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As with any activity that involves machinery, chemicals and people, there are risks associated with letterpress printing. But with thoughtful preparation and procedures these can be minimized. Here are some things to think about when you set up and work in your shop. And one general safety rule to start with—if you’re tired or unfamiliar with the equipment, stop. Come back when you’re fresh or get some instruction and you’ll be able to keep all your fingers until a ripe old age.

Safety Equipment

The most important item of safety equipment in your shop is your brain. Most accidents are a result of fatigue, carelessness or ignorance. All three are curable or avoidable. That said, there are some basic pieces of safety equipment a shop should have.

  • Gloves: Nitrile for handling solvents, leather for moving heavy stuff
  • Dust masks and/or respirator: “Nuisance” dust masks are good when cleaning out type cases and the like. Such masks don’t typically protect against solvents. To protect from solvent fumes you need a respirator with organic vapor/solvent cartridges. The respirator also has to fit correctly and be stored in an airtight container when not in use.
  • A rag can: See rag handling below.
A rag can
  • A fire extinguisher: A basic ABC dry chemical unit.
A large ABC rated fire extinguisher

Physical Hazards

The Platen Press

One of the biggest physical hazards in your shop is that lovely old platen press. It seems obvious, but don’t ever put your fingers in a press that is closing. That sheet of paper you just mis-fed isn’t worth that much, and in any case, that’s what the throw off lever is for. Be very aware of open gears on presses and other pinch points. Long hair needs to be tied back and, for heavens sake, tuck your neck tie into your shirt. If your press is treadle-driven, think about treadle height and repetitive motion injuries. Shorter press persons may need a platform. This is particularly true if the press is on skids. Regarding treadling a press, keep track of your other foot—some treadles come quite close to the floor and given the inertia in a running press, can give you a nasty whack on the top of the other foot. Be aware of the weight of a full chase—if your press is large you may want to put in a hoist system to help you lift the chase into the press.

Proofing Presses

Hand cranked proofing presses are some of the safer machines in the print shop. Be aware of leaving stray things on the press bed, more to avoid damaging the press than damaging the operator. Do keep track of loose clothing, apron strings and long hair—many presses have exposed gearing that could catch wayward bits. Again, it seems obvious, but don’t do anything silly that would put your hand under the cylinder.

Paper Cutters

Paper cutters, particularly older ones, are the most potentially dangerous pieces of equipment in a print shop. The obvious rule is to be aware of where your fingers are at all times. This is particularly true of machines with foot or screw-down paper clamping—make sure you pay attention to where that hand that isn’t operating the cutter is. Be particularly wary of catching fall-off—a lost finger tip makes a far larger mess than scrap on the floor. When not in use, a scissors like shear should be latched closed. On a guillotine, put the paper clamp all the way down—there should be no way to come in contact with the edge of the blade.

Changing the blade on a guillotine is a particularly fraught operation. A basic procedure is something like this:

  • Determine if all the bolts holding the blade can be removed when the blade is in the down position (all the way on the cutting stick.)
  • If they can’t (often the end bolts are obscured by the frame of the cutter) see if you can remove the offending bolts while the blade is in the locked open position. If so, remove only as many bolts as you have to.
  • Bring the blade down into the fully closed (cut) position. Put your leather gloves on. Remove the rest of the bolts and tilt or slide the blade out of the cutter. Always leave the edge on the cutting stick to protect the blade and your fingers. Some blades have screw-in handles that you can insert once all the bolts have been removed; these handles prevent your hands from ever having to touch the blade.
  • To safely handle the blade in transit to the sharpening house, bolt it, bevel up, flat side down,to a 3/4 inch thick board that is larger than the blade.

Even a dull guillotine blade is razor sharp, so you never want the edge “out in the air” where it can come in contact with things that shouldn’t be cut.

Motorized Equipment

Motorized equipment can ramp up the potential hazards dramatically. On platen presses, a variable speed set-up is necessary—trying to hand feed a press that is moving faster than you are comfortable with is a very bad idea. Concentrate on what you’re doing; despite the somewhat hypnotic motion of the press, you must stay focused in order to stay safe. While there is a lot of inertia in the flywheel of a platen press, a kill switch (a big button that is easy to hit and turn of the power), and a brake on the flywheel can increase the safety level considerably. At the very least the off/on switch has to be within easy reach of the operator when they are standing in the feeding position.

Remember on motorized carriage proof presses, once you hit ink or print, the carriage is going to travel down the bed no matter what might be in the way—that can be a cup of coffee or your hand. A good rule of thumb is that nothing goes on the press bed that isn’t type, furniture, or lock-up devices. Also be mindful of the settings on the carriage controls. You don’t want to be surprised by a carriage set on “repeat.”

Though large motorized guillotine cutters are uncommon in small shops, if you are using one, NEVER disable any of the safety devices/lockouts. To do so seriously endangers you and anyone using the machine. If it is an older machine without modern “two hands to cut” safety features, religiously heed the advice above under “Paper Cutters.” And consider scrapping it.

Chemical Hazards

Type Metal

Type metal has lead in it, along with antimony and tin. People tend to stop listening after they hear the word “lead.” There is no question that there are proven, known hazards that can be traced to lead exposure, but, with an understanding of how and why lead enters the body, metal type can be handled safely for decades, just as it has been by 600 years worth of printers. A very small chemistry and biology lesson is needed to understand safe type handling.

There are many chemical forms of “lead.” The important distinction in this case is the difference between metallic lead, which is the form in type metal, and lead salts (oxides or carbonates), which were used in house and artists paints. In general, metallic lead is not biologically active. It doesn’t enter body through the skin, can only be inhaled if it is finely powdered (and even then acts more like a nuisance dust), and even if ingested in “bulk,” i.e. a piece of type, will pass through the gastrointestinal tract with little absorption.

Lead salts, however, are a different story. Most common ones, such as white lead, used in “flake” white oil paints and house paint, and red lead, used in some metal primers, are biologically active. They can be absorbed, even when bound in dry paint, through the lungs as dust, and via ingestion when eaten as flakes or dust. Their toxicity is particularly acute in children, which is the basis for the restrictions currently in place regarding paint formulations and remodeling activities. Summaries of the effects of lead salts on children and adults are readily available on the EPA website.

That said, how should you keep yourself safe when working with metal type? First and foremost are basic shop hygiene practices: don’t eat, drink, or smoke while you’re working. Wash your hands well before that sandwich. Wear an apron. Don’t suck on type. Be particularly aware of any type that has a white chalky surface. That’s probably lead carbonate, with all its dangers.  Seriously consider scrapping it. If you decide that you want to keep oxidized type you’ll need to clean it using a wet method; you don’t want to get that material airborne by blowing it off. And remember that the cleaning materials are now contaminated with lead as well.


The other major group of chemical hazards to be aware of in the print shop are those related to solvents. See a general discussion of solvents at this Letterpress Commons page. The more aggressive a solvent is, the more likely it is to be easily absorbed through the skin; nitrile gloves are definitely a good idea. Note that they are also available in a surgical style but in greater thickness than latex. 6-mil textured gloves come in sizes and will last through several uses, and are far more dexterous than standard rubber gloves. If you have a choice, get powder free ones. They can be obtained through several mail/web order industrial suppliers (McMaster-Carr, Gempler’s, Uline, etc.).

One-gallon cans of solvent are awkward and can lead to spills and using more solvent than needed. A better choice is a solvent dispenser of some sort, either a push top unit that soaks a rag or a push to dispense unit that is somewhat like a squeeze bottle. In either case be certain to label the container as to its contents. Don’t ever use recycled containers that could be mistaken for something else. A big swig of roller wash out of a re-purposed water bottle is a very unpleasant thirst quencher.

A push top solvent dispenser (L) and push to dispense solvent bottle

Rag handling

If possible, use a laundry service to deal with your dirty rags. They are set up to safely and environmentally responsibly remove ink and solvents from rags. If available, specify printers rags. General shop rags often have bits of metal in them. If you can’t justify a laundry service you can deal with rags safely and responsibly in-house.

If you’re not using a laundry service, you’ll need to deal with the rags appropriately. Do NOT throw solvent soaked rags into the washing machine. If your shop is on a septic system, the solvents will foul up your septic tank mightily. If you’re on city sewer, the net effect is as if you poured solvent into the body of water your municipal system discharges into. Neither one is cool. Isn’t very good for your washing machine, either. The better course of action is to hang rags outside to dry. If you can’t hang them, lay them out in a single layer. Once all the solvent has evaporated and the ink has dried on them they can be disposed of as trash or washed safely. If you’re using disposable rags or paper towels the same advice applies—let them dry thoroughly before disposal.

Regardless of how you’re getting the rags cleaned, if you’re using traditional solvents for clean up or using oil based inks, you should have a fire can to put the dirty rags in until you deal with them. Piles of solvent soaked rags, particularly with oil based inks, can spontaneously combust. This can be as simple as a small metal trash can with a tight fitting lid or a true fire can, which is more convenient in that it has a hands free lid. In either case the point is to store the oily rags in a container that will smother them should they catch fire.



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