This month is back to your standard troubleshooting and how-to. I’ll discuss printer maintenance for the various types (impact, inkjet and laser). A note about the steps I illustrate for cleaning: always unplug the printer, it’s better for you and your printer.
Printer health tips
Impact printers (also known as dot matrix, including the ImageWriter family):
The ribbon in an impact printer is vital to its longevity. Not only does the ribbon provide the ink on the paper, it also acts as a lubricant for the print head. Changing the ribbon whenever the print starts to get light keeps your documents looking good and extends the life of the print head by lubricating the firing pins. The print head is the component that actually presses the ribbon against the paper when it’s printing, so if it goes bad, you’ll usually notice dots missing from your documents.
Clean the platen every so often. The platen (not all impact printers have them, usually the cheaper models don’t) is the round roller that the paper curls around when it is fed through the printer. Rubbing alcohol is a good cleaner used with a lint free cloth, simply dampen the cloth, and rub it back and forth across the platen (printer turned OFF) turning it so you can get the entire platen.
Lubrication of the print head slide mechanism also helps to keep your printer running smoothly. The slide mechanism is the shiny silver bar that the print head travels back and forth on. A lightweight non-detergent oil applied very lightly on this bar removes the strain on the motor. I sometimes uses WD-40® when I don’t have the proper oil. Dampening a Q-Tip® with the lubricant and then swabbing the bar is usually the easiest method.
Dust removal is a great idea for keeping the printer jam and heat free. Your local electronics shop should have cans of compressed air that can be used to blow the dust and paper debris out of the printer. I recommend against using an air compressor or anything else with high pressure, since that tends to do more damage to the sensitive components than good.
Printing self-adhesive labels is a great use of this type of printer. There is one very important lesson in using labels: DO NOT roll the sheet of labels backwards in the printer. Seven times out of ten one of the labels will peel off the sheet and stick in an inaccessible part of the printer, always in a place that will cause the paper to jam. The solution is to tear the sheet of labels off (if you are using continuous feed paper) and finish rolling the labels through the printer in the standard direction. I realize this is a waste of labels, but it is always cheaper to waste a couple of ‘em than pay a service shop $$ to remove the stuck ones.
Inkjet printers (including Apple’s StyleWriter family):
Inkjet printers are usually very maintenance free, having only 3 major steps to keeping them running for a long time. The output is much better than the impact printers and costs much less than the laser printers.
The pickup and feed rollers should be cleaned periodically to remove the dust that builds up from your paper. Rubbing alcohol works good for this, when applied on a lint free cloth. Find the 2 main sets of rollers on your printer, which are the pickup (located near the edge of where your paper is inserted in the printer) and the feed/output rollers (located halfway and/or near the edge of where your paper comes out of the printer. The StyleWriter family can be rather tricky to clean the pickup rollers, but with a little patience you can reach them. As with the impact printers, lightly dampen the cloth with the cleaning solution & rub the rollers in a back and forth motion. You should be able to turn the rollers by hand, but be careful that you don’t force them.
If there is any dust buildup in the printer, compressed air works great (see above). I recommend dusting the printer before you clean the rollers. Don’t be tempted to clean the ink cartridges with the cloth, that should only be used as a last step (if you have poor print quality), and most manufacturers recommend against it. Poor print can usually be attributed to clogged print heads/ink cartridges, and can be remedied by using the software “clean ink cartridge” option in your print dialog from the computer.
One last note on the inkjets – static electricity is the number one cause of paper jams in an inkjet printer. Make sure you are using the correct type and weight of paper for your printer and that you “fan” the paper before you put it in the tray.
Steps to keeping your laser printer running great are mostly the same for the above printers. Clean the rollers in the printer, dust it out, be careful with labels, use the type of paper that the manual recommends and fan the paper before you put it in the tray/cassette.
Certain models of laser printers (mainly the older Canon SX engines such as the Apple LaserWriter II family) have a part called the corona wire that should be cleaned periodically. The corona wire looks like (and I’ve replaced them with) fishing line. A cotton swab can be gently rubbed again the wire to remove any dust and toner build up.
If you’re having print quality problems on your printer, check a couple things before you decide to take it in for service. Lines or streaks missing from the page can usually be fixed by changing the toner cartridge (yes, some toner cartridges don’t last as long as they should, so even if you just put it in the printer it could be bad) or removing it and shaking it back and forth. Most laser printers have a density setting (some are software based, others have a dial or lever in the printer) that control how much toner is applied to the page. If your graphics aren’t as crisp as they should be, try adjusting the density up or down and try it again.
Real World Experience
The unit: ColorStyleWriter 2400
The scenario: Frequent paper jams or paper skews to one side when pulling the paper into the printer.
(2 different printers here, one a residential client, the other in a elementary classroom).
The printer that was jamming frequently when the paper was about halfway through the printer, had a spitwad (remember when you were a kid and used to chew a piece of paper, then throw it at the wall and watch it stick? – well I never did that 😉 lodged just before the output roller. Careful examination of the room presented numerous tiny paper-like objects on the wall near the printer.
The second printer liked to skew the paper to one side when it printed. This one turned out to have an Easter ornament lodged in the back of the printer, apparently it had fallen off the window sill that the printer sat next to.
Two preventative maintenance steps were taken in the above repairs:
Relocation of the printer.
Jeramey R. Valley is a Computer Specialist for a large urban public school district. He is hooked on Apple equipment and is Apple Certified on everything that they offer, running an Apple Authorized Service Center as his day job. For non-computer fun, he mud bogs his lifted ‘77 Chevy 4×4, races his Honda 250R ATV, goes to car shows & works on pro-streeting his ‘68 Firebird. While he eats, sleeps and breathes computers, he likes to unwind by thrashing his 4×4 through the deep stuff with his buddies in the backwoods of Michigan. You can reach Jeramey at