Cleaning old lead type

We have brought a huge (for us) collection of lead type …

Much of this type is dirty; I have no idea why anyone would put type back in trays inky but some of the sorts are caked in ink which I believe had been in place for years.

I have started some experiments to clean (we are new to this).

If I soak for 24 hours in white spirit and then scrub with a rag it comes up clean but this in not really a pratical solution for the volume we have …

If I just wipe/scrub with a rag with acetone on it it cleans up much easier faster … just trying an experiment to see if I can soak it off with acetone.

Question 1: will the acetone do anything detrimental to the surface of the type?

Question 2: is there a better way?

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The traditional way is to soak in a lye solution. Borax washing soda (not Boraxo hand soap) mixed with baby shampoo has also been discussed, and it is less hazardous than lye, which requires gloves and goggles and caution.

Thanks for your answer; I am in the UK and have never heard of lye … I am wondering if it is an American name for somthing we have?

Just Googled it:

Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) in water.

… ah done it some more …

In the UK we call it Caustic soda; used for cleaning drains.

Any comments on the use of acetone?

Sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide are not the kind of lye, or ley, used by printers; these are far too caustic. Potassium carbonate in the form of potash or pearl ash is what printers used. This can be found in any historical printer’s manual, and they have been prettty thoroughly extracted in Rummonds’ “Nineteenth Century Printing Prsctices and ther Iron Handpress”.
But even the milder lye solutions can do corrosive damage if not completely rinsed from the type.
Acetone and other solvents do work but won’t dissolve dried ink the way lye does by all accounts.

I have cleaned old type by putting a diluted (50%) solution of Koh-i-noor Rapido-eze drafting pen/dip pen/fountain pen/ cleaning solution and distilled water in an ultrasonic cleaner then putting the type in baskets, submersing it, running for about 3-4 minutes, then rinsing in clean water and setting the standing type on a baking sheet covered with paper towels in an oven at 225 degrees for 30 minutes.

Rapido-eze is designed to take old ink out of metal fountain pen nibs without damage and works well. Rinsing well and then putting in a warm oven removes the water which evaporates at 212 degrees. Setting the oven at 225 is hot enough to evaporate water, but not hot enough to ignite the paper towels which combust at about 450 degrees F. After the type cools to the touch, i redistribute into cases. I’ve saved several faces this way for which mats are no longer available for replacement castings.

Try it out on type of lesser value and see if it works for you. You might find that the Rapido-eze will wok with a soft brush and no ultrasonic cleaner. Be careful brushing the face of type, you can wear it badly with a brush that you wouldn’t think would damage it. Nylon bristles are surprisingly hard on metal type.

“Potassium carbonate in the form of potash or pearl ash is what printers used”

Does this have a brand name in the UK?

It would be much easier to have somthing that disolved the ink off rather than having to rub with a rag.

My test items with acetone seem to be coming up pretty well … is there any reason not to continue with acetone, will the acetone do anything negative to the type

… all the searches I do on potash come up with fertilizers :-(

Thanks, Rick, for bringing up this subject again. I have a few questions myself.

(1) I’m alarmed to hear from Parallel Imp that sodium hydroxide is too harsh for type. I’ve been using Drano, which contains sodium hydroxide. I do, however, follow with a dilute solution of vinegar to neutralize the alkalinity, then follow with plenty of water, and then dry the type in the oven as Alan does. As a last step I spray the type with some mineral spirits to which about 10% 3-in-One oil has been added, to protect against corrosion in the future. If this is bad, I, too, would like to know a source for the kind of “potash or pearl ash” that printers are supposed to use.

(2) The Rapido-eze contains potassium hydroxide, which Parallel says is too harsh. It’s buffered with triethanolamine, however, so that may make it gentler. I’m not a chemist, and would appreciate some expert comment here.

(3) I’m also alarmed to hear from Alan that nylon bristles are hard on type. I have a standard type brush (which is, what, boar bristle?), but sometimes I use a battery-operated child’s toothbrush, which has very soft nylon bristles. I’ve found that the spinning toothbrush (with type wash) does a better job of getting fresh ink out of tiny counters, but now I’m worried.

(4) I’ve been cleaning my type only as I use it, on the assumption that old ink and grime constitute a protective coating against corrosion. I’ve been thinking that if the ink has been there for the last 50 years, then another few years won’t make it worse. Is this wrong?

Thanks for your comments,


I’ve used some very heavily encrusted type which I cleaned in the locked-up forme by brushing on commercial paint stripper (which is basically lye such as was used for years by printers) for a few minutes, then scrubbing with a brush, wiping down with an old rag worked into the type with the brush, and letting it dry. The type came clean as a whistle and printed just fine. I’ve somehow lost track of that particular font since then, which was more than 20 years ago, but for many years afterwards it was fine — the job I had set used almost all of it and there was a distinct difference between the pre- and post-cleaning letters.


Drano …. that is caustic soda …

Seems we have a range of opinions; I was expecting this to be a challenge solved many times over by the experts.

I’m still none the wiser if acetone is OK and if not what is the recommended technique …


regarding brushes. The standard type brush is horse hair, like a shoe polishing brush. The hairs are packed very densely forming a nice brushing surface.

Nylon brushes come in varying stiffness. A floor scrub brush is very stiff, a child’s toothbrush is very soft. You are much less likely to damage the type with a child”s toothbrush than a floor scrub brush.

ANY brush abrades to some degree. Even a nice horsehair brush will pick up the dust that is on the type and run it back and forth over the face causing some abrasion. We trade off abrasion for cleanliness. The key is to minimize abrasion while maximizing dirt removal. If you want to see the actual effect you are having, take a high power loupe like a 10X and look at the type, then clean it, then look again. Even better, use your cleaning method on a brand new piece of type never used that is fresh from casting. If you’re scratching it, you’ll see it under the loupe. Some scratching is fine because ink spreads. Deep scratching or abrasion starts to round the edge of the inking face and prematurely wears the type.

Net/net, a very soft nylon brush is probably fine. Use a loupe to see if your method is causing excessive wear. If it isn’t then keep using it. If it is, try other methods.



Regarding the Rapido-eze…

potassium hydroxide is less caustic than sodium hydroxide (draino). I make homemade soap on a regular basis and it takes substantially more potassium hydroxide by weight to sapponify the oils and fats in soap. We use chemistry tables to accurately measure the components in soap making to ensure the soap isn’t alkali (which would burn the skin).

Potash is sold as a fertilizer, so that is why it is coming up that way in google searches. It is used to change the PH balance in acidic (volcanic) soils making them more PH neutral.

Generally with all of this chemistry, the key variable is concentrations. 1 granule of lye in a gallon of water will not clean type, you have to get to a sufficient concentration. Hydroxides (potassium and sodium) work by essentially bonding with the oil in the inks and forming a soap molecule (saponification) which loosens the oil/varnish in the ink and the dirt and pigments are carried away as well since they only stick due to the oils and varnishes, having no bonding properties of their own.

Too strong concentrations will damage metal, too weak won’t clean it, just right will clean, but it MUST be properly rinsed after cleaning is accomplished.

Ultimately, it is your type. You must use whatever method works best for you and you must bear the risk of your actions. Others on here can offer advice about what works for them. If I see an idea on here that I think might work for me, I try it on something not valuable (kind of like fabric spotters that say to test on an inconspicuous spot) and if it works well for me I use it. If it doesn’t I don’t do it again.



Just checked the chemistry tables. Potassium Carbonate has a PH of 11.5, potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide have a common PH of 13. A PH of 7 is neutral.

Good thread. Good discussion. As is often the case, there may be numerous ways, and opinions, as how to do something.
My chemistry is about 56 years out of date, but my guess is that acetone will do no harm to type. I would rinse the type with something like dishwashing soap and water after cleaning and then insuring that it is well dried.
I too have a bunch of dirty type acquired over the years. I would like it to all be pretty and shiny, but the dirt and dried ink will not likely harm it. I clean it as I use it.
I learned in school to use trisodium phosphate. The real stuff, not the substitute sold under the name of TSP also.
Rubber gloves, eye goggles, a brush and a container of TSP and water mix. I scrub the type in the composing stick or in a galley with the type tied the old fashioned way.
Everyone would like to find the magic stuff in a can that is cheap, non toxic and effective. I haven’t found it and stick with the scrubbing.
TSP at your hardware store. NOT th substitute.

Well I have conducted further test items and the caustic soda dosn’t seem to do much … perhaps I am making it too week.

However; the paint stripper suggested by AdLibPress is mustard … it almost instantly flakes off and is gone … I have brushed it on with a very soft paint brush and then rinsed a few minutes later … cant see any damage to the type.

I am using Nitromorse paint stripper.

Seems I have 2 issues; caked on ink which is best fixed with the paint stripper and then generally dirty type that I think will be best treated with a soak in white spirit.