Type, Type Cases, and Cleaning +

My husband and I picked up approx. 20 cases of type…some decently clean, and others filthier than I can describe, a few have mould on them, more than half had mouse poop, and sunflower seeds, ect., and one thrown out already…the rest were left behind.

My question is how do I clean the type (I already read the lye, vinegar/lemon juice, sonic suggestions..)? The type is not really oxidized…would it be better to disinfect it instead? Suggestions?

We vacuumed most of the poop, crud, etc out, and that was a foul, time consuming job…only 16 more to go :(

My husband sprayed the cases with Murphy’s Wood cleaner (stinky), and then took the showerhead and brush to them…that’s worked really well…drying with a fan right now…
Were these cases varnished at some point? Do we oil them? Pledge? Bees Wax?
If anyone has other suggestions, I’m interested in reading them.
Also, a few of the cases need new bottoms. When taking one apart, we noticed that there were three/four thin layers ‘vertical’ then ‘horizontal’, etc…is this how it’s done, or is it a special type of ‘wood’ combo we need to look for?

I like to take care of my belongings, and so I’d like to bring these items back to par. I don’t mind getting my house ‘dirty’ with ink, and letterpress mess, but I do have a problem with the mouse dirt, and mould, so, like I said before I’d love to read any of your suggestions.

Does metal type actually have lead in it? If so, is it safe? How much lead does it actually have?

Thanks for any help and time spent/taken in advance.

Log in to reply   10 replies so far

The “thin layers vertical then horizontal” that you describe are delaminated thin plywood with which most later (20th century) cases were made. It’s typically about 3/16 inch thick, or even 1/8”. I’d suggest what’s called “furniture-grade” plywood, which is smoother and more durable than cheaper kinds. You may have trouble finding it that thin at your local lumber yard, though. Woodworker’s Supply might have it. It would be nailed to the case frame and I think you’d find that most of the type compartment joints also were nailed, from the top, but maybe from the bottom. If from the bottom you’ll want to use a very small drill (smaller than the nail hole in the joint) to spot drill the plywood to locate the nail from underneath.

Metal type is a lead alloy. I have never heard of a hand set type printer getting lead poisoning. It could happen. I have a lady friend who got a touch of lead poisoning doing stained glass window work with lead. I would not leave it about where little children could get to it. I have no medical qualifications to say so, but I will. If handled prudently, it should be safe for those of us who are hobby printers. I do not wear rubber gloves when handling type. Neither do I lick my fingers or put them in my mouth. I wash my hands thoroughly after handling type. I would suggest that pregnant or nursing women might be wise to stay away from type, ink and solvent.
Set the dirty type in a composing stick and then transfer to a galley. Go to work with dishwasing liquid and a toothbrush. If this doesn’t get it as clean as you would like, go at it with TSP. Gloves, safety glasses, etc. Rinse well after cleaning.
Original type cases had no coating on the wood. I have cleaned up some old ones and given them a couple of light coats of spray lacquer.
Ask at the lumber yard for a door skin. It is about 3/16” plywood. Find an inexpensive interior door that has a flat wooden surface. It is hollow and has a door skin on each side. If one gets a hole in it, the skin can be removed and a new skin purchased at a well stocked lumber yard. You just put a new skin on the bottom of your type case.

I’ve had good luck cleaning type using the “Dave Churchman Method”.

I make a solution of Borax and warm water and add a bit of detergent. Type is soaked overnight. I then brush each piece with a stiff toothbrush and a bit of detergent. Rinse and dry.

The trickiest part is finding Borax. I found it in an older independent grocery. A “big box” store had just removed it from the shelves…forever.

We’re having a volunteer type cleaning event tonight. I’llbe turning folks loose on a couple of buckets of Borax and type.

Many of the newer typecases had fiberboard bottoms in them that won’t delaminate when wet. That could be an option as well. Never knew that door skins existed. What a great suggestion! And YES the compartment dividers are nailed to the bottom, this is to prevent small type from migrating from compartment to compartment if the seal at the bottom of each compartment isn’t snug.

Lot of old cases also had an oiled paper between the bottom of the case and the dividers. This will pretty much turn to mush and deteriorate if you try to wash out the cases, but it is generally pretty much “shot” anyway.

My modus operendi has always been to wait for a warm sunny day and take the emptied cases outside and “blast” them with a high-pressure concentrated stream from the nozzle of a garden hose. The trick is to do them one-at-a-time and work quickly so as not to actually soak the case bottom. The water blast is very effective going from compartment to compartment and flushing out all the crud and grime. I then try to shake the case out as much as possible (it will be soaking wet) and then prop the case up against something and have it angled directly towards the hot sun to dry it out as quickly as possible. If done in this manner, the bottom should not stay wet long enough to start delaminating, etc.

If there was mold/mildew in the case, a quick spray with a can of Lysol (after the case has dried) will remedy that problem and prevent it from returning.

You can also spray a laquer when you are done, if desired, but I have never found a need to do that.

While on the subject of typecases. I should also say that if you have the newer generation of cases with metal fronts on them, it is fairly easy to remove the metal and stain the wonderful ash wood that lies behind it (it looks like oak, but it more often actually ash). Unscrew and remove the handle. Then carefully take a screwdriver and start to pry off the metal at one end. Once you get it started, use a pair of vice-grips to pull the metal strip entirely off. Then use a wood stain to create a handsome case front.

I forgot to comment on the lead type. The main ingredient in type is lead, with amounts of tin and antimony added. There have been many discussions over the years about the possibility of lead poisoning. There was even a reward offerred in recent years for anyone that could produce any documentation or proof that a letterpress printer ever contracted lead poisoning from handling handset type. No one ever came up with any information about a printer getting lead poisoning from type.

Handwashing is always a good idea, just because of the inks and solvents involved and eating type is definitely to be discouraged!

You guys are not going to believe, but I do use the good and old kerosene. You can find it in hardware stores and they don’t stink. Was made for it I think, and doesn’t hurt.

As for being poisoned by lead, I think it may happen if it is in righ temperature, liquid casting lead, the smokes always scared me a little …

Hand setting type is not dangerous —it is an elixir of youth :)

Thanks for the heads up on the furniture-grade” plywood, and the door skins. The cases we’ve taken apart were nailed from the bottom, but some parts are from the top.
I think I saw Borax at our ‘little’ hardware store, an oldie but a goodie. The volunteer type cleaning event sounds fantastic! Hope that event went well. Our friends already shake their heads when I mention letterpress, I can’t imagine what they’d say/do if I mentioned a cleaning event! lol.
We mimicked the “sunny day, outside, blast of water” in our tub, with the crazy pressure showerhead, however, I do agree that doing it outside with the hose, would be soo much better. Thanks for the Lysol tip, I completely forgot about Lysol! It’s a great idea, and it’s easy to apply too. Also checked the cases, they are the newer ones, so we’ll try removing the metal part. and Yes, hand washing is always a good idea. Haven’t found any kerosene, but I’m going to check my parents workshop.

Thank you to everyone who responded, there has been a great amount of super useful information! We both appreciate it a lot.

I just on this past weekend have a solution to this. I went and bought a square foot of metal screen, like you use in your windows. I place it over the top of the drawer, and pass the vacuum cleaner over it. The vacuum picks up mouse droppings, and all that dust and residue, jostles the type a bit, but when you lift up un the vacuum hose, the type will drop right back where it was. Just be careful, as after about two or three cases, you will get a hole in the screen, you’ll know right away as the type makes a very distinctive sound running up the hose.

I have been very successful cleaning type with this method:

Soak in a mild solution of lye (Home Hardware), take the usual precautions. Mix up the solution thoroughly, pour into the type, I use yoghurt containers. Less lye is better, a little will do the trick, experiment. Soak, then rinse. Then use a small ultrasonic cleaner machine (inexpensive, Ebay, 60 watts). the dirt flies off, the type looks like new. Lead by itself is not a problem, take precautions not to ingest it, i.e. don’t eat or smoke at the same time, you will be OK. Keep kids away.The bad stuff is the lead oxide (yellow in appearance), you will not see it unless you are also a type caster. I am more afraid of mouse droppings than lead. After the type is dry, soak the type in a thin solution of paint thinner and oil to give the type a very thin layer of oil to prevent corrosion. Set out on a towel to dry.

Pygmy Press & Type Foundry

This is a fantastic thread - exactly what I needed for information and restoration of the poop/dust/grime drawers of gorgeous type I picked up this week…

BarryG - I KNEW the screen idea would be here somewhere, my partner thinks I’m nuts to try it, but your verification is uplifting.

Thanks Briar Pressers…