Numbering Machines

You know the kind that puts continuous numbers on paper.
How do you experienced letterpress operators clean and maintain your numbering heads?
Do you just clean with press wash or WD40 or soak them in oil?
I don’t think that this had ever been discussed before at Briarpress.
Curious Bob would like to know.

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The best way to clean numbering machines is in an ultrasonic cleaner; 5 mins in the bath and they come out looking brand new.
Wd 40 may clean them but on no account leave it at that as the wd40 will dry out and lock the wheels up tight; you must give them an oil between the wheels with very light penetrating oil, preferably with a syringe type applicator.
For everyday use cleaning with a toothbrush and type cleaner should suffice.
Advice from an 80yr old with 50+yrs letterpress experience.

The shops I worked in stored numbering machines in small glass jars with tight lids and gasoline. They were always clean and lubricated.

We received a tip a while back that said to put the numbering machine in a jar of typewash and strap it to the air pump on the windmill. The rocking motion sure did make the machine clean… after it completely disassembled it.
Anyway, we give them the occasional scrub down with typewash or film cleaner, and when they need it, we will soak them overnight, scrub them down the next morning and oil them up.

Depending on your budget, I find the easiest way to clean numbering machines is not to. Just throw them out and use a new one. I find that easiest, that way there is no proof of how I printed the serial numbers on the bills. Just joking! Everybodys advice sounds great. But can you really trust the advice of a 50+ year printer? They always think they know it all. And they usually do, if only I would listen.
there is a special oil/cleaner for number machines. i used to be able to buy a pint or quart? i think.?
as with most situations you can get by with more generically available stuff. the idiots i have worked with smash machines like they are free… i keep mine locked up…I.E lock and key

As noted, the ultrasonic cleaner is the best method to clean a numbering machine. But, the cleaner is expensive thus not often practicable for the occassional user.
Almost as effective is Naptha. Unlike other solvents, it does not leave residue when evaporated. Using a capped jar having an oiled rag inside is a common method of storing a numbering machine. Leave the machine un-oiled until ready for use; the oiled rag will dispel humidity and protect the highly-machined surfaces of the head. When ready to lock-up, use a spot oiler to inject but a dap of oil between each wheel and each side of the plunger. Clock oil is a superior lubricant. Should such not be available to you, a mix of kerosene (gasp!) and 5w motor oil in a 4:1 ratio will serve well. Also, never lock a numbering machine from its ends, and alway check the press grippers for clearance.

I was told most numbering machines have a special spot to oil, usually next to the number 4 iirc. We have guys at the shop that can take them apart and rebuild them if they get bad enough. Someday I might try on a spare one.

Yes, oiling the numbering head when all #4s are faced up is a time-honoured oiling approach. It stems from the fact that the mainshaft is grooved to accept all the wheels thus allowing correct alignment, leading to a belief the oil will distribute to all the wheels along that keyway. It often won’t. The wheels are best oiled between faces. Oiling the machine in that #4 position is perfectly legitimate, but is not entirely necessary. It does have drawback too: excess oil tends to gather in the keyway and leak throughout the run. Most annoying. The machine is not complex nor complicated and is easily dismantled by a competent tradesman. Many shops routinely changed wheels rather than purchasing whole heads for skip numbering use. Begin with an older American or Wetter head; they are forgivable. Some of those Italian jobs are sensitive junque.

Right, I’ve got a drawer full parts for changing skips and direction. These days all they seem to use at the shop is standard reverse machines and all the NCR is done as crash numbering. *sigh* At least I get to watch the giant run when they do it :D

How about a good dose of smartness!! Each time you finish running your numbering, just wipe it off!! I use a rag with a little press wash on it & give them a good wipe. I also put a LITTLE bit of light 3 in 1 oil on all the numbers when I finish before I put them away. A little bit of effort helps lots in the long run.

Good luck!
Will B

While I like the jar with oiled rag trick, if you don’t have time to washup a machine, just put it in a jar with kerosene. This will keep the ink from setting and lubricate the works, Of course you will have to wipe down and blow out the machine before you start. If you buy the “good” numbering machine solevent, wear gloves, as some of the components (oil of spearmint???) go right through the skin and hurt.

A trick for starting a machine, and not having poorly inked numbers for the first turn of a wheel is to roll the wheels against a press roller before setting the numbers—this is somewhat more difficult with lockwheel machines.

American and Wetter/Leibinger design machines are the easiest to take apart, Atlantics are tougher and Count 76 machines should be approached with dread—though it can be done.

Mike, how do you take bi-matic machines apart, i’ve taken most brand machines apart, been doing this for 49 years, i’ve never had a bi-matic machine before (now i know why) Dick G.

I don’t believe this was mentioned but before you start numbering, slide the head across the rollers so the numbers spin causing the numbers to be inked up before you start. Ron

I do a lot of numbering and have for more than 35 years. I use Leibingers mostly and clean them using mineral spirits or any type wash to remove the ink.

Then I spin the wheels by hand to rotate the “5” digit to top (not the 4) to expose the small slot cut into each wheel. I put one drop of light machine oil - or sewing machine oil - or 3-in-1 oil into each slot, and then one drop on each of the 4 sides of the plunger, pump it up and down a few times, spin the wheels to spread the oil, then either wrap them in a small cloth or put them back in the little plastic boxes they came in - or, as is often the case, right back into one of the standard forms I keep locked up for common repeat runs.

I also disassemble them now and then - about once a year to clean them or more often to change the wheels, since some jobs require skip-2 or skip-3 numbering. It’s not hard to do and allows you to make sure the machines are fully cleaned and oiled.

I have tried ultrasonic cleaning, but it did not work out for me. Cleaning by hand - and replacing worn wheels - has kept these machines running well for me for many years.

When I begin a run, I ink my finger and roll it across the wheels of the machines as they’re already locked up in the chase. But now that I’ve read the other posts, maybe I’ll keep my fingers clean in the future and just roll the machines across an inked roller… See? Even old printers can learn new tricks here on Briar Press… ;)

- Alan

I learned that about the numbering machines from an “old school” printer. He also showed me how to tie the forms with string so we could slide them off the stone onto the galley. I laugh when thinking back about practicing at home until it got easier. Even though he was old school he said if you find something that works better or easier, do it. Glad to help keep your fingers clean. he he Ron

Bi matic machines have several VERY small springs in them so make sure you have a clean rag under it when dissassembling or they will dissapear. To take it apart you have to force the shafts holding it together out. After repairing one I now know why noone else will.
Removing the plunger and cleaning it and inside helps if your machine starts to stick.

Forward numbering machines have a place next to the 4 and backward next to the 5 for oiling between the wheels. I’m not a big fan of soaking machines, and cleaner left on the machines will keep them from taking ink. After using my machines i clean them with a tooth brush and press wash then brush them with a brass bristle brush. For oiling a always used a needle which works great, but you can put a few drops of oil on your stone and lay a straighten paper clip down in the oil then stand it up and place it between the wheels on the machine, it lets about a drop of oil run down the paper clip. The man that taught me to clean machines used to soak them in keroscene, then when he wanted to use them he would wipe the machines dry and place them on his stone, then run a lit match across the face of the machine. He never had any problem inking up his machines, but i strongly don’t recommend this method. Lammy, for crash numbering i always used machines with solid wheels and solid shafts, that way all zeros print, crash numbering is hard on numbering machines, it will either nick the shaft or wear the tooth on the zero that allows you to drop the zero, nothing like a zero not printing. I have some machines that the zeros are weak, i’m running windmills, to get the weak zeros to print i take off the tympan and use a ab dick offset blanket for my packing, its a little tricky at first you need a certain amount of pressure to make the no. trun the wheels but it really works great, also use the blanket for printing envelopes. Good Luck Dick G.

I have Leibinger or Atlantic model 13 machines. Some of the numbers do not line up. Is there a way to clean or fix that problem? The machine are easy to take apart, so I thought I could fix without sending them in for repair.

I use Hurst Graphics Numbering Machine Cleaner 210 and add a few sqirts of oil and soak overnight. works great. you could probably use any type wash and just add some oil.

P.S. I run a 1954 windmill and use Count numbering machines with drop zeros.

We do a fair share of numbering here and for the past 15 years I have always washed our numbering heads at the end of every day. We keep an old 2lb Chock full o’ Nuts coffee can about 1/4 full of type wash with the plastic lid on it and an old nylon paint brush that has bristles that are only about 2” long now. We dip the brush in the type wash and brush the numbering head constantly rotating the wheels on the head until it is clean, then we turn the head upside down and let any dirty type wash drain out as they sit until the next day.

The following day we figure out what numbering heads we will need for the day, put them all on 5’s (reverse machines) and we spray them with WD-40. Then we spin the wheels of the numbering head by hand to work the lubricant in and then lightly blow each machine off with compressed air being careful not to blow all the lubricant out of the machine. Then we will take a shop rag in hand that is lightly dampened with clean type wash and spin the wheels of the numbering head on the rag to take off any light film of lubricant that may otherwise keep the ink from wanting to adhere to the face of the wheels.

Then we pre ink the wheels like RREEBB does. You just need to be careful doing this with the Leibinger machines as you can easily spin the cam that is next to the 1st wheel and if you do that the numbering head will not rotate and work like it should unless you spin that little cam back where it should be.

After a while we will take the machines apart and clean them real good.

the wheels on many boxes eventually wear a little and sit back thus appearing to be out of line this doesnt present a problem unless they are so far off they dont recieve ink,without the case of not inking what happens in action is visible if you manually operate the plunger you will see the faces all go into line just prior to full impression basically then aligning the digits ,this i believe is the case with all the numbering machines operating from impression plungers built in as opposed to remote plunger types or of course the electronically controlled type.

To all numbering machine users:

This comment may be viewed in the light that I spent 9 weeks working in a commercial print shop (we call it jobbing). But several of my friends in another town worked in commercial printing, and talked to me about the machines.

One said that you can stand to watch numbering machines and they can still mis-function; at an earlier time than my apprenticeship, a raffle was found to have two tickets numbered the same, the winning number, and two first prizes were provided.

At the commercial print shop, the foreman had just retired; his replacement had white hair and appeared to be about 64 years old. The retired man came in especially to do numbering machines and spent about 2 weeks doing so, casual hours, trying to bring them up to standard. I was warned that if I did a job with a numbering machine, it must not be locked up so that there was excessive pressure on the machine, but I do not know just how much was optimum. Presumably slight distortion of the frame of the machine makes the action stiff and leads to “errors”.

It appeared to me that the stock of numbering machines should be greater than the minimum needed, and parts interchangeable means that swapping parts around may result in a machine which works OK.

From which I gather the word nightmare is appropriate?

I recall seeing some literature on a numbering machine system which used machines of a unique design; the numbers were not advanced by pressure of the printing impression, but were powered by a long rod which projected through a hole in the chase, and activated by the movement of the press, no print-impression action at all. But that’s another kettle of fish. Would this system result in cleaner print of the whole of the number (and the abbreviation which precedes the digits) than the result usual from conventional numbering machines? Visualise how much ink is deposited onto the various individual characters (types?) of a numbering machine.

Has anyone experience of the skip-numbering machines which are used when printing two (or more) up? Fortunately I was never directly involved. As a flight of fancy, has anyone ever heard of printing 10-up?

A non-proft organisation in this town tried printing its own raffle tickets using a photo-copier, but that did not last long, and I think I can understand why.


Alan, Skip machines are still used on a regular basis in our shop. We have skips in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, as well as 25’s., and upon special request we make up machines to skip other numbers as well. Skip machines are used more often than repeat machines which is an entirely different process. The machines that you spoke of with the long rods are known as “center drive machines” . Those machines are shown in various Heidelberg hand books. They are most commonly activacted by a remote plunger assembly which when depressed will cause the numbering head to cycle (via the keyed shaft you spoke of). As for for 10 up numbering every 9 months we run a job with 40 machines (4 sets of skip 10’s)…. keeps you on your toes. Most of the numbering we do is done on Miehle Verticals 50x’s. We only run 1 form roller when numbering. Always use lock wheel machines, rubber base ink and usually wash up the press once a week. Always use a light coverage of ink, when adding more ink to the roller we always place a small daub on the roller about 2 inches to the left of the numbering machine….as INK is the main ENEMY of a machine…..OIL is the SECOND ENEMY, excess of either will cause machine failures. Hope this helps, Carl

I had to clean a machine just this week, and we had been using Wd-40. As I searched the shelves, below the old letterpress spacers, lo and behld, there were 2 cans of Anchor Numbering machine Cleaner No. 7063, also labled Cleaner, NC. 909 D-2. It not only cleans but lubricates.

With numbering machines in current use there are several mainenance formulas. When you aquire a machine that is 20-30 years old with a good quantity of dried ink there are equally a variety of cleaning methods. Ultrasonic #1 but it is not readily available to most. I had good luck with disassembly and soak over night in carb cleaner, it is water soluble and wash the parts in hot water, dry well, light oil and reassemble. Dave

stripper and boiling water then suspend in light oil before degreasing the faces and drying off for re use is the method i use , care must be taken with this because the expanding stripper can throw the boiling water at you ( lower boiling point causes the stripper to boil ferociously therefore it expands much like water will in a wet lead or ali casting mould that causes the molten metal to spit out o the mould).

Just purchased on ebay 38 of these all not supposed to be working for a ridiculously cheap price with postage, I am sure I can get one to work so any tips would be great