Skip to main content

Use more brainpower when moving

Unless you are one of those folks who lives in a sterile condo furnished with every anonymous artifact your decorator thinks you should have, the prospect of moving can be one of the most traumatic occurrences of your life. The sterile set just calls a mover and goes to South Beach for the season. The rest of us have to struggle with sorting out the flotsam and jetsam of our ordinary, disorganized lives.

The last time I moved it was from a house where my best friend, Gail, and I had lived for the better part of 30 years. We began our lives together there, we raised our children there and at long last it was time to go. But what about all that “stuff” we had accumulated? Not to mention all the “stuff” our children refused to take with them when they went to college and later into the real world.

 Courtesy of Tom Merton/Caiaimage/

Courtesy of Tom Merton/Caiaimage/

Naturally we did it the hard way – mostly by ourselves over a period of nine months (come to think of it, that sounds awfully familiar). After an interminable series of yard sales, each resulting in a trip to a local charity with the DNS load (Did Not Sell in auction terminology), we were left with the hard core of our prized, semi-prized and “just can’t leave” possessions. This remaining haul we sorted into two categories, the articles that we could leave to the mover and his euphemistically called “helper” and the really good things we wanted to move ourselves, including most of our antique furniture. Having been in the furniture restoration business for more than 20 years, we were pretty good at loading and unloading trucks.

One thing you may or may not have noticed, if you have ever paid attention to real professional moving people, the folks who haul concert grand pianos up the side of a building but can handle an egg with more finesse than a mother hen, is that these people by and large do not employ large amounts of brute strength. Of course a certain amount of muscle is a basic requirement, but that’s not what gets the piano up the wall. Brainpower does that.

So start by doing some mental exercise. Survey the pieces you need to move. Study how the pieces are assembled. Make sure you understand how the top is attached to the frame of the dining table. Take a look at the bottom rail of the chest. Is it sturdy enough to carry the weight of the chest? Note what appear to be any weaknesses in the design or construction of a piece. Are the legs at risk? Poorly blocked or loose already? Are the arms fragile or the bed rickety? Is the finish strong enough to withstand handling and packing or does it need special attention? When you understand the work to be done, you are ready to proceed.

Next, acknowledge that most moving jobs are two person problems. Very few articles can be safely moved by one person. And that requires a level of understanding and trust between two movers that few people accomplish in other parts of their lives. You must know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. You also must both agree on what “up a little” means and how far is “just a tad.” You need to know who is nimble enough to walk backwards and who can do stairs without looking. And if you say “go to the right” is that your right or their right? Communication is the key. Lay out your intended plan to your accomplice. Walk the route out to the truck or out of the truck into the house. Visualize yourself carrying the piece down the hall, around the corner, up the stairs and through the door. Make sure your partner has the same vision. Count the number of steps up a stairway. That way when you actually carry something up you can count the steps out loud and everyone knows the current position.

 Courtesy of Yellow Dog Productions/Collection DigitalVision/

Courtesy of Yellow Dog Productions/Collection DigitalVision/

Then check the route. Make sure it is free of obstacles and most of all make sure the piece will actually fit through the door at the top of the stairs. It’s easier than backing back down the stairs fully loaded. That’s what they make tape measures for. Make sure each person involved in the move has one.

There are a few major basic rules about moving furniture. The first is that the most obvious way to carry something usually is not the right way. That is true for virtually all armchairs, especially upholstered wing chairs and overstuffed club chairs. The temptation is to grab the arms and take off but that seldom produces satisfactory results because the arms of chairs are made to resist downward pressure, not upward pressure, even those on upholstered chairs. Carry large chairs from the bottom if at all possible or at least by the seat frame if you have height or visibility restrictions.

A corollary to the “no arm” rule is the “attached element” rule. Nothing should ever be grabbed or carried by anything added to a piece as a decorative element. That includes finials, gallery rails, crowns, splashboards, applied molding or carving, hardware or even handles, as tempting as that may be.

Another corollary is the “grocery cart” rule. Some furniture has wheels on it but don’t be fooled by that. Usually those wheels are just a stylistic element used to lift the piece off the floor so it doesn’t get mopped or vacuumed. And like most grocery carts, those wheels really aren’t made to roll the piece around on. That’s a good way to break the leg from a nice old table, chest or bed. In spite of the presence of wheels, just pick the piece up. But watch for wheels that may drop out of loose sockets as you pick it up. That’s a good way to lose a wheel, useless as it is.

The most prominent category of antique furniture is case goods. Before you start to move a chest of drawers or a desk, take a minute and step back. What exactly are you moving? In most cases you are moving a box, the case. It may have drawers or doors or a combination of both but it basically is a box. So move a box, not a desk or a chest. Start by removing the drawers but be sure to number them in order, even if they are different sizes. I know, I know, but humor me – Murphy has not repealed his law. Don’t forget the interior drawers of a desk or bachelor’s chest. Then remove and label any loose objects like shelves, shelf supports and drawer dividers that may want to go AWOL or break free and damage the interior. Finally secure doors and drop fronts by locking them if possible. If they can’t be locked don’t tape them shut. Tape has a tendency to pull finish and leave nasty residue. Wrap a good packing blanket around the piece and secure it in place with a rope or elastic strap to keep doors from swinging open.

If the cabinet has glass panels or glass doors of course you need to be extra careful, not just for the piece but also for yourself. Old glass can be very brittle and temperamental – and very sharp when it shatters. If possible, stuff the inside of the cabinet with blankets and pads to support the old glass so it doesn’t vibrate too much on its trip, especially if the piece is being transported on its back.

Finally bear in mind that you actually have two objectives in moving a piece of furniture – one is to safely move the piece from here to there and the other is for you to arrive in an undamaged condition also. In fact, the latter has a higher priority in my opinion. Use all of the standard precautions about lifting with your legs and not your back, etc. but the most important thing you can do is use your head