Sonic Cleaning Metal Type

Hello. I am setting up a small shop which has been gifted to me…a C&P (new version) and several cabinets of metal type, circa 1930>. Much of the type is covered in years of dust and I was wondering if metal type can be cleaned in an ultrasonic cleaner. It “seems” possible but unknown.
David in LeRoy

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Hi David,

I have done exactly this. When type is old and valuable, and you have the time to clean it, then this works well.

A few things to think about:

1. watch which cleaner you use, some can increase oxidation and damage the type, while others will get the dust off, but perhaps not the ink or gunk built up. Sonic cleaner manufacturers strongly recommend not using volatile compounds like type wash in their cleaners due to risk of fire and explosion. Look for alternative water based cleaners. I’ve heard people recommend a mixture of lye and water, although this is caustic and difficult to handle. Others say use “simply green” diluted in water. I am currently using rapid-o-eze pen cleaner which is designed to dissolve India ink without damaging the plastics or metals in pens, and appears to work without damaging the type. It doesn’t remove 100% of the ink, but I have been satisfied with it. I have used lye/water in the past, but as mentioned above, it is caustic and requires good rubber gloves and eye protection.

2. I wouldn’t clean for any more than a 5 minute period, and I’d watch how the type is laid in the cleaner. One solution is to “font up” the distributed type, then when it is on its feet, tie it up with page cord and stand the tied text block in the cleaner. This will prevent the faces from coming into contact with anything during cleaning and lessen the likelihood of damage to the face of the type. Put it on a galley or some other suitable flat surface before placing in the sonic cleaner.

3. Once clean, rinse with hot water to remove any cleanser residue.

4. You have to find a way to get the type dry before you redistribute. Wet type will damage the cases it is laid in and likely cause mold at a minimum and perhaps further oxidize the metal in the type. I put the text block on several layers of paper towels, on a cookie sheet, and then put it on a heating pad turned on high on a table in the garage over night. This gets the type warm, but not hot, and helps evaporate the water out.

Once you are sure it is good and dry, redistribute.

One last thought, most type is dirty if it has been used at all, and even if you clean it, it will get dirty again over time. Before you go to the trouble of cleaning each case of type, try using the type as is. Compose the type into forms as needed, and then brushing the face with a good horsehair brush before pulling your first impression. NAGraph sell them, as do others. Simply brushing dirty type is an effective way to clean the face of it most of the time.

Good Luck,


Alan, thank you. You were very thorough. As you might guess, I have plenty unsorted type that was lying around so I’ll test a cleanser on these. I have a bottle of Grease lightning that I used when screenprinting. I may start with that and move to Simply Green. I understand there are Citrus based cleansers as well. Upon researching sonic cleaners, the pint sized ones seem a good size for a batch of sorts. They apparently come with a small basket that lowers into the fluid. using your bundling technique, this should work well and be conservative on cleanser (assuming I can reuse the cleanser on multiple batches).
Once again, thanks.

If the primary “dirt” on the type is simply dust, you can put a piece of aluminum window screen over the partitioned case and vacuum the dust out of the case partitions. if the “dirt” is ink buildup, then you would need to resort to chemical cleaning.

Thanks guys. I finally bought a small sonic cleaner and tried it out today. I composed three line stacks of type, face up then used a rubber band to hold them together. I placed the assembled type face up in the cleaning basket and lowered it into the tank filled with a solution of degreaser/ cleaner and water. This seemed to work just fine. The old ink and dust came off after several 3 minute intervals. While the type doesn’t look brand new, it looks at least 80% better. I’m satisfied. As to why I’ve decided to go to all the trouble, I need to familiarize myself with the cases, faces and sort it properly. While time consuming, I should be able to accomplish my task using this method. As a kid, I spent way more time setting up my army men than playing with them.

Soak in a mild solution of lye (Home Hardware), take the usual precautions. Mix up the solution thoroughly, pour into the type, I use yogurt containers. Less lye is better, a little will do the trick, experiment. Soak, then rinse. Then use a small ultrasonic cleaner machine (inexpensive, Ebay, 60 watts). the dirt flies off, the type looks like new. Lead by itself is not a problem, take precautions not to ingest it, i.e. don’t eat or smoke at the same time, you will be OK. Keep kids away.The bad stuff is the lead oxide (yellow in appearance), you will not see it unless you are also a type caster. I am more afraid of mouse droppings than lead. After the type is dry, soak the type in a thin solution of paint thinner and oil to give the type a very thin layer of oil to prevent corrosion. Set out on a towel to dry.