During the past year I have sold hundreds of trains on eBay. Every single item has survived the US Postal Service shipping gauntlet, arriving safely at its destination intact and undamaged. This is no easy feat; a careless approach to the challenge may result in a level of destruction that will make a model railroader weep openly.
Shipping model trains requires great care and an array of packing materials. The goal is to make sure that the item purchased by the buyer arrives at his or her doorstep in the same condition as described and displayed in its eBay listing. Model trains are delicate and detailed with parts that are so small and intricate they will break or bend if you so much as breathe on them. Some locomotives are so heavy that dropping one on your foot will unleash every curse word you know (and more) regardless of who is nearby, be it your mother-in-law, your six year old child or the entire congregation of your church. As your shipment is thrown, kicked, and dropped across the country, your customer’s poorly packed locomotive may implode, arriving at the buyer’s address in pieces.
The brass locomotive in the photo weighs nearly two pounds; there’s a solid metal cylinder inside the boiler. It is sitting in its original box surrounded by foam; for collectors, the box and foam are highly valued and must also be protected during shipping. Typically, a seller will bubble wrap the box containing the train, slip it inside a Priority Mail box and send it on its way. What do you think happens when your box is tossed into a mail bin upon which lands a 10 lb package? What if it falls off a counter or (heaven forbid) is drop-kicked across a room? Important Note: Never write “FRAGILE” on a shipping box; it translates to “KICK” in some languages.
What happens to a locomotive inside a box is what happens to your brain when you receive a blow to the head; that two pound hunk of brass and metal will slam against the inside wall of the box just as your brain hits the inside of your skull, smashing that nice cushy foam (or in your case, brain) down to 1/16th of an inch. Detail parts that aren’t crushed in the process will likely break off or bend into unrecognizable forms. Your $300 item will be DOA while your buyer wails over the body. Nothing hurts a model railroader more than to see a fine locomotive in pieces. You’ll be crying too when you have to send the buyer a full refund. If it’s any consolation, you’ll get to keep your mangled brain, I mean train.
Shims! Slices of cedar that come in packs of 50 or 100 are the key ingredient in preventing postal train wrecks. While typically used to level out a door or window frame, when anchored to a shim cut to the length of the box, a heavy locomotive will stay put no matter what happens along the way. I suppose there are exceptions including fire, being substituted for home plate or being batted about like a piñata, but one cannot prepare for all possibilities; we have to trust the US Postal Service–a little. The step-by-step instructions are below. After reading them you might think it’s a lot of work or that I am obsessed (as in OCD) with packaging. But once you get the hang of it, it takes very little time and can save you and your buyer a lot of aggravation.
There are two reasons I take such care in packing my customers’ purchases. First, good service is important in every business, whether you’re running a cable TV company, a doctor’s office or selling stuff on eBay. The time and attention I put into packing and shipping an item to my customer shows them how well I’ve cared for the item before they bought it. Plus, I want them to receive exactly what they expected when they won the auction. Most importantly, these are my Dad’s trains; he took excellent care of his collection, wrapping everything in paper towels, tissue paper, foam sheets; whatever he had on hand that was soft and cradling. When I pack and ship one of his trains, I am sending a part of him, his legacy, to a new owner whom I hope will cherish it as much as he did. The care I take with each package along with the hand-written note I place inside each box carries this wish: that each customer knows the kind of person my father was, and that he was loved.