Metal type in school?

Hi everyone - I am doing some research regarding cleaning up some old type, and came across this article which has made me wonder about how careful I need to be with my new stuff: Are there issues with using metal type with students, as the article states, in your opinion? Thanks for your thoughts!

Log in to reply   19 replies so far

Lifetime letterpress printers on this list have had their lead levels checked, some times repeatedly, and still check out in the normal range. You are not going to absorb lead dust through your pores, you pretty much have to eat it, or lick your dirty fingers to have any effect at all. I don’t know what that person was talking about in your link. They obviously don’t know what they are talking about, and the suggestions made are ridiculous. I’ve had a printshop in my home the entire time my children were growing up for 30 years, and have been around type and solvents for 40+ years. It’s infinitely more dangerous to eat fast food than to hand-set type.

i think the problems are the fumes when you melt it as we use to do before with old type and linotype were you removed the first black layer and kept the other part for the linotype also be sure to have the tetanus vaccine, due to a cut i know a teacher that passed away in a few days because of it.

From the lead or from tetanus?

no he passed from tetanus because of a lead cut.

all my life I worked with lead, once I saw a man who got a small piece of lead in his finger and he got a nasty infection, other than that I have never seen any problems with lead in the 53 years I’ve been a comp.

Having been a letterpress compositor since leaving school and handling lead type in all its forms (founders, linotype, monotype, etc.) for more than thirty years, I have never heard of anyone having suffered from any kind of affliction caused by the handling of lead type. As an apprentice I remember many of the comps. used to smoke whilst handling type and some chose to eat at the stone, sometimes without washing their hands. The very suggestion that there is any risk involved would warrant much more evidence.

OK yes - be careful if you are dealing with lead oxide on type, but I’d be far more worried about mouse droppings - quite likely how the tetanus mentioned above came about - but this is equally applicable to all old things (as any good industrial hygienist/art conservator would probably know).

I’ve just read that report and its clearly written by a Health and Safety Inspector (we have them in England too!) who seems to be justifying their own position.
As for the paragraphy about people donating what is deemed scrap by ‘donators’ giving to schools and colleges is absolute rubbish and has no place in truth. We all know that letterpress equipment does have value and those chosing to donate are most likely doing for the greater good rather than saving money avoiding scrapping.
Over here we have been involved in many historical and education based projects involving lead type and the contaminant risk from lead has never, ever been an issue.
I worry when a so-called expert can clearly write a defamatory article like this and get away with what is misinformation at best and scare-mongering at worst.
That article has made me very angry first thing on a Monday morning, I hope it doesnt go any further.
All I would add is that working with just about any item from household products to food contains a contaminant threat.
Wear a barrier cream, gloves and most importantly - wash your hands well. Thats all we ever did at the London College of Printing and I have never had any problems either!

“Cleaning lead type”

From: Monona Rossol
Date: Thursday, January 30, 2014”
Monona Rossol, M.S., M.F.A., Industrial Hygienist
President: Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc.
Safety Officer: Local USA829, IATSE
181 Thompson St. #23
New York, NY 10012

Conservation DistList Instance 27:31
Distributed: Thursday, February 6, 2014
Message Id: cdl-27-31-003

Did anyone else notice the date of this report?

Is Monona ahead of the times? Perhaps M. Rossol could remind us all that running with scissors is dangerous too! Call the listed phone # I did…spoof perhaps? Maybe LEHorvath has an axe to grind


I certainly don’t have “an axe to grind” :)! I have just purchased a C&P pilot and a bunch of type to use at my school and just want to be 100% sure I know what I’m doing (and that I know what to say if someone comes to me asking about issues such as those presented in the report). I know there’s all kinds of stuff from pure fabrication to complete fact out there, and I’m just trying to be even more careful than I probably need to be out of respect for my students. All the info given so far is making me feel much better about this! I worked with letterpress last summer at Ox-Bow and am so excited to get this started at my arts-based school. Again, thanks for all the great advice and encouragement!

In an educational setting with children, it would be advisable here in the UK to undertake a formal, written risk assessment to quantify the risks from all aspects of the printing exercise (composing type; printing; cleaning afterwards) with provision to limit / mitigate all risks as far as reasonably possible. Also to set out a formal written operating procedure for the various tasks, which when read in conjunction with the RA would detail how the assessed risks would be mitigated.

The documents would be informed by reference to up-to-date authoritative documentation on the materials to be used and associated risks. e.g. for the ink and cleaning materials the chemical hazard data sheets that manufacturers of products make available here in the UK (often online). In a country the size of the USA many people must have previously compiled RAs and OPs for the sort of activity that you are planning so it is reasonable to use their documentation as the starting point for yours - ‘there is no need to reinvent the wheel’.

There are water-based inks available that are usable for letterpress; use of them would obviate the need for oil based inks and for solvents to clean up.

A safe OP for using the press to avoid injury to, especially, fingers, will be an important component of the exercise.

I’m aware, through US relatives, of the very deep modern concern over lead paint that leads to ‘men in white suits’ removing it from older houses, despite it being sealed beneath layers of more recent paint. So I can understand that you will need to find authorative sources to dispell concerns over handling metallic lead (which carries a massively lower risk than coming into contact with the lead salts formerly used in paint).

There may be online education sector discussion fora for arts and crafts activities that might put you in touch with other people using letterpress with children, and provide you with useful documentation.

Hope these rather UK-centric thoughts are useful.

Yes, very much so - thanks! This will be older teens using the press and type; younger students use the room at other times of the day, but would not be handling the type, press, or inks. And yes, we certainly will need the MDS forms on file with our safety people. It seems to me a student is much more likely to be injured by x-acto knives and gouges than with this little Pilot!

Here is a very good article about letterpress safety issues including type metal

You can always have letterpress printing dies made. Most are made of magnesium or copper mounted on wood type high .918
I have some that I no longer use and would be happy to send them to you.

Zinc, magnesium or polymer blocks are indeed a potential solution to the issue of lead type in an educational setting - though it would lead to the omission of an important part of the design process as the use of moveable type imposes a very different discipline to the alternative of creating a design on a computer for the manufacture of a block.

Both techniques have valid places in modern letterpress printing however, not least because the damage rate for metal type is high when used by inexperienced people and potentially especially so when used by children and young people.

Design on the computer would certainly make the initial stage of producing letterpress items accessible to the modern child or young person. However, I would envisage a proportion of them asking why bother to undertake the printing the design by letterpress when at the click of a button it could be printed digitally.

Combining stock blocks with woodletter, and the potential addition of zinc / magnesium / polymer blocks specifically made for a project might provide a good range of experience. Nevertheless, this dinosaur feels that omitting the use of metal type would be a great pity.

Good luck!

The students could carve designs into wood or linoleum blocks.

Who’ll Turn the Grindstone?

—Essay from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe.
Please accept my apology, if I offended you.

My opinion is, keep this stupid paranoia flowing. I’ve gotten tons of Ludlow equipment from schools because of it. One instructor told me that he didn’t want his students in the same building with it.

I would like to add that I grew up a few doors away from a fellow who made his living from a one-man print shop. The shop was attached to the back of his farmhouse with the door to it off the kitchen. I used to ride my bike up there after school and visit with him until my parents got home from work. He had a Model 1 (I think) Linotype cooking away all day, most everyday. His wife used to bring us out fresh cookies and milk. They both lived well into their 80’s. In the end she was very sick and aside from playing piano at the Senior Citizens’ Hall his full-time job was taking care of her. He passed away two weeks after she did. They were never a burden to anyone.