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How to travel with oil paints
Over the years, many artists have asked us how they can travel with their oil paints while avoiding problems at airport controls. In this guide, we explain what you can carry in your luggage, and what you can not; what to explain and what not to; as well as what you might be allowed to carry, but you’re better off not trying to.
Most art materials are considered hazardous, but some are safe to travel with. Consequently, your oil paints must be properly packaged, labeled and documented. Even if allowed, they can be a red flag for border agents.
Here we summarize everything you need to know to travel calmly and avoid surprises.
How to pack your oil paint tubes
Check the tubes
Make sure they do not leak, are not filthy and that the caps are tightly closed. This is essential.
- We recommend you pack the tubes in a way that avoids that their pointy corners, with the clattering, produce any perforations. You can use a box with compartments, bubble wrap or newspaper.
- Keep your luggage light and try to travel with small tubes; 37ml is perfect. Agents will not allow tubes of over 100 ml. (3.4 oz.).
Use a transparent plastic box
Yep, you better use a hard transparent plastic box —like a tupperware— to store your tubes. This will allow agents to examine the contents at a glance without having to open it, in addition to protecting the tubes from impact. The box also allows you to attach the documentation on the lid so that it is visible and accessible.
In short, make it easy for the agents to inspect your colors, by keeping everything tidy, well packed, and clean from excessive paint stains; that’s a good start. Build a Travel Kit, it’s easy.
Another option —low cost— is to use a transparent plastic bag with a ZIP seal. It’s not as safe, but it works fairly well.
Labeling your paintbox
Use our label
- Labeling the box with an “artist’s pigments” sign should be enough, but we can always do better by providing all the necessary documentation. Just in case.
- We strongly recommend you download this label we have designed, print it and glue it to the box or bag containing the oil paints. You can download it for free in JPG and PDF.
Traveling with oil paints: documentation for airport agents
Airport security departments have very strict regulations for flammable materials. While artistic materials are not usually flammable, some agents may think they are.
For agents to be sure that your paints are not flammable, you must print the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) of the brand —or brands— of oil paints you use.
You can download these documents from the manufacturer’s pages. Below, we provide you with a list of the main brands and a download link to their MSDS.
Without the tag and MSDS, you could have problems. Highlight these two lines with a phosphorescent marker:
- The artist’s color is vegetable oil-based and is not hazardous.
- Safe flashpoint (550ºF or higher).
We recommend you print and visibly place these documents on your paint box so authorities can properly inspect your luggage and you can avoid any nuisance. Let’s make it easy for the agent.
MSDS download links:
Main brands of oil colors
- Gamblin Artist Oil
- Gamblin 1980 Oils
- Rembrandt Oil
- Van Gogh Oil
- Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colours
- Old Holland
- Michael Harding Artist Oil
- M. Graham Oil Color
- Daniel Smith Original Oil Colors
- Williamsburg Oil
- Holbeil Artists’ Oil Color
- Sennelier Artist Oil
- Schmincke Mussini
- Reeve’s Oil Colours
- Utrecht Oil Paint
- Utrecht Studio Oil Paint
- Blick Artist Oil
- Da Vinci Artist Oil
- Georgian Oil Colours
- Norma Professional Oil
- Permalba Oil Color
- Fragonard Oil Colour
Although your materials perfectly comply with the current TSA laws, your luggage may not be well labeled, and agents may not allow it. And then they’ll start asking questions…
The first thing —and the most important— is not to alarm them unnecessarily. Stay calm, you are not doing anything illegal. Just show the requested documentation and do not panic, even if they’re unclear.
For instance, if they inspect your luggage and ask you “What the hell are you carrying here?”, it is better NOT to say “oil paints” because it can lead to misunderstandings. Technically, there is no problem in carrying “oil paints” inside your luggage, but it is better to talk about “colors” or “pigments”.
Not all agents are familiar with art materials and are suspicious of whether they are safe or not. So let’s make it easier and avoid referring to them as “paint”. The word is associated with a flammable material that contains solvents.
So, as Robert Gamblin suggests, it is wise to say that you have “colors made with vegetable oils”. This is the best answer.
Here you can download a guide like this one, with recommendations from Robert Gamblin.
Carrying oil tubes, mediums and solvents
Can we carry oils, mediums, solvents or shellac? Yes and no… it’s a tricky thing to answer, so let’s go bit by bit:
Yes, you can carry oils
According to Winsor & Newton, linseed, safflower, walnut, and poppy oils, in addition to stand-oil and drying oils, are allowed (>230°C).
However, we are aware of a few cases of artists whose oil bottles have been confiscated, but it’s not common.
Of course: carry bottles of no more than 100 ml.
That is what the law allows
“Flammable liquids” are defined as anything with a flash point below 141°F (60.5°C), according to this fancy website of the US Department of Transportation.
Products with flash points below 60°C are flammable materials (Group II or Group III) and are considered unsuitable for air travel. These include most:
Mediums such as Liquin are technically allowed, as they comply with regulations.
And the same goes for some types of solvents, such as Gamsol by Gamblin, or Sansodor by Winsor & Newton, although these solvents are on the edge of the legal limit, they are within the list of things allowed.
Gamsol has a flashpoint of 144°F, four degrees above the tolerance threshold, but we do not recommend traveling with Gamsol inside the suitcase. That’s why we provide it at our workshops, so you can avoid annoyances.
If you still want to try to carry solvents with you, technically there are no problems if it’s within the list of allowed items. Of course: prepare the documentation properly and accept that, despite having everything in order, they may not allow anyway.
For example, this is the perfect Liquin bottle for traveling, less than 100ml. Not enough? No problem, you can carry more units.
However, you must show that it is not flammable by attaching the corresponding MSDS.
Download Liquin Original MSDS.
What happens in the real world?
From experience, we know that it is not advisable to travel with these solvents because agents usually choose to be prudent and do not allow them, regardless of flashpoint laws.
As a general rule, never travel with liquid solvents: even if you have the MSDS ready to be shown, you should consider them prohibited and keep in mind that mineral essences and turpentine will likely not pass a check.
On the other hand, gel mediums —especially those that are sold in a tube— have special treatment and can pass through controls more easily. The problem comes with flammable liquids.
Gels such as Gamblin’s Solvent-free Gel are allowed.
Download Solvent-free Gel MSDS.
- Above all, carry your paints inside your checked/hold luggage, and NEVER carry your paints inside your carry-on/hand luggage.
- Put your paint box or bag on top of your stuff. Put it inside a rigid container that protects the tubes from any cargo handling displacement that may crush them and stain all your belongings with paint.
- Remember that you should never carry a paint knife inside your hand luggage. The metal detector will go off and the scanner will detect something similar to a blade. You must document and pack all your materials inside the hold/checked luggage.
- We recommend that you carry your materials together with your personal belongings, as it is more likely to get unwanted attention if you have a suitcase just for your materials. Checkpoints retain suitcases with only materials, for whatever reason.
- Additionally, be very careful with low-cost companies, as their business model is based on making a profit out of people’s carelessness. If there’s any slight issue with your luggage, they will go after you and squeeze you. So be very careful if you fly with Ryan Air or EasyJet because cheap can be expensive.
- International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the worldwide organization of regular airlines. Within the “IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations” section on their website, hazardous materials for travel are specified.
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is the organization that defines management roles in the world of aviation. According to their definition, your oil paints are not dangerous on an airplane.
- According to the FAA, there is no restriction on the number of tubes you can carry. However, you should transport all liquids, pastes, and gels in containers of no more than 100ml (3.4oz).
Thanks for reading this guide
Hopefully, these tips, along with the label we have designed, will help you to have zero problems with customs agents.