Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Cleaning Wood Type

I was recently on holiday but instead of sitting around the house in my underwear, one day I decided to get up at half past seven and head to the shop for some methylated spirits, rags, gloves, a mask, goggles and a couple of toothbrushes. With the final addition of some newspapers "borrowed" from outside the tube station I was soon ready for action.

You may be wondering the reasoning behind this unnatural desire for cleaning products. Well, a few months ago I was lucky enough to come across a couple of trays of wood type for sale. From the photos I could see that there were some interesting letters in the collection but it was only on closer inspection that I discovered two complete and two almost complete sets of a typeface called Poynder. Made by the famous English wood letter manufacturers Delittle of York, Poynder has the feeling of a classic display typeface, quite reserved for the most part but with some quirky characteristics that give it a hint of art nouveau style.

Having spent quite a few years on a garage floor, the type was pretty dirty, caked in grime and brick dust and with some pieces sadly broken. With press time booked in a couple of days I knew that I was going to have to do some serious cleaning to get this fount print ready once again. So, with my pound shop bag of equipment at the ready I got to work.

My method for cleaning type has evolved a bit over the years, I started off just using white spirit and although it works for removing fresh ink, I find it can't cut through the sort of grime that you get on type that's been living in a shed for thirty years. After trying a few things I've now settled on a method which I find works really well and I thought i'd share it here for anyone who might be interested. As always, I welcome comments and criticisms so if anyone has any alternative suggestions i'd be pleased to hear them.

The first set: caked in dirt, dust and who knows what else!

First to be cleaned was a 2 10/16" size set (sadly missing a handful of letters) As you can see Poynder has some real character - I'm on the fence about the uppercase A but the E, G and N in particular are really quite stunning, to say nothing of the ampersand that I dream about at night.  

Before beginning assemble your bag of supplies and cover a pasting table with a few layers of newspaper. Make sure to set up outside and wear old clothes as this has the potential to get messy. After laying your type out on the table, start with the toothbrush, using it to brush down the face of each letter to remove the excess dirt and dust. Being quite small, the toothbrush is ideal for getting into little cavities like the counters of the A as well cleaning up the beard in some of the tighter corners.

With the excess dirt removed, pull on your marigolds (rubber gloves to anyone from outside the UK) and pour some methylated spirits on to an area of the newspaper. Even though you're outside I'd recommend using a disposable mask and some goggles from here on in just to be safe. 

After pouring out the meths take seven or eight pieces of type and lay them face down in the spirit for about thirty seconds. This gives the meths time to penetrate the caked on layers of ink and start to break them down. The next step is to take each piece of type individually and give the surface a good rub with a soft, meths-soaked cloth. By this time the ink should have loosened up and will start to come off without too much hassle. I prefer to focus mainly on the face of the letter so that once you've finished you'll get a nice contrast between the clean face and the darker shoulder. Some pieces will inevitably come up better than others but you should start to get visible results quite quickly!

An uppercase U halfway through cleaning

After scrubbing the type down lay it to one side and repeat the process for the rest, making sure to top up the pool of meths and keep adding dirty blocks. Once you've cleaned and scrubbed all your letters, you'll notice that although they look much cleaner, the meths may have left some streaks and the finish on the face of the letter will be quite dull. You'll also find that they smell strongly of meths so for the next stage you'll need to wash them down.

Run a bucket of hot, soapy water and drop no more than 5 or so blocks in at a time. As water isn't good for your type, you'll need to make sure the blocks aren't submerged for more than 10 - 20 seconds to avoid any moisture getting into the wood grain. Quickly remove your letters one by one and give them a scrub with your trusty toothbrush on all sides, making sure to get right into the counters and tight corners of the letter face. Then, place the blocks face down on some fresh newspaper to dry and repeat the process.

After about half an hour you should find that the type is drying out. If you turn the letters over you'll get to see the fruits of your labour as hopefully the faces will have come up bright, with the patination of the wood visible in all its glory. As a final touch, take a soft, clean towel and polish the face of each letter to give it a subtle shine.

The finished result, dried out and ready to print!

The only thing left to do is take the blocks inside to finish drying out, though make sure to do this in a well ventilated area without too much heat - otherwise the quick change in temperature might split the wood grain. 

And that's about it! Hopefully now you should have a good looking set of type that will give you a much sharper impression when printing. And if you're still unsure; I offer you this final comparison - 


PS: Thanks is due to Paul-Robot47 for the basis of this cleaning method. Be sure to check out his ebay shop here


  1. Dear John,

    Are you aware that normally woodtype is provided with a thin protective layer of shellac? So by rubbing your woodtype with methylated spirits, not only you remove the rests of dried ink but you turn out removing the shellac from your type as well. And yes, it may result in shiny brand-new-like type, but they'll wear out faster on the long term.

    The question is: does woodtype perform better on the press when looking brand new? Up to you.

    Keep up the good work,

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