint of damage before I opened them (except for the box rattling).

Insurance protects against two things: loss of the package and a package that was obviously and visibly damaged by equipment. USPS will give you your money back if someone put a forklift through the box but not if the box was merely dropped. And that brings us to the next point...

Dropped boxes

Most people also believe writing 'fragile' on the outside of a box with a magic marker means the box will be handled by careful men wearing white gloves working in warehouses carpeted with soft pillows. More than one eBay seller has tried to sell me the line, "It's not my responsibility if the box got dropped!".

Each and every box you hand to UPS, USPS, DHL, etc, is tossed, rolled, crushed under heavier boxes, and dropped multiple times from several feet. If you want a machine to arrive in one unbroken piece, pack the box to survive a four-to-six foot drop onto concrete. No, that's not an exaggeration. If your box falls off a conveyor belt while it's being loaded into a plane (or truck or train) and the insides get smashed, as far as the shipper is concerned, that's your problem and your fault. Watch the baggage handlers at an airport; packages are handled about the same way.

At this point, you, the packer, might be feeling slightly discouraged. Good! That means you're taking this seriously and don't want a machine damaged in transit. Don't worry, keep reading, and don't cut corners. On the other hand, if you're scoffing at all this, I'm serious: Just quit now. Don't bother. Save us all the trouble of ruining another sewing machine.


Cases, especially vintage wooden cases, are far more fragile than most people realize. Cases are only designed to hold a machine upright. Even if you carefully check that a sewing machine is correctly attached to the hinges, the hinge screws are tight and the hinges are properly bolted to the case, the likelihood of the hinges breaking or pulling free is pretty high. The case itself is often not strong enough to withstand the weight of the machine upside down or on its side. The latches on the average case are usually just strong enough to hold a machine when carried. Latches warp and break easily even if a case is dropped only a few inches.

Although I'm going to illustrate how to pack a machine inside a case below, it really is best to send case and machine separately in their own boxes (unless the case is meant only for shipping protection, and it getting damaged in transit is acceptable). Even if no case is involved, an invulnerable-looking cast iron machine is more fragile than it seems. A sad statistic: I've not yet received an undamaged Singer 27 in the mail. Each and every one has arrived with at least a broken hand wheel, in each case because of a poor packing job.

Loose objects

Do not pack any loose objects in the same container or case as a machine. Do not try to stow them in the base under the machine or in the storage compartment often located next to the machine. Do not just toss them into the box. The pictures to the left show what happens when something packed in with a machine gets loose and spends the journey rattling free against the machine. This machine had perfect decals when sent; not a single chip just some crazing. All the damage is due to a pair of shears the seller had thrown in as a 'bonus' and stowed under the machine base. They got out and gouged up the entire surface of a rare machine.

All pieces that are not directly attached to the machine or are easily removable should be wrapped and boxed separately. This includes the power cord, attachments, mounts and holders attached to the inside of the lid and the lid handle. Small pieces should go into one or more baggies that are also wrapped and boxed. It's not a bad idea to remove and box the motor separately as well (especially later plastic motors; the moulded mounting boxes are more fragile than they appear. They will snap right off of the mount).

Packing onto the base

If a machine is to be packed inside a case, we begin by packing and securing the machine onto the base. Fill the area under the machine with bubble wrap as padding for the base in case the base mounts fail.

Be absolutely certain that the machine is well secured to the base; this means checking that the machine is on its hinges, the hinge set screws (securing the machine base to the hinges) are tight and that the hinges themselves are also properly bolted and tightened. Also be sure that the clip that holds the base down at the third point is locked and tightened. Most machines I receive have come off the hinges because one or more of these points have been missed. On modern plastic cases, the hinges or swing clip may be fragile enough that the machine is barely secured even if you've done everything right. The rest of our packing will take up this slack.

Once the machine is secured to the built in mounts, use pallet wrap (it's like thicker, stiffer saran wrap on a spool) to tightly wrap it onto the base as an additional layer to help keep things in place.

Wrapping the arm

The single biggest mistake an inexperienced packer makes is to put the a machine into a case with no protective packing inside the case. Additional packing material inside the case both helps hold the machine in place on its mounts and also prevents damage to the case and machine if the mounts come apart (which they do, often). A single broken hinge is far less severe than a completely wrecked machine.

First, remove the spool pin if it will come off easily and package it with the other loose items. If the spool pin won't remove easily (they've often been tapped into place with a mallet, and getting them off would leave plier marks. OTOH, replacement spool pins cost almost nothing), put a spool of thread or twine on the pin such that the pin itself is completely shielded inside. We want to prevent the pin punching through the top of the case should the machine or lid come free in transit.

Next, wrap the arm completely in multiple layers of bubble wrap. Secure each layer of bubble wrap in place with pallet wrap. Build up a cushion of wrap large enough that it fills the case lid. Don't add so much that the lid must be forced into place; use just enough to fill the case lid completely.

Although it's not necessary to remove the motor, the motor is usually much closer to the lid sides than other parts of the machine. There may not be space to cover the side of the motor against the lid with any bubble wrap at all. This is fine; cover it with as much bubble wrap as will fit if any, and wrap around it the rest of the way. If the rest of the machine is secure inside the case and lid, the motor will also be well protected.

If a machine is being packed without a case, it needs to be wrapped just as carefully, including the base. Thin sheets of foam and bubble wrap are the materials of choice for wrapping a machine. Peanuts of some sort are best for filling in extra space (foam or cornstarch are both fine). The little inflatable plastic bags of air also work very well. Although crumpled up newspaper is fine for lighter things, it stands no chance of providing any meaningful amount of cushioning for somthing as heavy as a cast-iron sewing machine. It smashes flat and quickly becomes useless.

Packing the case

After removing the lid handle and the metal bits inside the lid (packing them separately, see 'Loose objects' above), fill the top of the lid with enough packing (bubble wrap, foam, rags) to take up all the space between the top of the lid and machine, and place the lid over the machine onto the base. Latch and lock it in place, wrap it securely closed with several layers of pallet wrap, and wrap the entire case in two or three layers of bubble wrap, secured in place with pallet wrap.

Next, box the case with an inch or two of peanuts on all sides. Paranoid shippers often build a box out of Masonite, fiberboard or plywood instead of using cardboard. It might be worth it for a truly valuable machine. In this case, I'm sending an already damaged 99 back for a refund, so the machine isn't actually worth much.

Double boxing is not just being silly. First, remember that we're protecting the case too. The extra layer of cardboard may not seem like much, but it's an effective force spreader when there's packing on both sides. Also, having an inner and outer layer of peanuts instead of one big layer of peanuts allows the inner contents less opportunity to shift around; the cardboard is acting as a stiffener/baffle in the 'fluid' of the peanuts.

So don't just pop the case into one big box full of peanuts; that's what happened to the machine in the dropped box picture above. It was otherwise well packed, but was sent in only one big box full of peanuts and it settled and shifted through them. The box got dropped onto the corner into which the machine had settled and the base split completely in two.

When a machine is being packed without a case, the inner box is even more important; the smaller and more irregular the object, the easier it is for it to move around in the packing material and end up along one side where it can be damaged. Packaging is worthless if it's all on the side that isn't absorbing a blow!

Double boxing

Tape up the inner box. At the point of the first pic below, you've possibly lost track of which side is 'up' and if you've done everything right you should not care in the slightest. The shipping company certainly won't. Pick up the box and shake it-- does anything feel floppy or loose inside? If not, everything's ready for double boxing.

Don't scrimp on choosing a large enough outer box. It must allow at least three inches of peanuts on all sides, preferably more. In my pics, I'm a little under that. I admit I'm cheating on this particular machine because it's already damaged and so isn't actually worth much.

Place the box of wrapped loose objects between the inner and outer boxes, making sure to choose an outer box large enough that there's plenty of cushion space between the box of loose objects and the box containing the machine, otherwise the smaller box will function as an anvil over which the bigger inner box can be broken, smashing things in one or both boxes. The machine and case weigh upwards of 25 pounds, twice a standard sledgehammer. Would the box of wrapped bits survive a direct sledgehammer strike? Right... so give both lots of cushion space.

Top off your double box with peanuts, seal, address and mail!