Cleaning Wood Type

OK, so I just purchased a font of 30-line French Clarendon (smile) and I am looking for some suggestions on how best to clean both the face and the counter, which on each character are quite dirty. Some ink, but mostly dirt and grime. I tried to research the topic here on Briar Press, but came up empty. Perhaps there’s a thread buried in some other discussion subject, but I struck out.

I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves and scrub, but I don’t want to harm the type. Any suggestions on what to use to remove grime and crud, the random build-up of dried ink, and any caveats, from other wood type aficionados would be tremendously helpful!


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I don’t think you want to make it look like new to display in your parlor. You want it clean so it will print well. I think part of the beauty of old wood type is a bit of ink and discoloration. It is like me. It shows it has been used.
Wood type was sealed with shellac when made. Alcohol is the shellac solvent. Stay away from alcohol. Wood and water do not mix well.
That leaves solvent, an old toothbrush and a pointy thing like a knife blade. The latter to be used with care as scratches are not attractive. I would start with mild solvent like simple mineral spirits.
Show us a photo of before and after, please.
Get some ink on your shirt, and the type.

I’ve found kerosene to be more potent in removing old dirt and ink from my wood type. If you’re going to print right away, though, wipe it down with a clean rag and let it dry for a few minutes. Kerosene doesn’t evaporate as quickly as mineral spirits and will affect ink laydown.

Kerosene would be my cleaner-of-choice for wood type, though I use it on metal type too. Another advantage in addition to what jonsel has stated is that the kerosene will leave a very thin oily coating on the type when it dries. This also helps to prevent your wood type from drying-out. This oily coating also prevents oxidation on lead type as well as cuts.


After I posted this new topic, I Googled “cleaning wood type” and lo and behold it took me to at least six discussion threads on Briar Press, all with the same title as this one.

Funny that, at least for me, the Briar Press search engine didn’t come up with them.

Thanks for the advice so far. I took the plunger can down to the gas station and got about two dollars-worth of kerosene, and I’m planning to wear out more than a few toothbrushes once I start. The weather is finally warm enough to work outside again.

I’ll send “before” pics along in a couple of days, after I finish my latest pieces (eight of them, double-sided) for the April APA bundle.

Until then….

Can you give us an update, Armchair Detective? My husband just surprised me with 4 large trays of beautiful, but dusty, wood type. I want to clean and condition them to prevent them from drying out further. I definitely plan to display them, but not sure if I’ll ever actually use them on a letterpress.

image: IMG_20130907_100658.jpg


Which kerosene do you mean with kerosene?
When I search for the translation in german I either get lamp oil or jet fuel.
But I think it is the lamp oil?

Chemically they are probably much the same. To me, jet fuel smells like kerosene. An old American term for kerosene was coal oil.
Get lamp oil.

Lamp oil is usually colored and scented. Opt for Kerosene that is clear or slightly yellow. It is often sold for use with space heaters.

There is regular kerosene and then there is “white kerosene” that most people use in their space-heaters simply because it is a little more refined and does not have as much odor as the regular stuff. My shop is in my basement and I have been using white kerosene for decades, with no complaints from the wife upstairs.

I also get my white kerosene at a country gas station and simply have them refill my 2-gallon can from their pump.

This may come as a revelation to most urbanites, but out here is “farm country” a lot of the independent little gas stations also have a kerosene pump, usually off to the side or behind the gas station. Some old tractors burn kerosene and LOTS of farmers have sheds that are heated with kerosene heaters when they are working in them in the winter.

Minburn, Iowa (not the end of the world, but we can see it from here!)

Heater Kerosene is usually classified as K-1.

Kerosene may be called parraffin in Germany, at least it is in the UK.

I’ve got a very old border that is quite worm and has decades of crud in the shoulder of the border (see pic). I use Kero on a daily basis to clean type. My question is can I soak the border overnight or will the wood just drink up the Kero? The thing is I have two shoe boxes of border.
Pic attached show where I have ticked away ink using a scalpel under a loupe. Not an ideal or sensible solution. Thoughts?

image: image.jpeg


The kerosene probably won’t hurt the wood, but if I were you I would do a test first. Fill a small can or jar with about an inch of kerosene. Then stick the end of a piece of border in it and leave it in overnight (or as long as you want to). Then see if the kerosene has damaged the piece. Also see if you can then get the dried ink off with, say, a toothbrush, or the usual 2 X 4 inch printer’s brush with hair bristles (don’t use a brass or stainless steel bristle brush). Wear goggles and gloves.

If you do this and it does hurt the border, at worst, you will only have lost a small piece. Kerosene is volatile, and will slowly evaporate, so even if the wood does absorb a lot of kerosene, it should evaporate eventually. As part of the test, (after you have taken it out of the kerosene), you might want to observe the test piece over a few weeks or a month to be sure there aren’t any long term effects to the border.

A good plan I think. Will let you know how it goes. It!s a very shallow relief that is glugged up so hopefully it will come loose easily.

No joy ink sat steadfast fast. Hmm

I have cleaned metal type quite successfully with paint remover. I had the type locked up in the chase and brushed the paint remover on with a toothbrush, then scrubbed after letting it sit for a few minutes, then wiped it off and scrubbed with a damp toothbrush rinsed and reapplied several times. The ink came off clean as a whistle, but it was metal type. Paint remover can lift grain of some woods when stripping furniture if applied liberally, so it would be well to test a small area, as advised with the kero.


I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent product in the US, but in the UK there’s a company called Ultrachem who sell an ‘ink stripper’ that’s perfect for cleaning dried ink.

Our group does printing as historical re enactment.

For years, we used mineral spirits or kerosene.
We use both wood and metal type, depending on the event.

2 of our crew are slowly developing chemical sensitivity.
We CANT lose their expertise.

We also had a glazing problem on the Gordon presses.

I got permission to test some vegetable based products.
This year, people commented on how nice the shop smelled.
The orange oil was working well.

We hadnt tried it on wood type, yet.
One night, some was spilled on some filthy furniture blocks.
They returned to “blond oak”.

That stuff has been working well for everything in the shoppe!

I cant believe orange oil could do anything bad to wood type.

Coal oil, paraffin oil, lamp oil, Kerosene, Jet fuel are all close to the same thng.
Jet fuel is high octane kerosene, likely to melt your lamp or heater.
Its a decent cleaner, although expensive and carries quite a scent.

The others are various purities and smoke factors.

For lamp use, try and get the stuff thats distilled a half dozen times.
Doesnt small and doesnt smoke.

I have a friend with a MASSIVE collection of great old cuts. He has been spending much of the past few years cleaning them. After much trial and error he has settled of spraying the cuts with Scrubbing Bubbles. Let the stuff do its magics and then remove with a toothbrush. His cleaned cuts look fantastic.

Decades ago an old antique dealer told me to use Efferdent (denture cleaner that bubbles) to clean old watch chains and things like that. Works like a charm!!!!!!!!!!!


Interesting Rick. Scrubbing bubbles a brand name I assume. Will check this out. M

Has anybody dealt with caked mud (as in flood damage)? I was given a whole bunch of wood border, but the counters are filled entirely with mud. Surprisingly, the border did not warp (except for one piece).

Oh my god! The dried silt that coats things that were submerged in floods is the WORST possible crap to try to remove. It has been decades since I tried to clean this off of things that had been flooded and then salvaged after everything had dried out. This was back in the early 90s. The only reason I even attempted this was because there were some rare metal fonts in the group.

The first reasonable thing to d would be to soak the material to get the dried mud (super-fine silt) t loosen up and hopefully powerwash or rub off. No such luck. For whatever reason this stuff is like baked clay and refuses to loosen up easily. I litererally had to use a stiff toothbrush, after a lengthly soaking, to painstakingly remove that crap from all the surfaces on each piece of type My only consolation was rescuing some nice type.

If you soak the wood borders, one way to minimize the chance of them warping when they dry back out is to make sure they dry out SLOOOOOOOOWLY.