Cleaning type

I have a large amount of metal type that has a grey film that
cover the characters. It appears to look oxidized or something. I would like to clean it to so the faces will be printable. Does anyone know if there is a way to remove this coating?

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I claim to be expert in the field of cleaning old type. I call it idiot work and have done much of it.
The grey is an oxide of lead. Some of us old hand spikers call it type mold.
There is no efficient, cheap and non-toxic way to clean the type. No magic solution.
That is not to say that it cannot be cleaned.
This is what I do.
I put some in a bucket with several inches of water and some powdered tri-sodium phosphate. Get it at the hardware store. Let it sit for a day. This will not attack the oxide, but will work on the other old ink and grunk. Then I brush each letter with an old toothbrush and put it in another bucket with fresh water. Swish that and empty to dry. When dry I brush each letter with a brass type brush. If not too badly corroded, they will clean up nicely and you can print from them.
Real idiot work. Put on some nice music.

Get some ink on your shirt.

To add to the above great comment. After you have cleaned them brush or dip them in kerosene and let dry. This will provide a very thin coating of oil that will prevent oxygen from oxidizing your type again.


Caution: I was always told that handling type would never hurt you, as the lead was locked into a three metal alloy by the tin content. I never saw dead and dying compositors littering Fleet Street. However I was loudly told that there was an exception, if the three metal lock starts to fail, and the lead starts to oxidise. with a grey white or grey cream oxidation, that this oxide is extremely bad for you. should not be handled at all, and the only remedy was to re-melt and re-cast the type. At least rubber gloves I think would be called for.

Great comments above, a couple more. I use the traditional Lye for cleaning, and a little bit goes a long way, but be very,very careful not to get any on your face or eyes. Always wear gloves. I then use a cheap 60 watt ultrasonic cleaner, the gunk just flies off. The thin oil coating that Rick mentions is essential or the type will corrode again. Now, what do you do with the left-over water, if it might contain lead and lead alloys? I let the container evaporate off much of the water, then sometime I will bring the rest of it to a proper recycle centre.


Lye question. Heidelberg recommends soaking the form rollers in 3% lye solution to remove ink residue. How many grams or ounces lye crystals should I add to a jug of 1 gallon distilled water to make the 3% solution?

Hi Louie,

1 US gallon of water weighs 8.345 pounds.
1 imperial gallon of water weighs 10.022 pounds

Since we are in Canada, we’ll use imperial gallons as an example. If you want to mix up an imperial gallon of lye solution, for instance, 3% of 10.022 lbs is .30 of a pound. Since there are 16 imperial ounces in an imperial pound, .30 X 16 = 4.8 ounces of lye.

So, mix up 4.8 imperial ounces of lye into an imperial gallon of water.

The above is based on the assumption that they are recommending 3% by weight. There is a slight possibility that they are talking about 3% by volume, but it is unlikely. Printers generally measure things by weight, (like in ink colour matching, for instance).

When I was an apprentice Machine Minder back in the last century, we scrubbed out the forms using Paraffin and a type brush. If we were in a hurry we would use Petrol (Gasoline) and scrub away. I’ve even seen the form set on fire, to burn off excess fluid, dangerous, but happy days!

Thank you Geoffrey for the answer.