A question about working with lead type

I know very little about letter press printing and I’m in the process of dismantling an old letter press shop. I’ve run across these type cases (I believe they are called), that have sat for perhaps 50-60 years, and the lead type is covered with a grayish-white talc-like substance which I assume is some sort of oxidation. My question is, how dangerous is this stuff to work with? What degree of protection do I need to clean this stuff up, if it is worth cleaning up at all? Is it better to just dispose of it, or is it worth trying to salvage?
The type face in the photo is 36pt Civilite, which I was told is a fairly rare type face. (yes I know it’s a lousy photo, I know very little about photography also. The right side of the image best depicts the condition of the lead) There are four or five other smaller sizes of the same type face. So, I guess what I need to know is, do I try to clean them up and sell them? Or just box them up and scrap them? Any advice is welcome and appreciated, thanks!

image: Civilite36ptType.jpg


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The white stuff is lead oxide - which is extremely dangerous. However, the type can still be cleaned (very carefully), and used for years. I will defer to others on the best method of cleaning.

Thank you Bill!
Now that what I suspected is true, I’m hoping someone can tell me if this stuff is worth trying to save at all. I wan’t to salvage it because I really do think equipment like this has historical value, and also if it’s worth something, I can certainly use the money. But if this is that dangerous of a proposition, is it worth risking my health for? To what degree to I need protection, will gloves and a dusk mask do, or do I need serious equipment like a respirator and such?

Definitely worth saving - Civilite is on a lot of people’s want lists.

Recommend the use of latex gloves, but would need a serious respirator, since it can get through most face masks. You could easily sell it to someone else who could clean it up and use it. You will want to limit your exposure - just don’t breathe or ingest it, and wash your hands if you touch it.

Why are some people uptight about something which is short term exposure?
While you are buying that serious repirator don’t forget the polythene sheeting to seal all the doors and windows and filtered extraction system.
Many comps and machine minders lived to a ripe old age.

Use some common sense which seems lacking these days.

I’ve cleaned type from 18pt upwards, anything smaller went in the bin.

Cleaned it the same way as the Victorian printers did, drop it in lye (caustic soda, sold as drain cleaner) then rinse in clean water.

Need glasses, old clothing and rubber gloves. Rub each piece with a toothbrush after the rinse. Do it in a clear area with newspaper around, pets out of the way, don’t eat while doing it and turn the phone off so you are not distracted.
Dilute the lye before pouring down the drain. Double use!

Thanks again for the good advice Bill!

To really be on the safe side, contact NASA. They’re certain to have an unused space suit available. Sheeeesh! It’s lead - not radioactive plutonium. You’ve more danger sitting, stuck, on the freeway.
And, platenp? Common sense simply does not exist anymore. If it ever did. :o)

I really think you can save the respirator for another day! Do not lick the type, or your hands after cleaning.

As forme said, common sense will go far in this case.

Lead Oxide, if inhaled or ingested, is extremely toxic. If you don’t believe me, Google it.

I can’t expect everyone to have the level of skill necessary to handle it safely. I certainly wouldn’t want to accidentally breathe lead oxide, nor would I recommend anyone else put themselves in that position.

Suggesting otherwise is simply irresponsible.

I have worked with all sorts of lead for over 30 years. I think the fears concerning tiny exposures are overblown. Just wear a good dust mask and wash your hands afterward. You’ll be fine.http://realneo.us/system/files/pb-tainted_science.pdf

Bill, you are absolutely correct about the dangers of lead oxide. The powder itself is not very bad, but if it becomes airborne and inhaled or ingested, not only is “short term exposure” a serious hazard, a SINGLE exposure could have long term health effects which may not become apparent for many years. (Information from a chemist at Sherwin Williams) Anybody with any “common sense” knows that lead is an extremely toxic substance in any form, it’s just that some forms are more dangerous to work with than others. Anybody with any “common sense” attempts to learn about and understand the materials they will be working with on a project so they can deal with them accordingly. Why wear gloves and glasses when working with lye? Surely a “short term exposure” to it won’t hurt you.

This being a public forum, I should have expected that for every intelligent, helpful comment I would get there would be an equal amount of smart-ass, useless responses. I thought Briar Press might be above all that, but our type licking, “contact NASA” rocket scientist members have sadly proved me wrong. But they were right about something, common sense is definitely out the window, along with common courtesy and respect.

Thank you Bill Hannegan.
I think you’re right about the lead type itself, working with that doesn’t seem to be any big deal. But, I am a bit concerned with the fine metallic powder that has covered some of the type, and the bottoms of the compartments of the type cases. I will take your advice of getting a good quality mask, wearing gloves, and just being careful and using common sense.

Is there any solid information on how likely it is that the lead oxidation ON COLD METAL TYPE will become airborne and be inhaled in amounts, however small or momentary, that are dangerous (as opposed to purely homeopathic doses).

There are many different ways to be exposed to lead oxide, and some of them are indeed scarily dangerous without things like respirators. However, leaving aside kids eating paint chips, those on which I’ve found information so far involve molten lead or mass manufacturing uses, probably with machines moving around large volumes of the stuff.

The fumes (containing lead oxide) from molten lead were a known hazard in the hot metal days, and ventilation was needed in industrial settings. Do people who run Monotype and Linotype casting machines today wear respirators, or install ventilation systems? We didn’t wear respirators when I was trained on Linotypes many years ago in printing school (including RIT), and, outside of “wash your hands religiously before you eat”, I never heard talk about hazards from the many career lead guys I worked with in type shops in the early post-lead era, for about twelve years. They were all Big Sixers (as in ITU Local 6) from the many shops, large and small, in New York, and they loved to talk shop. I doubt the Six in its heyday would have let known hazards pass, and the toxicity of lead and lead oxide was well known back then.

As for the plain old grey-black lead dust, you can vacuum it up—through a screen, so the type doesn’t disappear. It would be nice to wash it, too. Mirror-image type cases with screened bottoms used to be made. They were placed face down on top of the type case, the two them were held together and flipped, the dust was sifted out through the screen, and then the type was moved back to the original case the same way. It was also a handy way of moving a font to a third case.

Working around Ink Toner Cartridges is very bad:
Carbon Black Dangers
Carbon black — which the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as a 2B carcinogen, or “a dust that is possibly carcinogenic to humans” — is found in toner ink. While you’re not exposed to it during normal use, if a toner cartridge breaks, you may inhale it or have it touch your skin. To avoid accidentally inhaling or touching this chemical, don a paper breathing mask and protective gloves whenever changing the toner ink in any of your office’s photocopiers or disposing of old toner ink cartridges. Carbon black inhalation may cause headaches, eye irritation, chronic itchiness and small growths on the tongue. By extension, direct contact with the skin is likely to cause severe itchiness and irritation.

Carbon Monoxide Dangers
Photocopiers that use toner ink may emit carbon monoxide when they overheat in poorly ventilated areas, according to the London Hazards Center. Exposure to carbon monoxide may cause a dramatically increased pulse rate, severe headaches and drowsiness. To combat this problem, keep your office’s photocopiers in well-ventilated areas and, if possible, open any nearby windows when the devices are in use. This is particularly important if your photocopiers are constantly used throughout the workday, as the devices are more likely to overheat with frequent use.

Related Reading: How to Extend the Life of a Brother Ink Cartridge

Overheating Dangers
You run the risk of burning yourself when handling toner ink cartridges that have recently been used. Toner ink cartridges to heat up very quickly when their host copier is in use. If you attempt to replace a toner ink cartridge shortly after making use of its host copier, you risk incurring severe burns. Wait at least an hour after making your last copy to remove a toner ink cartridge.

This is really useful. Some extra advice needed:
If a case has lead oxide on it, is it safe to carry on using it in a studio after you’ve cleaned it? Or should I just throw it out? And in fact, what’s the best way to clean it off to start with?

Hi guys - this thread kept me up the other night thinking of all the old lead I slap around in everyday. I have my Dad’s old shop and there is plenty of sketchy looking type in the lot. Rather than get myself in a knot - I went and got my blood tested the next day. I have other reasons to be concerned about this as we just remodeled our 120 year old house and exposed some very deteriorated lead painted walls. WELL - the test came back completely normal. Nothing to worry about. I just wanted to pass that along. I think I’ll still work at cleaning some of the messier type for the next guy. Hope the lye doesn’t get me! :) #paranoid #notparanoid