PrinterIf you’re still using an inkjet printer, you have my sympathies. If you’ve taken the plunge and purchased a laser printer, you’ll probably want to keep it in tip-top shape for years to come. After all, they’re a lot cheaper than they used to be, but not that cheap!

Most printer problems are caused by gummed up inner workings. A lot of people simply chuck their malfunctioning printer in the trash can and buy a new one. With the economy the way it is, that isn’t the best move for most of us.

Lucky for you, it’s actually surprisingly simple to clean out a laser printer and make it work like new!

The first thing you need to do is to learn the basics of how a laser printer operates. After all, you don’t want to touch something you shouldn’t be touching inside the printer and compound your printing problems. There are a lot of resources on the net that explain how laser printers work, but I’ll just give a little summary here to make your life easier.

Pretty much everyone can understand how an inkjet printer works just from the name alone: inkjet, a jet of ink. That’s right, an inkjet printer simply pulls a piece of paper through and scans back and forth over the page, spraying tiny droplets of ink onto the paper. The ink sticks to the paper and dries, et voila! You have a printed page.

Laser printers, on the other hand, are a bit more complex. Many people mistakenly believe that a laser printer actually burns an image onto the paper. Of course, logic dictates that this is pretty much impossible in the case of a color laser printer. So just how do these dang things work?

[ad name=”square-l”] You may be surprised to learn that laser printers work in a way that is similar to inkjet printers. First, the paper is sucked into the machine. There is a drum inside the printer (usually fluorescent green in color) that is known as the imaging drum. The laser scans over the drum and “draws” the image onto the drum. When the laser hits the drum, it becomes electrostatically charged (literally “static cling”). The charged section of the drum then passes over the toner (“ink”) cartridge, and the toner is drawn like a pesky sock onto the drum. The toner-ified drum then passes over the paper, which attracts the toner off the drum since the paper itself has been electrically charged. The final step is that the paper+toner passes through a really hot roller thing called a fuser, which fuses the toner to the paper. The printer then spits out the finished page, and there you have it.

Of course, my explanation is simplified, but it’ll do. For those curious about all the nitty gritty details, check out the laser printer explanation.

Alrighty – now we know how a laser printer works. You can now amaze your friends with your new knowledge. But first, keep reading…

When opening up a laser printer, there are obviously a few things to keep in mind. First, the imaging drum is light-sensitive. Light is actually used inside the printer to charge/discharge the drum, so exposing the imaging drum to even ordinary daylight is not a good idea. Second, the fuser gets really hot. If you touch it after printing, you’ll burn yourself. Don’t do that. Finally, there are high voltages inside the printer because the drum and paper need to be charged for that electrostatic thing to work. So, as usual, make sure the printer is unplugged and has been allowed to cool for a few hours before opening it up!!

If you have a newer, inexpensive printer, it may have an “all-in-one” cartridge. All-in-one cartridges combine the toner, imaging drum, and various other components into one user-replaceable unit. The benefit is that when, say, the imaging drum wears out, you won’t have to fork over a couple hundred big ones to get a new one. You replace all the key components without even realizing it every time the toner runs out and you pop in a new cartridge. If you have a big monster of a printer, it will most likely have separate components which will have to be replaced (for a whole lot of money) after a certain amount of time. It will probably be cheaper to just buy a new printer! I highly recommend the “all-in-one” cartridge type. Canon‘s inexpensive laser printers generally use such a system, and their consumer and home office printers are fabulous.

Okeydokey, now that all that stuff’s out of the way, it’s time for the fun part.

To clean out your printer, you will need the following:

  1. Rubbing alcohol (every aspiring MacGyver should have a bottle on hand at all times)
  2. Vacuum cleaner
  3. Printer Manual (if you can’t find all the secret hatches and/or if you don’t know how to remove components from your printer)

Step 1 is to take all the removable components out of your printer. If the toner cartridge is an all-in-one, you don’t have to worry about the imaging drum, since removing the cartridge will generally make a little door on the cartridge close automatically to protect the drum from light and greasy fingers. If your printer has a separate imaging drum, carefully remove it without touching the surface of the drum, place it on the floor, and put a box over it to protect it from light. Recall that the imaging drum is usually bright green – or sometimes bright blue – so it’s hard to miss.

Step 2 is to take the vacuum cleaner and suck out any and all paper dust from inside the printer. You’d be amazed how many printer problems are caused by a high print volume that causes a build-up of paper dust inside the machine. That problem’s easy to fix! Pay attention to warning labels that say things like “DANGER! Immediate Death!” or “Don’t touch this!”

Step 3 is to take your trusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and put some on a clean, dry, lint-free cloth. Rubbing alcohol does two things: it removes toner from anything (including clothing – do NOT use hot water), and it removes other scum and grime that might have built up on the rollers inside the printer. If you are experiencing lots of paper jams and misfeeds, be sure to find and wipe off all the different rollers inside the printer. Sometimes they hide in strange places, so be sure to examine the insides very carefully.

That’s it – you’re done.

Believe it or not, these three simple steps will generally fix a lot of printer errors.

A few final notes…

The proper way to load paper in any printer is as follows:

  1. Take paper out of package.
  2. Quickly fan the stack of pages on the long side, and then on the short side.
  3. Bend the stack of pages back and forth a few times longways, and then shortways.
  4. Use a flat surface to line up all the pages again very carefully.
  5. Insert paper into printer

Fanning and bending the stack of paper separates individual sheets and keeps them from sticking together and causing paper jams.

Another thing to be aware of is that some larger printers have “waste toner cartridges”. These are generally transparent containers for spent toner. When they fill up, you get an error message telling you that the waste toner container is full. You can either spend 80 bucks for a new one, or dispose of the toner safely and rinse the waste toner container with – you guessed it – rubbing alcohol! Let it dry out, and then reinstall. Congratulations, you just saved yourself a bunch of moolah. All-in-one cartridge printers generally don’t have a separate waste toner reservoir.

And finally, one last little trick: When you first start seeing printed pages with streaks through them, don’t replace your toner cartridge immediately. Remove the toner cartridge, wobble it back and forth gently to redistribute the remaining toner inside the cartridge, and put it back into the printer. You’ll get a bit more mileage out of your toner cartridges!

Go crazy!

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