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cleaning metal and wood type

I have purchased several metal fonts that appear to have been stored in dirt or left uncleaned. What is a good cleaner solution to use to take away the grim and crud. Also is the same for some of the wood type which I feel needs some cleaning.

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Everyone wants an inexpensive and environmentally nice potion to clean old type without damaging it and with no work required other than putting the type in and taking it out. That without protective gloves too. Whoever invents it will get rich.
Sixty years ago I was taught to clean type with accumulated ink and grunk with TSP and a good brush. The real TSP, not the artificial replacement and not the liquid stuff. The type was then rinsed, dried, and given a kerosene bath and dried.
If there is white type mold, that is lead oxide. It can be removed with a brass bristle brush. That white stuff is lead oxide and is toxic to breath. Wear face mask. Wash hands.

I’ve found some good ol’ kerosene does wonders with wood type. Don’t get nuts about it, though. It doesn’t have to be sparkling to print well.

For metal type, I use lye. It’s toxic and must be handled with care etc., but the type comes out nice and shiny and free of oxidation.

Soak in lye; soak in vinegar; rinse with abundant water; and then dry. There have been a few previous posts on Briar Press discussing details.


Early nineteenth century printers’ manuals recommended removing the bottom boards from a case, inverting it, and nailing on a new bottom of fine wire mesh. As it was inverted it could be placed on top of a full case, the pair inverted, and the contents of each box fall into the correct box in the wire-bottomed case. Then a wash in lye followed - the use of lye has in excess of a 350 year pedigree in printing - Moxon recommended it. The empty case would be cleaned and re-papered before the rinsed and dried type was returned to the case in the reverse of the above proceedure. All classic apprentice’s drudgery, or journeymen if work was slack.

Hi iwillcreate,

I use lye and it works great — like magic, actually. You need to use a battery of safety precautions, however — gloves, eye protection, and good ventilation. Also be prepared for the solution to get hot, so a stainless steel container is best. (Tempered glass is okay, but perhaps a bit chancy.) Do NOT use aluminum, since that reacts with sodium hydroxide, which is what lye is.

After the lye soak, I rinse and follow up with a soft, child’s battery-operated electric toothbrush to really get into the crevices. With small-size type I use an ultrasonic cleaner. Then, like Jason, I follow with a vinegar rinse and lots of water.

When the type is dry, I spray it with a solution of about 10% 3-in-One in odorless mineral spirits. I put it in one of those tiny spray bottles that are used for cleaning eyeglasses. This helps prevent corrosion. Before you use the type, it needs to be wiped with a type wash that does not leave an oily residue. I use Coleman fuel.


Thanks for the great suggestions. I have used TSP powered form before mixed with bleach. Good cleaning agent but toxic. I didn’t know it could work with type (metal). As for the lye, do you mix the lye and vinegar together? Would I need to brush the dirt away or does the solution work on its own. How long is the time frame to leave it in the solution. Thanks, everyone. Larry Will

I didn’t mean to be flip in my earlier post: you should read up and take a lot (a whole lot) of precautions when working with lye. Be careful how you mix the lye (lye into water and not vice versa).

Here is an earlier BP discussion on the subject:

I follow the procedure that Paul (Devil’s Tail Press) describes in this discussion.

Try it first on a small amount of type, for practice and to gain familiarity and comfort with the method. Then try it on larger batches. Be careful with the type: don’t bash the faces up as you handle the type.


My single experience with lye dates back to HS, when I tried to create a relief printing plate by “etching” linoleum using a lye “acid” bath and wax as a resist - kinda the reverse of intaglio.

I coated the lino with a wax resist, removing it where I wanted the lye to attack the lino to create the negative image areas. Next, I made a solution of lye/water in an aluminum pie tin & submerged the lino, prepared for a protracted “etch”. Within minutes, smoke/steam shrouded the increasingly hot pie tin as the chemistry progressed beyond my understanding. All I remember after that was frantically running out of my parents’ house (trying to avoid their detection) with the smoking tin and pouring it out on the street.

Lesson learned: I think it had to do with the lye vs, aluminum. Now I just carve the negative areas with gouges…


To answer your last question, do not mix lye the with vinegar. Add about a tablespoon of lye to a cup of cold water — it’s this solution in which you’ll soak your type. Then rinse the type in a strainer and put it briefly in a vinegar bath to neutralize any remaining lye. Then rinse again with lots of fresh water.


Thanks Barbara. Should I use a metal container or plastic or does it matter? Larry

Hi Larry. I’ve used a tempered glass measuring cup with no problems, but have been advised against it since the solution does get quite hot. Stainless steel would be best. Whatever you do, DO NOT use aluminum. ~Barbara

No aluminum, no glass. I have used old coffee cans, but find that stainless steel is best.


this discussion has not mentioned Calif Wash to clean metal and wood type and alcohol to clean wood type. Besides costing more, is there a reason why not?

Because California Wash is mostly Naptha with several carcinogenic chemicals added to slow down evaporation. It costs about three times the price of Naptha from the hardware store, or the camping store if you purchase it as Coleman Fuel. Naptha is good for cleaning metal type, but you will have to do a lot of brushing and wiping, and it’s not very good for loosening dried ink. It is strong enough to take the shellac off of wood type, so it should be used sparingly on wood type. I would never use Alcohol on wood type, because it really softens the shellac quickly, and will force you to refinish the type. I have used Alcohol occasionally to clean metal type while on the press (it evaporates so quickly it can save start-up time), but it is very flammable (as is Naptha), and because it evaporates so quickly it dosen’t make a very good cleaning solvent. I primarily use Alcohol to clean filthy furniture - it does wonders.


thanks for the info