Fixing Common Ink Jet Printer Errors
Tips and hints for solving common inkjet printer errors and fixing print flaws. Originally published in EMG-Zine.
2006-12-17
Even if you aren't printing your own fine art prints, chances are good that you've got a printer. Chances are even better that you know how much mischief they can be! They always know when you've got a deadline and need something printed Right Now, and they always seem to manage to break at that critical moment. Instead of lovely, clean pages of manuscript, you've got streaks, and gaps, and a hideous magenta cast to all of the illustrations! Here's a basic checklist for fixing these problems and getting your printer to behave.

What's what?

First, let's take a basic look at what the various bits of a printer are so it's easier to follow along while I'm discussing where things are going wrong.

The cartridges are the containers that you buy at a store to fill your printer with ink. They get put in a head, printhead or carriage, which sucks the ink out of a cartridge and spits it out on a page. The ink passes through nozzles which are very tiny, and can become easily clogged with a piece of dust, dry ink or cat hair.

The printer tray is what holds the paper before it feeds into the printer to get ink put on it. A straight path printer is one that feeds the paper right through, printing on the side that is up when you insert it, without curling it around to print on the other side.

The software that you print from would be your art program - Photoshop, Painter, or whatever you happen to have. The driver is the program that gets information from your software and sends it to the printer in a language it can understand. A new driver should be installed whenever you get a new printer.

Clogged cartridges

The most common printer error I encounter is the result of clogged printer cartridges. Signs of clogged cartridges show up in two ways: gaps and color shifts. The clogs can occur anywhere in the cartridge or nozzles.

Gaps are tiny little blank or odd-colored lines that appear in the images or text. Sometimes, they're fairly fine, and if you aren't producing a fine art print, you might not even care. Color shifts can be caused by clogged cartridges, or by driver problems on your computer, so they are harder to diagnose. Since clogged cartridges are the most common, it's best to start here.

First, check your cartridges. Your printer software will come with some kind of utility to do this. Usually, it prints a page with either blocks of color, or little tiny bands of color. Put a piece of white scratch paper in your printer and go to the properties of your printer. You want to look for something like 'cleaning utility' or 'nozzle check' or 'head check.'

If your nozzle check comes back with gaps or things missing, you want to run a cleaning cycle. Every printer has one of these programmed in - the only complication is figuring out where yours is hiding! Sometimes, it takes more than one cleaning cycle. I've, quite literally, done 10 in a row before that one pesky clog is finally cleaned out. When you realize how expensive all that ink you just wasted is, you may want to snivel a bit, but these are the kinds of perfectionist things you sometimes have to do to coexist with bad-tempered printers.

If you cannot get the gaps to go away, no matter how many times you clean it, try replacing the cartridge entirely - sometimes you'll just get a bad one.

To prevent this kind of problem, run your printer frequently, and never leave it on for long periods of time. Remember to turn the printer off using its power button, never a power strip or by unplugging it. Most modern printers have a 'capping' cycle that they run when they shut down to keep the cartridges from clogging. Even if you don't need to use your printer for a while, be sure to turn it on, let it complete its warmup, and then power it down. When it warms up, it flushes those nozzles with some ink, which will get rid of any dust or developing clogs.

Streaks

There are two directions that streaks will show up: laterally, along the page in the direction that the paper is being fed; and cross-wise, the direction that the carriage is crossing.

In either case, you will find that something in your printer is dragging excessive ink across your page, and you're probably due for a cleaning. In the case of lateral streaking, it's from some rollers or guides in the printer that are dirty. In the case of cross-wise streaking, your carriage is dragging ink across the page as it prints.

The slacker way to solve the problem is to shut the printer off, let the ink dry, and come back later to try to print your job. This isn't terribly good for your printer, since now it will have cakes of dry ink somewhere in it. These can cause problems later, so I'd definitely recommend cleaning your printer.

First, you'll need some rags or good quality paper towels. I don't recommend toilet paper, or even most paper towels, because they will snag and rip on some of the tiny, sharp inner parts of your printer and cause more problems than they cure. There is a brand of paper towel called 'Viva' that is extremely thick and durable that works great for this, or use an old t-shirt cut into bits.

There is no particular magic formula for cleaning printers. Just get your rag a bit damp (not dripping!) and start sponging ink out of the printer innards anywhere you can reach. Your printer will probably have a cover panel that can be removed to allow you access. Move the carriage as much as you can (even if it means using the 'change cartridge' utility and you don't actually change it...) and dab at the spot the carriage usually sits this spot can get a bit soggy with ink, and if you've been running your printer for a long time without a break, it can start causing problems.

Consider where on your page the streaks are occurring, and concentrate your efforts in that area.

If you find that you are cleaning and cleaning and cleaning your printer, and it still streaks across the page, you may have a cracked carriage. This is one of those common manufacturer flaws that crops up, and I hope you're under warranty, because that's a 'replace the printer' kind of problem.

Paper Jams

Probably everyone who's ever used a copy-machine in their life has encountered a paper jam. Sometimes, a printer will suck in a few extra pages when it only wants one, and then it will think it's got a paper jam. All you have to do in these cases is pull the paper out (firmly but gently, so you don't tear the paper) and maybe restart the printer, if it's very, very confused. Sometimes, it involves opening a dozen panels and removing paper from very odd places. And of course, the worst kind of paper jam is when the paper folds up accordion-style, but the printer still thinks its doing just fine, and proceeds to spread ink all over the inside of the printer.

In that last case, stop the print job as quickly as possible, take a few deep breaths, remove all the paper from the printer, and clean the thing out, as mentioned above. Sometimes you can absorb the worst of the spill by feeding through several sheets of blank paper, and cleaning is much easier after that.

Basically, my advice for paper jams is to wiggle things, and make sure you extract the paper fairly gently. If your printer is continually jamming, you may want to check and make sure that your paper tray is attached correctly, that your guides are snug to the paper size you're using, and that you aren't using a paper that is too thick or too slick for your printer.

Communication Problems

The above mentioned problems are all mechanical in nature, and therefore, relatively straight-forward. Now, we get into a much stickier area - drivers and software.

Driver and software problems can cause any combination of the following problems: nothing prints, the wrong things print, they print the wrong colors, they print things in the wrong places, or the image just looks bad.

I have a specific series of steps I take whenever it looks like I'm having communication problems.

If nothing is happening, or the computer complains that it can't find the printer, first I check the power and all the cables. 99% of the time, I've forgotten to turn the printer on, or connect the USB cable.

If it's still not playing nice, I restart the software I'm printing from. I save the layout I'm working on, shut down the program, and fire it immediately back up. While it's restarting, I turn the printer off, wait a count of 10, and turn it back on.

If that doesn't solve the problem, I shut the printer off, and restart my computer entirely. This fixes almost all of my problems.

If things still aren't behaving, I generally blame the driver at this point. Printer drivers are fairly complex animals, and they seem to get corrupted with alarming regularity. It is important to have the correct driver for your printer and operating system (Windows, Linux, etc.). You should always go to the manufacturer's webpage and download the most current version - sometimes they fix exactly the things that have been causing you problems.

Download the correct driver, uninstall the old one, and install the new one. Most printer webpages will have great step-by-step instructions about how to do this. This should solve all but the most tenacious printer problems.

Your Last Best Hope

If none of the above works, it's time to seek professional help!

If you haven't got a technical-minded geek friend who is familiar with printers, you may be reduced to calling technical support. Be sure to have your printer name and model handy, as well as the serial number. Make sure you know what operating system and version you are running, as well as what program you are printing from. If you decide to do email support, always include backchat (the old message!) when you reply to their email, especially since your email may go to some new technical service associate and they need to know what the last guy said.

Hopefully, one of the above will help you solve any printer mischief that may crop up in your life!


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