How to clean very dusty lead type

I have lead type, some of it very interesting fonts, that has sat gathering dust for many years. What is/are the best way(s) to clean the dust from the type?

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If it’s caked on I brush over it thoroughly to loosen the dust, then using a piece of screen wire with openings smaller than the smallest piece of type, held down close to the type itself, vacuum it with a shop vac. The small type will get sucked up to the end of the nozzle, so you want to hold the screen still and move the nozzle around to pick up the dust. You may need to brush again and repeat the vacuuming. I’ve cleaned a lot of dust and other trash out of type cases this way.


Probably with a transfer case. They’re kinda rare though. A transfer case is the inverse of a regular case with a screen bottom and the partitions stick up higher than in a regular case. You place the transfer case on top and flip the whole thing over. Dust and dirt fall through the screen and you put a clean case over the now full transfer case. Flip one more time and the type is in the new, clean case. Clean the original case and repeat as necessary.

You need a transfer case for each case layout, ideally. Like I said they’re rare; I’ve only seen one of these in 30 years. And Dave Churchman wasn’t willing to sell his.

Other than that the best way I’ve found is to pick out the type one or two pieces at a time and clean as I go. Or you could simply pi the type into a bucket of Churchman’s baby shampoo and borax mixture and then distribute the cleaned type after drying it.

Transfer cases can be made by canibalizing another case but the most important thing to know/remember is that the individual partitions inside the basic frame of a case (usually in three distinct sections) are LOWER than the framing itself, so whatever you use to “marry” the partition grid on the transfer case to the original case has to dip down into the framed sections of the original case in order to have good contact with the original partitions, otherwise you can easily get small/thin pieces of type slipping/migrating into compartments that they do not belong in because of the gap.

Hope that makes sense. Transfer cases are EXTEMELY helpful in cleaning out dusty cases. I have only ever seen them in the California Job Case format because that is usually the prevalent format/pattern for type cases.

Also remember that the older cases with the high lip on the front do not work well with transfer cases. You want a nice flat frame surface for both the transfer case and the original case.


Rather than using the ‘suck’ on a vacuum cleaner, find one which will blow (or, I suppose, use an air compressor). Take your trays out of doors, put on a dust mask, and set to work… Much more effective, and far less risk of pie…

I have an ATF transfer case, and it can be used with lipped and dustless cases; a rabbett is all that is needed. A bigger problem is cases with the tops of the boxes slightly below frame height. ATF had that figured out too, by making a removable piece that fills the gap.
Using air blast is also dangerous. Small types can easily be blown out of their boxes. It also disperses the dust into your workspace and it may contain lead oxides.

I would not use a blast of air, that could mix the case up really fast. When i was in high school someone donated about 200 cases of hand type to the print shop, they bought a thing that hitched on the end of a vaccuum cleaner hose (it was sold by atf i think) you sucked all the type from the compartment then pulled a trigger that opened a valve that let the type fall back in the case, it had a screen inside so the type didn’t get sucked in the hose. You can put a screen over a regular vaccuum hose and just pull the type off the screen. Good Luck Dick G.

Bryan at The Arm has made us something like what DickG describes here. But ours is simply a half a coke can with a hole in the bottom which is stuffed full of steel wool.

You can bend the can opening to fit a case compartment and put the other end against the opening of the shop vac. It lifts the type from the compartment, pulls the dust through the steel wool filter, and then you can pop the contraption free of the vacuum hose and drop the type back into the case or into a fresh one.

Daniel Morris
The Arm Letterpress
Brooklyn, NY