How do I clean an old press?

I just purchased an old letter press this summer and am ready to clean it up to bring it in the house. The press is in working order, but there is dirt and dust in the grease and it has some residue from a fire ext. due to a small fire in the bldg. the press was stored. Can anyone tell me the best way to clean and re-grease the press without hurting it? I really do not want to take it apart. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank You, Amy
Here is the link for u tube video (hope it works)

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You can clean the press with rags and diesel-fuel. It’s a bit smelly, but it is a good solvent and since it’s oil, it will prevent rust on exposed metal. Keep the area ventilated and the smell will dissipate.

The oil ports can be cleaned with paper clips & swabs (Q-tips) dipped in diesel, flushed with WD40, then oiled with straight 40W oil found in the farm supply stores or equipment suppliers.

Anything that moves metal to metal (shafts, rollers, gears, hubs, etc.) should be lightly oiled every day the press will be used; some ports may be hard to get to, some places may have a simple lip or groove. Expect to have oil dripping from the press, it’s normal. Oiling and wiping are part of the deal.

Generally, grease is not used.

The press looks in decent shape… many are found covered with rust and caked ink.


Thank you AM for your answer. I was hoping for something less smelly, but I don’t want to do anything to ruin the press either. I will be working on it this next week. Thanks again for your help. Have an outstanding day :) Amy

P.S. Do you have any idea what brand of press this may be, and what is the hole in the wheel for?

Hi Amy,

Diesel fuel doesn’t smell any more/worse than most other solvents of similar efficacy. Most are also flammable, so observe safety recommendations with any solvent or cleaner you use.

The broken spoke on the flywheel may be where someone attached a handle to aid in starting the press. I would simply fill the gap with epoxy so that nothing catches on the edges, and start the press by pulling the rim of the flywheel. (If the press is to be fully restored in the future, epoxy is easily removed with a heat-gun and scraper.)

It might be premature to say the press is “in working order” before it actually is used to print. There are many details involved in the process. Hands-on workshops are available to newcomers and veterans alike.

You can upload pictures of the press to an online account (Picasa, Flickr, Photobucket, etc.) and post links to them, so others may help identify the make and model of the press.


I would recommend using something like Kerosene or odorless Mineral Spirits rather than Diesel fuel. In a check of the MSDS sheets on Diesel, it looks to me that you would be inviting exposure to a very strong substance unnecessarily. I have never heard of Diesel being recommended as a solvent, and like Gasoline would expect that you would be exposed to carcinogens. Reading about Diesel online it seems that there are some versions that might be acceptable, but I doubt that you would have ready access to that particular version of it. Before using any oil-based product I would encourage you to read the MSDS sheets on it to make yourself aware of what you are exposing yourself to.


The press looks quite similar to the Alert Rotary Job Press as pictured in the Briar Press Museum links. It was in the third page of the job press category.

It doesn’t look from that photo that there is any counterweight on the flywheel, but perhaps someone added one. That tends to help with a foot-treadled press in keeping it running smoothly. I’m sure you could use it as is, fill the hole with expoxy as suggested, or even bolt a weight in place (you could cats one out of typemetal to try.

John Henry

Thank You for the info, I went and had a look at that one and it does look very much the same. Do you know where I could get more information as there is only a picture in the Museum. Thanks again, and have an outstanding day! Amy

“Fuel oil is a general term for a number of burnable liquids made from crude oil. Most common is Fuel Oil No.1 (also called kerosene), range oil, and jet fuel (JP5). Fuel oils 1-D and 2-D are diesel fuels. Fuel oil No. 2 is home heating oil, and fuel oil No. 4 is a diesel fuel for boats. All fuel oil mixtures have similar chemical and physical properties.

Fuel oils are used to run many types of engines, lamps and heaters. Sometimes small amounts of fuel oil are stored in portable containers for use in space heaters, to clean metal parts, or used in camp stoves or lanterns.

Exposure to fuel oil is not known to cause cancer in humans.”


Mick on Monotype on 6 Jul 13 (18:04):

….. forget, kerosene, W.D. 40 etc >> TRY, 1/4 of a gallon of ordinary Auto Diesel,<< with the obligatory cotton waste rag, Cleaner, Soaking rusty machine parts, Anti Sieze Agent, very light lubricant, (via squirt oil can, as mist, into the bowels of you machine, if necessary!!) does not evaporate, Can be stored, indefinately!!! Fraction of the price of all the proprietary alternatives, very little smell, very little fumes. …

Why not just trundle down to the hardware store and buy a gallon of Kerosene, rather than take the chance of what you might buy at the pump? If you want less smell, then Mineral Spirits would be the sensible choice, but remember that just because you can’t smell it doesn’t mean that harmful fumes won’t build up. Again, I have never, in 42 years of commercial and private printing, heard of Diesel being used as a solvent. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.


After looking at the video I would suggest picking up a general purpose cleaner like “Simple Green”. I have used this product on machinery that was covered in grease and dirt and it works great.

Use rubber gloves and goggles, spray it on, let it set, wipe off and repeat if necessary.

Diesel is great for lubrication purposes, but lacks the cleaning action that you need. It would work, but the odor will last a LONG time.


HALLELUJAH!!! We are all saved by the discovery of NON Carcinogenic Kerosene, and Mineral spirits, obviously cracked from an alternative to crude oil.
Always believed in more than 60 years of Printing, Typecasting, rebuilding Printing machines and the odd Diesel engine, etc that Petrol, Diesel, Paraffin, (T.V.O. Tractor Vapourising Oil) Aviation Fuel, KEROSENE and MINERAL Spirits were ALL cracked from Crude oil?? or have we had word from beyond the grave that Wernher Von Braun, (possibly) has left in trust a secret formula, for Kerosene etc where the chemical and molecular structure has eliminated carcinogens???
A. M. Has obviously cracked the code and been able to navigate the bit about, *reading about Diesel online, But One doubts that you (first person) would have ready access to that particular version* Special powers for the privileged few, perhaps.???
It is strongly suspected that GOOGLE, WICKIPEDIA, etc etc are accessible to *the world and his wife* apparently!!
60 Years ago Bona Fide Apprentices into the Print trade were given fairly comprehensive, instruction and cautions into all aspects of chemicals used within the trade, (then) harmful effects, safety in general, the origins of crude oil products and by products, long before Solvent Abuse, Google, Wickipedia, Search Engines were invented.??
Therefore, It would seem reasonable in the elapsed time, that one or two, (Million) have worked out that, proper info is available to ALL. >On line< ???

@Mick. If you bother to read the MSDS descriptions of Diesel Fuel you might find that there are usually additives that make it more dangerous to use than regular Kerosene or Low Odor Mineral Spirits. There are a number of grades of Fuel Oils, Diesel Fuel is just a different refinement. One would need to go to a distributor to acquire variants not sold at the fuel pumps. If you bothered to do any research yourself you would already know that Kerosene is considered non-carcinogenic. I personally would rather not use a solvent (Diesel Fuel) that contains Benzene and Tolulene and makes things smell like a truck stop.

I am not as ready to dismiss online sources as you seem to be. I read the industry Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to get my information on solvents, and recommend that anyone handling solvents of any kind do the same. Please stop making obtuse and blanket statements that do more to confuse the issue than actually further the conversation. The personal attacks aimed at me are totally unnecessary.

The following is a link to an assessment for the chemistry of Simple Green which seems to be neither simple green.

image: Fractional_distillation.gif


Thanks for the link. I learn something new everyday.
I will probably continue to use Simple Green for light duty cleaning, but will make sure that ventilation is occurring to lessen any health risk.



I won’t get into the solvent fray - OK, well, I comfortably use what I have for years, both kerosene and mineral spirits depending on the application.

I am sure you might be able to find the Alert Rotary in an old catalog somewhere. Maybe Rick Von Holdt has run onto a description at some point. He seems to possess a plethora of the old catalogs.

John Henry

Kero is just lighter weight diesel. It burn less sooty and will not gel in lower temperatures.

It is a half-shade closer to gasoline and if anything, more unhealthy, since it has a higher vapor pressure and generates more fumes.

If someone wants to clean a press with kero, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t suggest it’s any safer than diesel.

I would.

It looks like you will have to practice your fine brushwork with gold paint. :)

Picture form A Catalogue of 19th Century Presses, no description given.

image: Alert Rotary.jpg

Alert Rotary.jpg

I am in the process of cleaning up a Little Giant Model 6. Simple Green is doing a fine job of removing 60 years of grease, oil and dried-on ink. Several applications with wiping in between has worked really well.


I am no expert in what is the safest, and would welcome others comments, but, I have found the degreasers that have a sodium hydroxide (lye) component commonly found at hardware and auto parts stores for degreasing engines and other industrial uses are the most effective. While they are non flammable, they definitely require protective gloves because the lye component makes them a strong base. They remove grease, oil, dried ink, and if left on long enough, or soaked, paint. This Pearl No. 2 press seen here:[email protected]/ was cleaned with it. You can see the before shots. None of the decoration was visible when the press was purchased as it had been painted over. The press was put outside on a driveway, sprayed with the degreaser, and carefully watched and brushed with a soft paint brush to remove the layers of dirt, grime, grease, ink and paint. The press was sprayed with the hose when I wished the cleaning process to be halted and then carefully dried and reoiled. If left on too long the decorations would have been removed, and then ultimately the original black paint. The cleaning process took about 20 minutes total. I am not aware of any fumes during the process, but, as I said earlier, you need to protect your skin from contact which I find easily accomplished with rubber gloves. What say you others? Good? Bad?


I wondered what lye is.
I have seen it referred to in late 1800 books such as American Printer for cleaning type.


That is exactly why I looked into it and tried these products. I should also add, that my normal everyday cleaning product is kerosene for the same reason. I only go to the lye based product when necessary which is usually when I first bring home another press in need of restoration. I am certainly interested in working safely as I do restorations almost constantly, so, I am curious as to others knowledge on the use of these products. I believe the printers of yesterday knew what worked, but, I am not as confident that they knew how safe the products were.


I have found that products that contain lye do a wonderful job of removing dried ink, old grease and whatever builds up on a printing press, just don’t use it on aluminum. I’m sure there are risks involved but restoring 1 or 2 presses in a life time shouldn’t be a long term health risk. Lye can cause damage to skin and eyes in a very serious way, so proper clothing and hand and eye protection are necessary.
Lye can be purchased at hardware stores and a plus in its favor other than working well is that it is cheap. A product made by Zep and available at Home Depot called “degreaser” works as well as lye and is in a liquid state.

Thank You Everyone for all of the help and information, I am working on it and making progress. Thanks again, Amy