Cleaning Wood Type

After a hiatus, I am back to dealing with my wood type. My twelve sets, Hamilton veneers for the most part, have been identified by Briar followers as variations of Gothic and Cheltenham. My correspondents - Jim and Rick - have offered suggestions on cleaning, but I am not comfortable with using kerosene, mostly because of the fumes.

I will not be using the type for printing, so I just need a simple way to make clean them. I tried Murphy’s Oil on a couple of letters and it seemed to work quite well, but I feel guilty about its use since it requires some water, which I have been urged not to use. The task is large and I am old, so ease is what I seek! Thanks.

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Paint thinner. Mineral spirits from the hardware store is the cleaner of choice. The odorless type is less odorous. Use an old toothbrush and do the work outside if you wish to avoid most of the fumes. The cleaned wood will require a few days to allow most of the spirit to evaporate and smell less.
For real ease, hire a neighborhood boy.
You do not want to try to make the type look like new. Some of the old ink and stain provide character and patina.
If it is veneer type, care needs to be taken when scrubbing else the veneer can come loose.

Thanks once more, Inky. I will try the mineral spirits. And yes, I was indeed thinking of hiring a young person to work with me. Also, I do not want to take away the character of the type. I fell for the type itself as “art,” and have not intention of making an artwork out of it. Honestly!

In art school for cleaning ink off of blocks, brayers, and other printmaking paraphernalia, we often used basic vegetable or canola oil. No water needed. It seems like oil would be harmless, fumeless, and probably good for wood type as well. Is this ok to use?

Whatever works and does not damage the object being cleaned is OK. The green people believe that Crisco or cooking oil may be environmentally better or safer. That is OK if it makes you feel good and disposing of greasy rags is a satisfactory solution.
Many years ago I had a skin condition on one hand. I was advised to not wash my hands with soap. A boy gets dirty hands often. I was to use mineral oil. It cleaned my hands. I then wiped them on a towel. Filthy and oily towel.

If you are looking for fast cleaning, especially of old, dried-on ink, try some Everclear grain alcohol: wear gloves! When using this, and you are watching it strip away pretty much anything, remember that people actually drink this stuff!


Well, maybe.
Most wood type was sealed with shellac. Alcohol is the solvent for shellac. You are right; it will strip away almost anything. This includes the sealer and is not what you want.
Someone will comment that varnish was also used as sealer and alcohol probably will not dissolve varnish.
But, how would you know if shellac or varnish was used?

So, I’ve been experimenting. I have tried Canola oil, paint thinner on 0000 steel wool, and mineral oil. The mineral oil seems to work quite well, and is certainly easy to use. I may also follow up with Watkin’s Danish oil.

After I get further into the project, I will send an update.

Thank you all, who have been so generous with your suggestions.

I have never found a source document stating that shellac was used to finish wood type. Shellac dissolves in alcohol so that rules out the use of alcohol as a cleaner, drinkable or otherwise. Hamilton states that they used varnish:

and for cleaning, from the same Hamilton catalog #25, they recommended:

Aggressive cleaning of wood type exposes the wood pores for the absorption of water through humidity and it will lead to eventual deterioration of the wood surface. Making wood type appear like it just came out of the factory is a misdirected effort.

Currently available offset roller washes do not contain Benzene and are suitable for cleaning as well as mineral spirits/paint thinner. Benzene was once the preferred solvent for use in printing, but its serious health problems have eliminated its use, though it is found in gasoline and other petroleum based products.

I’m with Fritz on this one. My house is 100+ years old and I have had to refinish almost all of the floors over the years. The procedure is to sand and clean the floors and then apply a nice coat (or two) of an amber shellac. This provides a beautiful surface. HOWEVER the shellac actually SUCKS if the house gets hot and humid (read Iowa summers) and it will actually get soft and sticky under those conditions. So, when the coat(s) of shellac is completed and dry, spar varnish is then applied to seal and provide a much more durable finished surface.

This has worked for me for 30+ years.


We use shellac by the gallon in historic restoration of interior wood trim, and then after several coats of hand brushed shellac, we cover it with a varnish top coat as Rick states. Shellac is a soft finish that never hardens like varnish and will show water rings on table tops and for floors, usually several coats of a sealer are required to finish it. Every time I see mention of shellac as a finish for wood type, I cringe as I know what kind of finish it provides. I really like shellac but in its proper application. All the new wood work in our office is finished with amber shellac as is the new trim in my print shop.

Poster wood type often didn’t have a coating. Probably because it would be expensive for wood type that had low volume use. The type picks up the pigment so I first use a red or green on them.