Cleaning entire cases of filthy type

I’ve come into some cases of type from a museum that was getting rid of them. The faces look to be in decent condition, but the type is filthy—after handling any of it, my fingers come away black, and the sorts are definitely covered in what I assume is ink residue and dust.

I’ve never had to clean so much type at once (never more than what I’ve used in a job) and don’t currently have any type wash (not sure where to get it—I’ve been cleaning plates with oil + simple green).

Any advice? I’d like to manage to empty out a case and while the type is cleaning, clean out the actual case, too.

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I do this frequently. I call it idiot work.
I take perhaps 30-40 pieces of type at a time and give them a soak in a jar. (several jars if you wish) of water with TSP. Real trisodium phosphate purchased in granular form from the hardware store. Not the synthetic nor the liquid. I soak for two days as that fits my schedule. Less may be fine. Rinse thoroughly. Some individual piece cleaning with a toothbrush will bring them up clean and bright. Alternately, set a line and brush the whole line.

Hello SansPress,

It sounds like it’s the volume of type that is daunting. What I’ve done in situations like that is to blow out the dust and then leave the type dirty until I use it. Then I clean only what I need as the occasions arise. I don’t think old ink will be any more difficult to remove if it’s been on the type for two months or two years.

To clean type, I do what inky does except I use Drano instead of TSP. I put a few ounces of water in a small dish (a custard cup, actually), add a small spoonful of Drano, then add the type. It is very important to use gloves and eye protection when working with Drano. The grime and old ink lift off almost instantly. I rinse the type thoroughly in a strainer (brushing if necessary), give the type a quick dip in a vinegar-and-water solution to neutralize any remaining Drano, and then rinse again. I spread the type out on a towel to dry. To quicken the drying I either use a hairdryer or put the type in a 100°F oven for a short while, though I melted a bit of type once when my oven thermostat failed. :-(

[EDIT: If you use a glass container, be sure it’s something intended for heat exposure since the Drano-and-water solution will get hot. The “custard cups” that I use are Pyrex. If you use a metal container, it should NOT be aluminum, since Drano reacts with aluminum. Actually, Drano contains tiny flecks of aluminum, which pop and fizz when water is added, presumably to assure the consumer that the product is “working.”]

When the type is clean and dry, I spray it with a solution of about 10% 3-IN-ONE in mineral spirits, since I live in a marine environment and corrosion is a problem. When a form is ready to print, I clean the surface with type wash to remove any oily residue. Lately I’ve been using Coleman fuel for type wash. For cleaning forms, I’ve found that a child’s battery-operated electric toothbrush works great.


If you have an old window screen, or buy a piece at the hardware store place it over the tray and hold it down and use a shop vac to suck the dust bunnies out. works great!

Here’s another way to clean typecases without removing the type. You also can use canned compressed air, but this gadget is cheaper in the long run, plus it’s more powerful.


Thanks folks! The volume of type is the most daunting part. I do need to clean it and be able to clean out the cases of splinters, dust and scraps of papers. I guess the best I can do is bit by bit. The TSP/Drano idea seems to work quickly, so that may help out. Any idea if that solution would eat through plastic? I’m not sure I have any glass containers lying around unused.


My experience of solvents is that some will dissolve some plastics, sometimes unexpectedly; suggest let solvent stand in plastic for 24 hours, observe result.


P.S.: I understand a little of the French language. — A.

To all:

I apologise in advance if this offends.

To an Oystraylyan, using a Dustvac which blows seems dangerous; is there likely to be various compounds of lead in the dust in the type cases? Metallic lead is not poisonous, but any oxide or other compound should be avoided if at all possible. Do not use very high-pressure air for cleaning where there is dust.

We used a vacuum cleaner with a disposable paper bag in it; the later “bagless” vacs mostly do not have an exit which can be connected to a hose. We put a very long hose on the exit from the machine, and ran the end into a water-filled large drum (fix the end so it is only a very short distance below the water level, with a perforated bit of plastic hose on the end, so that there is only a small “head” pressure, and so only a small quantity of that water can suck back into the long hose if something goes wrong); we hoped most of the lead particles and lead compounds were caught in the paper bag or in the tub.

We rigged up a small-size nozzle for the sucking end of the vac (too small to suck up type-sorts), adjusted the strength of sucking (there was a control of motor-speed); and there is a bleed on the metal part of the vac hose which controls suction to suit the user.

We also wore a dust mask; this should be a heavy-duty mask if there is more than a few cases to clean.

This is a country where, when I visited an industrial site, where no obvious danger was seen, visitors were requested to wear eye protection while on site; I believe this is not much extra protection, except that it persistently reminded me that I should be careful while on their site.

No responsibility accepted for the above comments.

I believe in taking any precautions I can, I have to put up with consequences (results) from my youth.

Sometimes very fine dust stirs asthma?


P.S.: This extra comment after I viewed the video of the Dustvac. — A.

Don’t put Drano in a glass container! The chemical reaction in Drano causes heat which can break the glass. Very dangerous! Use a metal container like a coffee can, the solution can be reused for quite a while. Do not leave the type in the caustic solution for very long, or it will alter the surface of the type, causing it to be more susceptible to corrosion.


I use the TSP solution in old peanut butter plastic jars.I do not believe it would react with any plastic or glass container.

Don’t put Drano in an aluminum tin, either! Experience…

Thanks to Alan, Paul, and emthree for providing additional safety precautions. I have edited my comment above and the comment on the Flickr video to reflect them.

Alan, of course you are right about working in a dusty environment. A good mask and eye protection are always in order. And additional precautions should be taken when working with any hazardous material — not only lead oxide but other things that could lurk in type cases such as mold spores or fecal material from rodents.

Paul, the “custard cups” I use are Pyrex, so I don’t think breakage would be a problem.

emthree, you are right about aluminum. I’ve been told that the little silvery flecks in Drano are actually aluminum, which pop and fizz when water is added, presumably to assure the consumer that the product is “working.”


I once tried to “etch” linoleum to make a relief print using paraffin as a resist and drano as the “etch”. Mixed up a batch in an aluminum tin and dropped the linoleum in, prepared to settle in for a long etch bath - seconds later, lots of fizzling, lots of bubbles, a decent amount of (presumably toxic) smoke, and a quick run outside with the whole mess. It might have worked, but I think a glass container would have been a better & less dramatic choice.

Devils Tail — I’ve read elsewhere on Briar Press about using lye to rehabilitate corroded type. The recommendation was to let the type soak for 30-45 minutes (then rinse with vinegar and water; then coat with WD40).

Is that too long to let it soak?


30 minutes is probably enough time, but the solution will weaken over time. Even using a caustic solution like lye will often not clean the type fully, so be prepared to scrub the type with a soft brush after the final rinse. I have some really old type that was cleaned with real lye back in the day; the caustic nature of the solution eroded the entire surface of the type making it corrode completely. I have also cleaned smaller amounts of type in a can filled with lacquer thinner, with good success. I still recommend not using glass containers. I went to a used restaurant supply store and bought small stainless steel food warming pans with lids, and a stainless steel strainer to hold the type in the solutions.