Bubble Wrap 101: Protips, What It Doesn’t Work With, and Solid Alternatives

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For keeping your most valuable, most expensive stuff protected when you move, it may seem like there’s nothing better than bubble wrap. But we’ll let you in on a little secret. 

Movers very rarely – if ever – use the stuff.

Not because it doesn’t work. It does. But the pros know, all those little bubbles add up to some bulky and relatively expensive bit of cushioning. Packing paper, used correctly, will serve most any packing purpose and save you both space and money.

Still, you may be more comfortable enveloping your flat screen TV, your electronics, your stemware and your china in bubble wrap. That’s totally understandable. So if you decide to go this route, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Using Bubble Wrap: 5 Quick Tips

  1. Put a layer of packing paper between your TV and that bubble wrap. Plastic can leave marks on your screen, particularly in extreme temperatures. This goes for anything you wrap in bubbles. For items with sharp edges or corners, some extra paper can help keep those sharp areas from poking right through the plastic.
  2. Wrap your items with the bubbles facing inward for better protection against exterior pressure and accidental impact. The flat side is easier to write on (in case you want to be able to identify each item quickly) and will hold the tape in place much more effectively.
  3. Don’t bank on one layer of bubble wrap. Two layers of small bubble sheeting might be enough for a piece of stemware, though this would be in addition to packing them with plenty of packing paper and, for extra peace of mind, individual cells inside your cardboard box. If you are using the stuff with the bigger bubbles for heavier items like a large framed mirror or your CPU, one layer may suffice – but again, only in addition to some crumpled packing paper for extra cushioning on all sides.
  4. Keep that bubble wrap firmly in place by taping not just along the edges, but all the way around the item. You splurged on that bubble wrap, don’t start skimping on the tape!
  5. Have a pair of scissors on hand when you are unpacking. It would be a real bummer to break something – or drop and break something – while trying to tear that bubble wrap off using only your hands. 

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What to Pack in Bubble Wrap

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Valuable items. Fragile items. Heavy and hard-to-replace items. If you’re staring at something and you can’t decide whether to bubble wrap it, err on the side of caution and wrap it.

Specifically, you’ll want to consider bubble wrap for:

  • Large picture frames and mirrors
  • Flat screen TVs
  • Glass tabletops and shelving
  • Electronics and computers
  • Stemware and fine china
  • Fragile decorative items

Remember, bubble wrap alone will not do the trick. Even surrounded by two or three layers of air pockets, the things on this list will still need to be packed firmly in cardboard cartons with enough crumpled packing paper on all sides to keep them from shifting and bouncing in transit while keeping them safe from exterior impact.

After the bubble wrapping is done, use the right kind of box.

There’s no point in being safe if you use the wrong box for your stuff. Finish the job right by packing each bubble-wrapped item properly, surrounded by plenty of crumpled packing paper. Moving boxes come in specific shapes and sizes for your items, use accordingly.

bubble wrap

Mirror Cartons

Picture frames, mirrors, glass shelves and flat-screen TVs go in mirror cartons – sets of two, if not four pieces that you can use to form a custom-sized box.

Double-Walled Dish Pack Cartons

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Electronics and computer components are best protected when packed in double-walled dish pack cartons, the same boxes we use for dishes, plates and glasses. And yes! This includes your china and stemware. Fragile decorative items like statuettes and ceramics can still be packed in medium (3 cubic foot) boxes, provided they are cushioned well and the boxes are clearly marked to minimize the chances of someone putting a box of books on top.

Cardboard Cells

A note about stemware: Nothing gets broken more often than this stuff. Wrapping each piece well is crucial, but so is packing it all correctly into your dish pack as the items on the bottom will have to support the weight of everything else in there.

bubble wrap

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The best thing to do is get your hands on some of those cardboard cells, which not only keep your wine glasses from knocking against each other but offer an appreciable amount of vertical support, keeping all the weight of those glasses off the ones at the bottom of the box.

If you can’t find any cardboard cells, don’t despair! A thick layer of crumpled packing paper on the bottom of your dish pack and another layer of crumpled paper on top of each successive tier of firmly-packed stemware is what the pros use to keep everything safe. If you aren’t comfortable with that, line your entire dish pack with bubble wrap and put a couple of sheets in between your tiers of glasses. This isn’t the most cost-efficient way to pack your stemware, but it beats a box full of expensive shards of glass.

Alternatives

If not bubble wrap, then what? As stated earlier, packing paper is the standard. However, towels, crumpled newspaper, or virtually anything form-fitting, sturdy and that’s plenty soft can often do the trick for cheaper. Sound too simple? It really is. As long as you pad your items in a balanced way, it doesn’t need to be as expensive as bubble wrap. Just as long as “this one, extra towel” isn’t the only thing keeping your priceless vase safe. Check the moving supplies section at your local hardware store for bubble wrap alternatives.

A Note on Packing Peanuts

bubble wrapYou may like the idea of those Styrofoam nuggets, but in general, they are bulky, costly, and non-biodegradable. The eco-friendly alternative cornstarch peanuts are even more expensive and don’t make for a very satisfying snack, no matter how hungry you are at the end of your move. Plus, they end up getting scattered all over the floor and clinging to your clothes. In short, use (and eat) them if you like, but I don’t recommend them.


Admit it. It’s hard to resist popping those plastic bubbles once you’re done with that bubble wrap. But think for a moment how easy it is to pop them – and how much all the boxes you are packing must weigh.

Keep this in mind when you are packing up all those valuable, expensive, fragile items. On its own, a sheet of bubble wrap can’t adequately protect your stuff. You’re going to need plenty of packing paper (or towels or clothes) in a pinch. Pack those items firmly in the center of your box, protected on all sides.

And really, save yourself a headache (and maybe the stomachache) and stay away from those peanuts!

7 Embarrassing Lessons I Learned While Moving People

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Learning to be a good mover is not something you can get from a book. Like riding a bike, playing the piano and getting your black belt – like so many things, really – we all have to learn how to move stuff by going out to the job and getting to it.

And as with just about anything, it involves making mistakes.

This month I want to share with you seven lessons I learned during my earliest days on the job. Lessons learned both through the mistakes of others and through my own errors. They made me feel stupid and embarrassed, but nevertheless taught me things I needed to know if I wanted to stay on in this business.

#1. The nicer the furniture, the more likely you’ll damage it.

This isn’t some sort of karmic law. This is pure woodworking and physics.

The finest dressers and desks have drawers that slide out nice and smoothly – meaning you only need to tip that piece so far before gravity grabs hold of those drawers and start pulling them out and onto the floor. Quality furniture also (usually) means good, solid wood. And it’s heavy. Drawers will gain speed fast and hit the floor hard. Armoire doors, once they start to swing open, can come down so hard they put cracks in themselves; if they don’t bang against the floor, they can end up playing “irresistible force meets immovable object” with their hinges.

Yes, I’ve seen all this firsthand. A lot of it happened on a local move during my first week as a mover. I don’t know about the other guys on that crew, but that was the first and last time I let something like that happen.

Protip: Pad-wrapping items like dressers and armoires can obviously keep all those drawers and doors in place. So can a layer of shrink wrap. But if you prefer not to pad-wrap or shrink wrap those big pieces until you get them out the front door another option is using those big movers’ rubber bands, which are easy to put on, easy to adjust (by knotting up and tying off any slack) and totally economical since you can use them for years.

Extra advice: Gravity works on all kinds of furniture, not just the most expensive stuff!

#2. Sitting in the passenger seat does not mean you get to take a break from helping.

Unfortunately, one guy I worked with didn’t seem to understand this. “Watch that side,” I told him as I began backing half-blind into a slot between two other box trucks. “Aw-right,” he said, glancing lazily at the side view mirror before letting his eyes glaze back over.

I suppose it was my fault. I shouldn’t have taken it for granted that he was going to keep watching that side for me and warn me when I was about to sideswipe the truck parked on his side. Which, of course, he didn’t. And he didn’t get socked with a bill for the damage either.

Protip: This “help your driver” rule is always in effect on the road, because so are blind spots. When your driver is pulling up to the curb along a tree-lined residential street, pay attention not only to how close the tires are getting to the curb, but also how close the top of the truck might be coming to any big fat tree branches. Trust me, tree branches can do some serious damage.

#3. Don’t blindly trust a dog or its owner.

“He’s real friendly,” the customer with the mixed-breed said. “But I’ll put him out back so he doesn’t get in your way.” That seemed fair enough to all of us.

He was a quiet pup, actually, and after a while, I’d totally forgotten about him. I figure so did one of the other guys by the time he went out back to take care of the patio chairs. From the living room was where I heard the barking and the shouting, and I was walking through the kitchen when my fellow mover busted through the back door, cussing and bleeding in three places.

Protip: Quiet dogs are still dogs. With teeth.

#4. If you put things out of the way, remember where you put them.

After moving non-stop for six hours, our three-man crew was finally done with the unload. All we had to do was have the customer sign off on the inventory sheets.

“Looks like we’re missing something, fellas,” he said, showing us the lone unchecked box on his bingo sheet.

On the inventory, it just said “screw box” – which was exactly what I wanted to do. But the four of us – the crew plus the customer – spent the next half an hour looking for a screw box, not sure what one was even supposed to look like. Walking through the garage a fourth time, I looked over at the customer’s big old rolling tool chest and the sliding compartment doors at the bottom. Inside, to everyone’s relief, was a small PBO half-filled with nuts and bolts and washers and flanges and… yup. Screws.

Protip: Keep sticky notes and a marker in your pocket for anything that needs special denotation. That way, an out of the way item will be clearly visible and explained. A lot can be forgotten during a five-hour move, trust me.

#5. Pressboards can’t really be pressed.

During my first week as a mover, I was introduced to a pressboard entertainment unit in the customer’s living room. It held a big TV, stereo equipment, a VCR (this was 1996). When we got it cleared off and picked it up, it immediately started to wobble. I could feel the thing getting progressively looser as the lead guy and I eased it as best we could down the apartment building’s stairwell.

Out on the truck, the lead guy pulled out something called a ratchet strap. There I learned that when you introduce a ratchet strap to a piece of pressboard furniture, the ratchet strap will waste no time crushing that piece of pressboard furniture to pieces.

Protip: When confronted with a piece of pressboard furniture, give the customer two choices: a piece of paper called a Pressboard (Particle Board) Waiver that releases the moving company from liability for damage to a piece of furniture that shouldn’t be moved, or a piece of paper that says “FREE”. Read this discussion on MovingScam.com for more on particle/pressboard waivers.

#6. You know that the name is painted on the side of the truck, right?

One day, one of my fellow crew guys and I were asked to go help another van line agency handle a job in Manhattan. My buddy and I sat in the cramped space behind them, our knees pinned against our chests for the 90-minute ride into the city.

Granted, driving in Manhattan can suck. Driving a 26’ box truck around Manhattan is brutal. It takes patience. It takes nerves of steel. Our driver for the day had neither.

At one point there were three lanes being squeezed into two. New Yorkers generally have a grasp of the concept of merging though evidently, they don’t seem to like it. And, well, the driver let everybody on that ride know from out the window.

Protip: Most people on the road can both hear you AND read the name on the side of your truck.

#7. Shrink wrap comes in rolls, but you can’t reroll it.

“Hand me that shrink wrap, Kevin,” my buddy said from the back door of the box truck. Hands full (with what I don’t remember) I gave the shrink wrap at my feet a push with my boot and sent it rolling across the floor of the truck toward my buddy – and the boss, who had just materialized out of nowhere.

“Don’t EVER do that!” he barked in his usual intimidating way.” You know how much a roll of that stuff costs? You get one little rock in that plastic and the entire roll is shot! Where’s your head?!”

I wouldn’t say the whole entire roll would be shot. I wouldn’t say anything – not to that guy’s face. But he was right. Get even a small nick or cut or bit of debris in that plastic and it’ll drive you nuts the way it comes apart next time you try to use it. Money down the drain.

Protip: When someone asks you to hand them the shrink wrap, do just that.

Got any of your own lessons to share?

We know some of you have been around a while – long enough to have some good stories of your own about the hard lessons you’ve learned. We’d love for you to share them, so all of us can learn the easy way what you guys have learned the hard way.

Which brings me to one final tip.

Admit your mistakes. Spell them out to your team when they happen. This way you’ll be helping people avoid doing the same thing down the road.


Illustrations by Marlowe Dobbe
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