Solvents and roller wash for the small letterpress shop

I am re-posting this comment from another topic for easy searches.

I prefer not to have more flammables on hand than I have safety containers. Kerosene is the only one I buy by the gallon, the rest I purchase by the quart at my local hardware store. I use:

Kerosene as a general cleaning solvent. It evaporates slowly so it is not great for a wash-up while your job is on the press. But it does evaporate over night.

Naptha is a good general type wash; quick evaporating and strong enough for most cleaning. If I am running a job and need to wash the rollers I will use Kerosene for a general wash-up followed by a quick cleaning of the rollers with Naptha, so I’ll be ready to run without a lot of paper loss. Most commercial roller/press washes are about 75% Naptha with other oils and solvents added to slow down evaporation. Naptha = White Gas = Coleman Fuel

Odorless Mineral Spirits I have a bit of a problem with because the lack of odor makes you think you aren’t breathing in bad fumes, but you are. I still use it when other people are present who might be offended by the odor of Kerosene. I don’t find it any more effective than Kerosene, but it does evaporate slightly faster.

Denatured Alcohol is great for cleaning tympans after a miss-feed, it evaporates very quickly so it doesn’t buckle the tympans. It also is great for cleaning old, dirty wood furniture, I don’t know why it works so well for that one job, but it does. Because it evaporates so quickly it is very flammable, so caution should be used around spark producing machinery.

Lacquer Thinner is the strongest and most flammable of all the solvents I use. I find it very good for cleaning very dirty type, but it is very nasty to breathe so I use it very sparingly, and move the rags outdoors after use until they dry. It will remove paint. Even a drop of it will soften paint and finishes, so try not to use it around presses or cabinets. I have used it on wood type, and it will remove the shellac coating very quickly, making the surface absorb ink (necessitating a re-coating of the type). I use it to remove the paint from old type cases prior to repainting more than anything else.

After 30+ years of being involved with letterpress printing I have not had much need for any other solvent. I must add that if I had a high-speed press I would spring for an appropriate wash-up solution; something that didn’t evaporate too quickly with a good ink cutting quality. Keep your solvents in appropriate safety containers, and if you keep more than a gallon of anything most fire departments demand that you have a fire-proof cabinet.

Do not use commercial gasoline as a cleaning solvent. It is loaded with carcinogens and is incredibly flammable.


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I’m putting on my googles so I can goggle some answers to this interesting topic.