Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

Boxes, bins and rolling stock

First Booth Shot

A brief history of art show transport bins and cases

A photographer friend asked me over on Twitter to elaborate on the boxes I use for shows. Since an explanation was too long for a single tweet, or even a series of tweets, here goes.

I have three basic types of boxes that I use for transporting framed and matted work to shows. None of them are light; all of them are on some sort of caster system, and all them fit somehow onto my rather large show trailer. The designs can be modified to fit a van, and require a minimum knowledge of woodworking and tools. Rather than go into that, I’ll talk about the designs.

Bin configuration, 2006

parkerparker booth – bins and young viewer at Levis Commons Art Fair

Design 1 – 1/2″ oak veneer plywood, held together with #6 1 3/4″ square head screws. The boxes in the first shot were made when I started doing shows — I had two of them, about 30″ high and 22″ deep, and about 15″ wide. A hinged door on the 30 x 15″ side allowed access to the work inside. These were used to transport 20 x 26″ framed pieces; each holds about 12 when fully loaded. Handles on both the 15″ sides and casters on the bottom allow these boxes to ride up a ramp and onto the trailer, and dolly down the street. I used 2″ casters — not heavy duty enough, really, but sufficient for light use.

Inside, the floor and walls are covered with basic gray Home Depot  indoor/outdoor carpet. I use artgarters to pad the corners and keep the frames from rubbing on each other. I found that artgarters worked better than cardboard separators, foam-core, and were easy to remove once the art is hung. Once at the show, the boxes doubled as pedestals to hold two large bins on top, which were also made of a single box, 33″ x 15″ x 24″, cut in half on the diagonal using a table saw. These are no longer in active duty in the booth, having been relegated to use as storage containers. The second iteration sat on a platform constructed on propanel extensions — lighter, but cumbersome. I replaced that with a plywood construction for a time, which was heavy and took time to assemble. All of these pieces got too finicky to move and assemble, so I built the magilla bins (Design #3) More on that later.

Back Office

Original office box and large framed transport boxes

Design 2 – a box similar to a kitchen cabinet, with a hidden structure of 1×4’s, and skinned with 1/4″ masonite. You could also use heavy duty corrugated plastic, or coroplast. Called  a “web” frame, these are made to transport fairly lightweight canvas pieces, where a full 1/2″ plywood box would be extremely heavy for the cargo inside. Basically a skeleton is made by joining 1x4s using pocket screws. Two side frames are fastened to a base plate of 3/4″ plywood, and a third frame is secured between the two sides using countersunk #8 1 3/4″ square drive screws. Glue isn’t necessary here, as the masonite skin will hold the assembly square and tight. The top is either 3/4″ plywood, or 1/2″, and a door frame on hinges allows access via one of the long sides. The box sits vertically upright — my small canvas box is 52″ tall by 24″ x 24″, and carries about 12 48 x 20″ pano wraps, or a combination of 48″ and 36″ wraps. The floor is carpeted, and the canvas wraps are individually bagged in handmade fleece bags. It helps that my wife can sew. Joann Fabrics has fleece on sale quite often, and it takes about 2 yards of 54″ fleece to make one pano bag.

Large framed work transport

Large framed work transport – 1×8″ clear pine and masonite skin. The lid locates with dowel pins, fastened with cabinet hardware.

I’ve used this design for inside storage as well as unskinned to make rolling transport for taller canvas. Since I can’t store 6″ canvas vertically on the trailer, I use a smaller roller to move them around in the studio. The roller is about 24″ x 24″ x 36″ tall, and runs on 3 1/2″ casters.

A variation on this is the 1×8″ skeleton. I’ll cut 1 x 8″ or 1 x 6″ a couple of inches longer than the framed dimensions of a piece, then skin it with 1/4″ masonite. The masonite gets screwed down with 1″ sheet metal screws. Inside, the box is padded with pink 5/8″ pink foam insulation — makes a good solid case for shipping canvas wraps. The advantage of these over cardboard is that you make it to fit whatever you’re shipping and they are reusable. Green!

I also use this basic design for the tent “coffin”, which is a heavy duty version of the skeleton framed box. Made out of 2×4’s, the coffin is about 8′ x 24″ x 24″. It isn’t skinned, but is just a heavy frame with 3/4″ plywood covering both ends. All of the tent poles and three large duffel bags with canopy roof, walls and awnings fit within this. It rides on 10″ pneumatic casters. The frame was glued together with biscuit joinery, and galvanized framing reinforcements screwed to all the major joints. It is very solid. I did lose a wheel at Naples this year, dollying out of the park at night, because a lag bolt holding the wheel worked its way loose and came out. We managed to get the cart onto the truck and on the road.

Twin Facing Bins

Facing Bins, finished and in use

Design 3 — the big magilla rolling bins. Some of you might have seen these at a show. I have two, one that is about 60″ long x 24″ deep x 45″ high. This carries 25 framed pieces and most of the 11×14 and 16×20 matted work. It’s still a box, but divided into compartments. It’s really three boxes in one. The bottom box has a door on both ends, and an internal divider that splits the bottom into two compartments. One compartment handles the 20×26″ framed work, and the other carries spare prints. The upper box is divided longitudinally, and has two gull-wing doors that fold out and down to reveal the matted work, ready for display.

The other box is simpler. The lower box is divided into two equal compartments with doors that lift up on hinges for storage of lights, hanger hooks and other booth stuff. The upper compartment is sized to display 20×26 prints, and has two lids. One folds down and covers the lower compartments, and the other folds back on a double piano hinge and lies flat against the back of the bin. This box measures about 60″ long by 18″ wide by 45″ high. 

Both boxes ride on 8″ pneumatic wheels. The front wheels rotate, but the rear wheels are fixed. Heavy duty handicapped bathroom handles  are affixed at both ends to facilitate moving them around. They are trimmed in oak, and covered with a couple of coats of polyurethane.

Single Bin

Single finished bin for larger matted prints in use

A smaller variation of the big magilla is the small office magilla. Same basic box, with multiple compartments that carries a few extra 20×26 pieces, all of the office supplies and hold two rolls of clear bags. This box sits behind the booth and serves as a wrap station. It’s big enough to fix a frame on in a pinch, and makes a convenient office when writing up a sale.I use basic variations on all these boxes for matted prints, storage closets, small print bins, dollying to shows. Where does it all fit, you might wonder? This system was designed to work within a double booth. A lot of it sits behind the display walls at a show, but the two big bins serve up prints, one in each 10×10 space. The office box sits behind the booth, and the other pieces fit in storage behind two walls. If you’d like to see how it all works, stop by at a show and ask me. These designs are not lightweight, but they are very durable, infinitely customizable, and make dollying into a show much easier.

The Office Box

The office box in use at a show

If you like these designs, feel free to modify them to fit your own needs. I owe fellow photographers Ron Neihoff and Darren Olson a tip o’ the hat for sparking new ideas on how to build these and what might be useful.

June 11, 2009

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  1. I’ve always been envious of your boxes. I’ve been hauling more framed pieces to shows and they’re getting cumbersome. Someday, I’ll graduate from cardboard.

  2. Jim, even though I’ve done close to 300 shows I’m still learning on how to do things better from people like you. See you on the road.
    .-= Dennis´s last blog ..A business decision =-.

  3. Now that I wrote this post, I keep thinking of other boxes I’ve made. I probably have enough to write a whole ‘nother post!

    Dennis, thanks for the compliment! That means a lot to me. I learned a lot from guys like you, so try to keep contributing to the artshow community. If you found something useful, I’m grateful.

    Andy, as always, a pleasure — get busy and get that table saw! Stay away from Ryobi, though. It’s mostly junk and you’ll end up replacing it. You can make a lot of boxes with a good chop saw and a drill/driver. Have Lowe’s or the Depot cut the wide stuff to size for you.

  4. Your boxes look really well made. I like the double duty idea. I’m not sure how long I will be doing this and haven’t quite standardized the sizes of my prints yet which makes it a bit more difficult. By the way I figured a great way to protect prints and create separation on framed pieces or canvas. Use pipe insulation which has a slit cut in it an wrap the entire edge. I then stretch wrap it to make sure it doesn’t come loose.

    • Pipe insulation does work well. I use it to separate frames in storage on the trailer. You don’t really need it to cover the entire frame, just enough to keep the edges from banging into anything else.

      I also use ArtGarters, which were a commercially available product up until recently. Basically they are padded corners, joined by elastic. Four corners, that stay on the frames by virtue of the elastic. She is out of the business now, too bad. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you design this website yourself or did you hire someone to do
    it forr you? Plz reply as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like
    to knmow whdre u got this from. many thanks


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