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Cardboard Boxes – The Experts Guide

Written by William McAllister

There’s a lot more to picking the right cardboard box than grabbing a tape measure and “best-guessing” it. You’ve got literally hundreds of options in terms of purpose, dimensions, construction and other features, and committing to the wrong choice early on can cause a string of problems down the line. This guide is designed to help you think outside of your boxes. With a little thought and a few smart choices, you’ll always get the most out of them no matter what you’re putting into them.

Choosing the appropriate type of Cardboard Box

Cardboard box design is considerably more sophisticated than most people ever realise, and not every style will suit every purpose. Single Wall boxes, for instance, are great for transporting relatively lightweight items in a cost-effective way. If your items weigh over 10kg, though, you’ll be safer opting for a tougher Double Wall design.

Here’s a simple breakdown:

Single Wall Corrugated Material

Single Wall Despite the name, you’re still looking at a fairly complex design here. Single Wall Packing Boxes feature tough, corrugated cardboard construction with a good combination of rigid strength and low cost. For added security, you might want to add some suitably eco-friendly additional protection like kraft paper void fill.

Double Wall For heavier duty, Double Wall Cardboard Boxes are a versatile and hard-wearing style that’s ideal for either heavier items or those that simply need a little more protection. Two layers of corrugated are laminated together for added strength.

Double Wall Corrugated Material
White Postal Boxes

Postal Boxes For smaller items that still need some sturdy protection, postal boxes are your go-to option. They’re versatile, easy to assemble and readily customisable. A top choice for professional dispatch operations dealing in smaller items.

BDCM Bulk Distribution Carton Metric boxes are an especially popular choice for shipping clothing and similar items. The BDCM range comes in a variety of standard sizes, features flat-folding Single Wall construction and has a printed table for shipment details. BDCM boxes are sometimes essential when dealing with larger retailers, due to their well recognised space efficiency.

BDCM Cardboard Boxes
Cardboard Box TypeSuitable For
Single WallStorage and postage (up to 10kg).
Double WallStorage and postage (over 10kg), protection of fragile or heavier items.
Postal BoxesProtection of lightweight dispatched items.
BDCMSpace-efficient shipping of commercial items.

A Word About Cardboard Box Flute Types

When you’re talking about box construction, you’re probably going to hear the word “flute” quite a lot. With corrugated cardboard (often simply called “corrugated” to distinguish it from “cereal box” types of card), the flute refers to the actual undulating paper layer bonded between the inner and outer liners of the material.

The flute is created by passing a heated layer of paper through a set of crimping cylinders, which is then glued to the inner and outer walls. The result is a strong, cushioned cardboard material that’s still both lightweight and collapsible.

When stacked with the fluting “upright” along its width, corrugated can be extremely rigid and stackable. That said, there are several different types of fluting, graded according to the height of the corrugations in the core layer. For Single Wall boxes, each grade is referenced by a single letter.
Examples include:

For Double Wall corrugated, you’ll often find two different grades of flute being combined, to take advantage of the specific structural benefits of both. As a result, the fluting grades used for these materials will be combined.
For example:

What all this means in practice is that the type of corrugated you need will be very much determined by the items you’ll be storing, packing or transporting. A-Flute corrugated is a fairly bulky option, suitable for larger items that need the advantages of deeper cushioning and structural strength. Meanwhile, B fluting is more suitable for lighter-duty loads where protection is less of a factor. Less fragile items such as canned goods are often packed in B-flute boxes, for example.

When making your box choice, it’s worth remembering that the type of fluting you pick affects both the thickness of its walls and the amount of space between the individual corrugations (along with the number of corrugations within a given length of material). While an E-flute box is one of the lower-calibre grades at just 1.6mm, it can boast an impressive average of around 90 individual “flutes” per foot of length. This means it packs a lot of surface protection into a pretty compressed package. That’s one of the reasons it’s a popular choice for smaller mailed items. The tightly bunched E-fluting of this type of corrugated can also allow for very sharp, closely spaced folds, leading to extremely space-efficient postal packages.

A Quick Guide to FEFCO Box Codes

As long as we’re wading knee-deep into the complexities of cardboard box terminology, let’s take a look at the FEFCO coding system. Sometimes, it simply won’t be enough just to know the size of the box you need or the thickness of its walls. Not every box is designed to the same pattern or built to do the same job. It’s one thing to understand that you need a Double Wall box that can handle heavy loads and long-term stacking, but if you need a super-sturdy, two-part “telescoping” box and end up with a warehouse full of single-piece designs with flimsy tape-closed flaps, you’re out of luck.

Cardboard Box FEFCO Codes

Fortunately, the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO) has you covered with a system of categories to describe the actual style and configuration of your box, instead of just its size and the type of material it’s made from. If you’re serious about matching your packaging option to your needs, a FEFCO code will give you an invaluable, at-a-glance description of the type of box you’re buying – assuming you “speak the language”, of course.

FEFCO codes are four digits long (such as 0201 or 0203, to pick a couple of popular general-purpose examples). The first pair of digits breaks the box down into one of several different basic categories, while the second pair narrows it down to a specific pattern or design. One key piece of information you won’t find in your FEFCO code is the actual size of the box it describes, so you’ll still need to keep an eye on that yourself.

Fefco Diagram

FEFCO Codes Explained

  • 0100: corrugated rolls and sheets. Not actually boxes at all. Simply strips of fluted material for protecting things like glass bottles. Examples: 0100, 0110.
  • 0200: “slotted” boxes. Basically a single piece, glued, taped or stitched with flaps for the top and bottom. You’ll generally be taping these together. Shipped flat and ready for use. Examples: 0201, 0203.
  • 0300: “telescope” boxes with a separate outer section that completely encloses a slightly smaller inner body. Examples: 0301, 0302.
  • 0400: Generally one-piece boxes with hinged bottoms forming the sides and cover. Specific styles might feature handles, locking tabs or built-in display panels. Examples: 0409, 0411.
  • 0500: “slide-type” designs with multiple layers or sleeves that slide together to form the completed box. This category can also include sleeves designed for other storage options.
  • 0600: rigid, multi-piece designs consisting of separate body and end sections. Typically stitched together.
  • 0700: ready-glued, single-piece boxes shipped flat and ready for use.
  • 0900: “interior” designs, usually made to be partitions, liners or dividers. Various panel and compartment configurations are available, whether separate or part of an overall case design.

What Are Cardboard Boxes Made From?

So, with all this arcane talk about FEFCO, Single versus Double Wall and flute height versus flute density, it’s time to spend a moment on the actual construction materials we’re dealing with here. This is where some of the terminology confusion creeps into the corrugated conversation. What most people tend to call “corrugated cardboard” is actually simply a very sturdy type of paper. Kraft paper, to be exact.

Cardboard Box Construction

It’s made by treating wood chips with sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphide and hot water. The wood chips’ long fibres partly account for the end product’s impressive strength. It’s a surprisingly involved chemical and mechanical process, involving many stages with odd names like “impregnation”, “cooking” and “blowing” – but basically we’re talking about pulping the wood into almost pure cellulose.

At the end of the kraft process, what you get is a stronger, coarser paper than other pulping processes produce. It’s an ideal material for building hard-wearing packing boxes, and corrugated construction really makes the most of its durability and strength.

Corrugated Sheets

How to Choose and Measure your Cardboard Box

Once you understand the materials and coding system, picking the right box for your business becomes a fairly simple matter. It’s worth spending a little time considering more than just the basic properties of your choice, though. If you’re going to be dealing with a lot of boxes, there’s also the time they take to get ready for use to consider.

The popular 0201, for example, can be a sturdy and versatile selection for a wide variety of businesses. It does, however, take a little effort and extra expenditure to get the best out of it. You’ll need to find time to tape every box you’re using closed, for one thing. Similarly, if you’re going to be storing a lot of boxes and need to ensure you’re getting the best use of your space, picking a flat-packing design will probably be a smart move. The 0427, for instance, takes very little effort or time to get ready to ship out, and you won’t need to bind it up in tape. A flat-packed stack of these won’t crowd out your storage space too badly, either.

Long Thin Cardboard Box

For boxes used for shipping, another thing to look at is how easy the box is to open. Remember, the “unboxing” moment is your last opportunity to make an outstanding first impression on your customers – a fact that’s easily demonstrated by the avalanche of videos showcasing exactly that moment on YouTube.

Finally, you’ve got to be aware of the measurements you’ll need in your box. One key point to keep in mind is that you always want to think in terms of internal dimensions. That, obviously enough, is where your useable space is going to be. The internal dimensions of a box are going to be affected by the fluting of your corrugated and the number of walls you’ve chosen – and don’t forget to factor in any cushioning material you’ll be putting inside along with your items.

Cardboard Box Products

Recycling Cardboard Boxes

One of the great things about corrugated as a storage and packaging material for commercial use is that it’s pretty easy and effective to recycle. The cellulose fibres used to make corrugated can be either the “virgin” or previously recycled type. Virgin fibres tend to be used for outer packaging surfaces, where their strength and even texture can be put to best use. Recycled fibres tend to be “patchier” in appearance and less suitable for printing on, so they’re more likely to be used for the inner liner of the corrugated. That’s why they feature in our 6 simple swaps for eco packaging harmony.

Recycled Cardboard Boxes

Embracing recyclable packaging isn’t just good for the environment; it’s good business as well. By choosing more ecologically friendly packaging for your products, you’re making a bold statement to your customers – and it’s a statement that people are increasingly watching out for.

There are actually a few factors to consider when you’re looking for an environmentally sound packaging and shipping material. Switching away from less sustainable options makes good sense, but it’s still important to think about the sheer quantity of materials you’re going through. When we’re talking about waste, controlling the amount can be every bit as critical as determining the type. Wherever possible and practical, it’s a wise move to start considering your packaging requirements right from the early product design phase. Optimising your packing and shipping material use means you’ll be devoting less space to storage and minimising your delivery costs by bringing down overall weight.

Cardboard Boxes Ready for Recycling

The Future for Cardboard Boxes

With the need to set environmental concerns right at the heart of business only getting clearer and more urgent with time, it’s a fairly safe bet that cardboard packaging’s here to stay. If anything, less eco-friendly materials are already on the way out, with the European Union looking to hit an 80% reduction in plastic bag use and other countries around the world setting targets of their own.

Unique Cardboard Box Design

Online shopping has boosted demand for cardboard packaging by a wide margin, while innovative uses for the material are cropping up everywhere. Even high-tech fields like personal electronics and video gaming are finding new ways to use corrugated in their products. Examples stretch from the popular Google Cardboard VR system to the revolutionary Nintendo Labo range of build-it-yourself kits for the Switch console. Meanwhile, outdoor festivals are erecting cardboard tents and New Zealand has unveiled a 700-seat “Cardboard Cathedral” in Christchurch to temporarily replace the original building after earthquake damage led to its demolition.

There are certainly still some questions and obstacles for cardboard innovators to answer and overcome as its popularity and importance continue to rise. For one thing, the advent of delivery drone technology poses a few key challenges. Weight is an obvious limitation, but it’s one that corrugated packaging is well equipped to handle. Beyond that, though, there may be durability issues to resolve arising from the lack of shelter a drone provides compared to, say, a delivery van. Damp cardboard boxes, naturally enough, tend to be both less secure in transit and less attractive when they arrive on your doorstep.

Nintendo Labo Cardboard Arcade Game

All that said, innovation remains the key to solving these types of problems – and the environmental and branding advantages of recyclable packaging make chasing a cardboard future more than worth the effort.

Fun Ways to “Recycle” Your Cardboard Box

When we talk about recycling, we’re almost always thinking in terms of breaking down a material and reforming it. It’s often a complicated process, and generally needs to be done on an industrial scale to be effective. With a material as versatile as cardboard, however, there’s an entirely different type of “recycling” that’s increasingly popular on a household level.

Cardboard Puzzle

What we’re really talking about here is more a process of repurposing than recycling. After all, how many times have you opened a delivery and held off from instantly ditching the humble cardboard box it arrived in because it “looks like it might be useful for something”?

If you’ve had that experience from time to time, you’re in good company. Websites and YouTube tutorials are brimming with ideas for putting old corrugated packaging to new uses. A few minutes with a craft knife and some poster paint will turn a large box into an educational shape-sorting puzzle for a toddler, for instance. If you’re even slightly adventurous, it takes surprisingly little work and ingenuity to transform corrugated packaging into anything from a sit-in spaceship to a fantasy castle.

Cardboard Kids Puzzle
Monomi Ohno Cardboard Delorean

Even grown-ups can find new life in old boxes. Suitably decorated, a corrugated box can serve as a desk tidy, a picnic basket or even a simple waste paper bin. To a cat, a box is an impregnable fortress from which it can rule its domestic domain. To the practical minded, it’s a set of drawer dividers just waiting to be built. To Japanese artist Monomi Ohno, it’s a career’s worth of fascinating raw materials.

Here are a few videos covering fun ways to recycle your old cardboard boxes. Enjoy!

Like anything else that’s worthwhile in life, a cardboard box is what you make of it.

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