Cleaning lead type

I recently purchased a number of fonts of old lead type. All have a white powdery oxidation to some degree or another. From what I understand, this oxidation is the very toxic lead oxide. Is there a way (or a procedure) to *safely* clean this type so that it can be used? Is there perhaps some liquid compound into which the type can be immersed that will remove or neutralize the lead oxide? Any assistance or suggestions will be gratefully received.


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A bath of lye will do it. Lye was the traditional means for cleaning type prior to solvents. Use rubber gloves and do not pour the lye into an aluminum pan. Also the bath will get quite warm during the reaction.

The type will be quite new looking when completed. However, the effects of the corrosion to the surface of the type are there to stay. You are often better off recycling the metal rather than trying to restore it.


Thanks, Gerald; this is most helpful. Actually, the face of the type itself is in very good condition—the most corrosion seems to have occurred on the sides of the type.

Is there a “standard” length of time that the type should be in the lye bath? Or does it become quite obvious when it is time to remove the type?

Thanks again,

Hi Robert

Sorry, but it’s been a very long time since I used the lye treatment. As I recall the reaction takes place fairly quickly. I think when it stops bubbling or hissing it has pretty much done its job.

Something else that will work is muriatic acid. Used full strength it will remove corrosion and just about anything else almost instantly. It will clean up a brass galley to like new status. But it is very nasty. The fumes alone will eat the plastic film off your glasses, not to mention what they would do to any unprotected part of the body; eyes, skin, lungs.

Only thing I know though that will completely and immediately clean out all the crud that builds up over time in the washout unit of a photopolymer platemaking machine.


When I have some old, oxydized type I drop it in a bowl of white vinegar and swish it around. I let it dry on a shop rag and give it a good brushing with a soft brush.
I don’t know if there’s really a whole lot you can do with the type unless you want to use some toxic chemicals.

Check out the Letpress archives. There’s a couple of recipes of vinegar and lemon juice mixture for cleaning type.

I also have some oxydized type that I recently acquired. I’ll give the vinegar a try and post the results. Lye sounds overly caustic to me, not to mention the acid, but I guess if it does the trick, all’s well that ends well…?