Caked on ink on woodtype

I feel like I’ve gone through the archives and read every discussion question about cleaning up woodtype. However, I have some old sorts that just have ink caked on them. As if someone took a very wet brayer to them and then walked away for 50 years. Would kerosene do the trick to getting this ink off and make the type useable? Do I need to break out the finest of steel wool and elbow grease? Curious how others have cleaned up type this bad without removing the finish.

Log in to reply   14 replies so far

Depending on how thick the ink film is and the type size, I -might- use some 400 or 600 grit sand paper, wet with solvent, flat on the stone to break the ink film surface and remove some of it. Very carefully… don’t what to see bare wood appear.

After that, I’ve had some success with soaking in “substitute paint thinner” (aka “California thinner”) and a toothbrush or non-abrasive ScotchBrite pad. It was not a quick process. A big thing is that you need to be careful of the letter’s edges so as not to cut into them.

Beware of lacquer thinner in all it’s forms as some wood type was lacquered for protection (and some might have been shellacked, so alcohol is out, too).

Well, all I have in the house right now is baby oil. So I gave that a shot with some really fine grit and it at least got the ink flat/smooth enough for printing. I was surprised by how well it worked. I’ll try again with some mineral spirits if I can find some in the area with all these stores closed. This might end up being the perfect quarantine project aside from sorting my hell box.

The hardware stores should be open, they’re considered “essential”.

True, but my local one went out of business before the pandemic. So it’s a matter of me finding it elsewhere.

I have some background in woodworking… also gun repair. I used to cringe when I heard about anyone taking an abrasive to the surface of a firearm for some reason… either the wood or the metal. Yes, there are times when it is necessary, but it is easy to reduce the value of something like that by hundreds of dollars if you are not very careful.

As to taking an abrasive to a typographic surface… I am again cringing. I would leave the steel wool and sandpaper in the tool box and go with some kind of chemical stripper. There are all kinds of very good products out there that will remove paint (which is a close relative of ink) but won’t hurt the wood underneath the paint/ink. Yes, such a stripper will also remove lacquer, shellac, varnish or any other product that might have sealed the wood, but I would wager that there probably isn’t much of that left on the type face anyway.

I would also respectfully suggest that you contact the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. They have an extensive collection… some pieces of which were not in the best of condition when they got them and certainly needed cleaning. Most likely they’d have some advice worth listening to.

Also, no matter how many times you clean wood type you will never get all the ink off of it. Wood is a porous material and ink will always soak in.

Did I mention “very carefully” :) ?

Any tool or solvent will do damage if used incorrectly or indiscriminately. I’ve removed dried-on ink from rollers with paint thinner, and, yes, 400 grit sand paper. It took quite some time, but was cheaper than a new set of rollers and they came out fine. Done the same with ink on some brass galleys. This is not something that you can rush. (The point is to break the film, not to remove all the ink; then let the solvent soften what remains.) And once the ink is softened, you still have to remove it.

I haven’t tried chemical paint strippers on dried ink, but some of them are just -nasty- (e.g.those with methylene chloride) and I wouldn’t use those at all.

Rubber rollers: Scotchbrite, and Cleancut (traditional letterpress formula of Toluene and Acetone mix). That’s how it was done for generations but use common sense when working with highly flammable solvents. Before Scotchbrite there was wire wool, but SB is better, and if you have a small lathe it’s helpful and saves time. Or if you know your roller guy well just ask for a quick regrind. Composition rolls are like outhouses, never any good and always a pain.

Good luck getting toluene in some parts of the country, even real acetone isn’t always easy to find.

And do not use steel wool on wood or plastic, it can leave fibers behind. Scotchbrites are great, as are the copper mesh pot-scrubber pads.

any auto paint supply or industrial coatings supplier sells it. I was talking about rollers not wood type. But that works too with a pad or even without. The combination of both Xylene/toluene and acetone is toxic but this mixture was used for over half a century in letterpress and offset shops. If you are familiar with Phenoid that’s what this mix is. In fact in offset adding water also broke down the gum on blankets. Not sure what part of the country you’re in but if you wanted it you can find it.

Hey Lorraine - Can you post a photo? I have had success with cleaning ink wood type. I will post something tomorrow, here, or I can email you?


Lorraine - I have been using this method to clean wood type. Dropbox PDF download here:


Thanks everyone for weighing in! See the attached photo for what I’m dealing with. @dadofguads I’ll take a look at your link next!

image: 1B0D7F12-7815-4DF7-B6BF-5638046930D5.jpeg


Solvents stronger than baby oil should be easier to use now that the weather is a bit warmer and I could take them outside. Tony, just looked at your link: do you think the gojo would work on ink that’s this caked?

hey Lorraine, I believe so, it certainly will not hurt to try — that cap ‘A’ looks like it has been scraped on before?

And, the GoJo is available in a smaller container.

Let me know how it goes.