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Solving Inkjet Printer Issues

9th November 2017 Printing

Modern inkjet printers are truly marvellous devices - indeed, the humble inkjet (at it's heart really just a very precise droplet placement system) has become the fundamental building block of a whole host of emerging technologies, including 3D printing and medical tissue and organ engineering.

But all devices, no matter how marvellous, can of course develop issues - particularly if put to the test by being used with high volumes of dusty and/or difficult to feed fine art papers!

So, this is our guide on how to solve most typical inkjet printing issues you might encounter.  The idea here is to guide you through all the appropriate checks and adjustments you should investigate if your results are not as good as they should be.

We'll start by discussing the very basics, and then move on to discussing the various specific issues.

A Happy Printer Needs....

Regular Maintenance

Rule #1 - Keep Your Printer Clean!

The biggest enemy of your printer is dust and dirt.  Just everyday dust from general life, but of course also paper dust and loose paper fibres that are an unavoidable part of printing, especially if you use those glorious cotton rag papers.

So keep a clean microfibre cloth handy, and wipe your printer's surfaces down regualrly.  Prevention is better than cure, as always.

When not in use, we suggest using a dust cover of some sort (specific shaped covers for specific printers are sometimes available on eBay)...or really just use any cover that protects the printer.  All those entries for paper are potential entries for dust too, so cover them up!

A very lightly damp cloth can also be used, to clean any accumulated dirt, at least from plastic areas.  

For cleaning your printer's rubber rollers (worth doing about once a year if you're a frequent user), you will want to read this article and use Rubber Roller Restorer.

Whatever you do, do NOT read the internet and follow any advice about using Windex (ammonia version or otherwise) - or any general abrasive or solvent type cleaner on your printer AT ALL - and most especially DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CLEAN YOUR PRINTER'S HEAD MANUALLY - PRETTY MUCH EVER!!  We have a specific article on why you should never use Windex!

Rule #2 - Do Nozzle Checks!

White banding due to blocked nozzles (click for detail!)
White banding due to blocked nozzles (click for detail!)

If you're experiencing almost any print quality issue, this is the first place to start and is really the most fundamental test you can do to confirm your printer is doing what it should be doing - with respect to the fundamental basics of sending out ink to meet the page.  

This one simple test can lead you quickly to the solution of a whole host of problems, such as:

  • Unexpected colour shifts - minor
  • Unexpected colour shifts - major
  • White Striping (AKA white banding, or just banding) - white or faint lines appearing in your prints
  • (N.B. NOT black or dark banding - if you're seeing dark bands in your print, this is normally a paper feed issue, not a nozzle clog issue).

Amazingly (and a testament to the reliability of modern Epson printers like the P800 - we reasonably regularly get customers call us after years saying they're suddenly seeing white bands in prints.  We ask if they've done a basic nozzle check - and they say 'what is a nozzle check?' (which is also a testament to the inefficacy of PDF manuals...people just don't read them - manufacturers take note!).

Once we explain nozzle checks and how to do them, the easy and quick fix - which is a head clean if your nozzle check shows any gaps - becomes obvious.

In general, nozzle checks are easy to do (load a plan sheet of A4 plain paper into your printer and then use the maintenance menu on the printer (or the utility section of the printer driver) - to trigger the nozzle check print.  Then, carefully evaluate the nozzle check print for any gaps in the pattern that is printed.

If you do see minor gaps - run a head clean, and then re-check the nozzles immediately after that.  On occasion it may take more than one head clean, but mostly one will do it with modern machines.

One thing to look out for is to check if ALL ink lines are printing - occasionally an entire ink line will drop out and will be missing from the nozzle check print - so make sure you don't just check the lines you see, but also that you count the number of colours on the nozzle check (and note only one of PK and MK is checked, so you should have (number of inks - 10) patterns printed on your check!).

If you're missing an entire line - so you're not seeing a break in the nozzle pattern, but rather the absence of the pattern entirely for that colour (and only for one colour) - then most likely your issue is not at all related to a nozzle clog but rather is something further back in the process - i.e. some part of ink delivery to the head is failing.  9 times out of 10 this indicates a faulty cartridge.  But it may also indicate a problem with air in the lines, a pump, dampers etc.  If a couple of head cleans does not get the ink going again, try another cartridge before you go running more head cleans.  It can take a couple of cleans with the new ink cartridge to get things flowing again - usually you'll see a few parts of the nozzle pattern appear, run another head clean and all will be fine again.  Faulty cartridges aren't super common, but if you do a lot of printing you're bound to hit one eventually.

(Some Canon owners maybe wondering about all this, or thinking (perhaps a little smugly, even) - that their machines 'never clog', or deal with clogs automatically.  This is sort of true - Canon printers have spare nozzles and clogged nozzles are simply detected and turned off.  But of course this is why with Canons you do have to periodically change your entire printer head - which is expensive, and irritating as you have to re-do all your colour management because thermal heads vary in behaviour from head to head quite significantly. Personally we prefer the more manual Epson approach, but both approaches have their pros and cons).  

Nozzle check pattern with basic blocked nozzle (click for detail)
Nozzle check pattern with basic blocked nozzle (click for detail)

Missing Nozzles vs. Weird Clogs

One issue you may eventually encounter is all your nozzles firing, but the nozzle check pattern shows an irregular pattern.  And no amount of cleaning (or printing) will seem to clear this up. 

In general we've only seen this on printheads after years of heavy use. But it is rather a dreaded thing around here as it tends to mean the printer service folks are going to tell us we need a new printer head - which is very expensive of course (and with the cheaper printer models you're usually better off just buying a new printer!).

(In 15 years of printing - and literally hundreds of kilometres of paper through some 10 odd large form machines - to date we have only had to replace a printhead on 3 occasions.  And each of those machines had more than earned their keep when that happened (never less than about 4 years of solid, daily print work) - so whilst it is never nice when it happens, it is fair to say that overall modern print heads are pretty remarkable things).

The nastiest type of nozzle issue (click for detail)
The nastiest type of nozzle issue (click for detail)

Rule #3 - Avoid Excessive Head Cleans

Another really important thing is to avoid unnecessary head cleans - that is, never clean the head without first confirming you actually DO have blocked nozzles.  Otherwise, you're simply wasting ink, and worse, you may be exacerbating the actual cause of your issues if that cause is NOT blocked nozzles.  Head cleans ONLY solve blocked nozzles - nothing else.

Also, if you do happen to encounter a really stubborn clog that does not clear after three head clean cycles (remember, clean, then re-check, clean, then re-check etc)...or a clog that seems to get worse when you run a head clean, then look to another solution - as it's probably NOT a nozzle clog at all, but rather air in the lines.  Also, if you see colour contamination (that is, another colour appearing in the nozzle check for a certain colour - like, say, a yellow nozzle check with a bit of cyan in there).

Some times the solution is to simply print more of the problem colour.  The way the cleaning system works, of course, to flush ink through the head.  However at the end of the cleaning cycle, there is effectively a 'pull back' of ink and air from the cap into the print head's nozzle plate.  This can cause the clogging to appear to get worse, or another colour to appear where it shouldn't.   Air in the system will generally cause more nozzles to appear to be blocked after cleaning (which of course is very frustrating!).

In these cases, the best solution is actually to print a while until the contaminated ink runs clear, or the nozzles seem to restore themselves.  Make up a test image full of the colours in question and run a page or two of that test print through the system, re-running nozzle checks after each print.

Another solution is to simply wait - the ink you have put into the head during the head cleans will probably soften the plug of ink causing the clog, so simply turning off your printer, and trying again the next morning can also be a solution to stubborn clogs.  Better than running 20 head cleans in a row - which wastes a LOT of inka and potentially can cause the head to overheat and be permanently damaged.  

Many printers have a 'powerful' cleaning option - use this only after trying the other methods listed above.  These powerful cleans use a lot of ink, and as we'll see below too much ink can be a problem.

If at all possible, avoid any cleaning mode labelled 'Supersonic' as these can even potentially damage a print head and are really only a last resort, and should only be run by a technician.  Generally these modes are only available from the service menus and on the larger models anyway.  The danger is that this mode can actually cause the head to overheat and be permanently damaged (in theory) - so again, last resort only!

Most of a channel missing - not blocked nozzles
Most of a channel missing - not blocked nozzles
Entire channel missing - also not blocked nozzles
Entire channel missing - also not blocked nozzles

How To Tackle

Specific Issues

Blotch Issues

Botch issues really fall into two categories:

Head Strikes

This is when, due to paper thicknes and/or paper curl, the print head touches the media and leaves marks.  These almost always always occur at the edges of the paper (where curl is worse) and indeed most often at the corners (where curl is at its very worst).

Rather than repeat ourselves, we have two relevant articles about this already, with a lot of handy tips:

Ink Dots

Collected ink can sometimes fall from the head and result in seemingly random dots on ink colour on the page.  Most often occurs after head cleans have been run, but can happen at any time.

Here, we are talking about small dots - 0.5cm or smaller diameter.  Not lots of ink in large lines/pools/puddles (which probably indicates a more fundamental problem).

The best solution here it to just print a few pages with light coverage - the movement of the print head during the printing should cause any loose ink to fall.  Once you can no longer see any dots, you should be good to go again.

Ink Bleed, De-Saturated Print Appearance

If you start to see ink bleed on your prints, that is where edges no longer appear sharp or one tone bleeds in to another, then can be a variety of causes.

By far the most common is one of the easiest mistakes to make, particularly with fine art papers - and this is printing on the wrong side of your paper.   Remember all inkjet papers, apart from those sold as 'Duo' or double sides, are only coated for ink reception on one side.  The other side is naked paper fibre, and this side will not accept anything like the amount of ink the coated side will without bleeding occurring.  Another tell tale sign is a tendency for the image to appear low contrast and de-saturated as a whole (and often a bit greennish).

At least 90% of these issues when reported turn out to be confusion about which side of the paper is the printable side.

If you've checked you are using the printable side (just flip the page and print the image again - what happens?) - then in rare cases it can be an issue with your media.  Inkjet media is made to within a range of tolerances and over the years we have occasionally seen the odd pack of media which simply doesn't accept quite as much ink as the media usually does.  Here, you have only a couple of options:

  1. Return the media (and check the replacement comes from a different batch - the manufacturer may be aware of the fault and know which batches are affected)
  2. Modify your print settings to lay down less ink - sometimes the issues are slight and simply reducing inking by 5% can solve the issue.  Note you might need to re-profile your media in this case.

Connection & Communicaton Errors

Connection issues can be fiddly - the results are either simply an unresponsive printer, or printers printing only part of prints before stopping.

The solutions depend on what type of connection you're using.

Wireless Issues

Wireless is awesome, but if at all possible we recommend running your printers with wired connections.  Intermittent issues with wireless can cause prints to fail mid-print, and despite modem/routers being amongst the most important parts of your computer setup, they are routinely  pretty unreliable devices (yes, even the name brand ones!).

If wireless is your only choice, and the printer is available and connected, then you'll need to look to things like extra wireless access points to improve the quality of your printer's connection to your network.

USB Issues

If you're having an issue with USB connections, first try another cable - USB cables tend to be pretty rubbish in quality, so it's worth it.

Also look at this article.

Ethernet Issues

This is our favourite type of connection and over the last 15 years of testing has always proved the most reliable.

About the only thing that tends to go wrong here is if your printer changes IP address - it can be fiddly telling the computer about this.

The best solution is actually easy - assign your printer a fixed IP address in your router's settings.  Whilst simple, you'll need to google how to do this for your router as it varies for pretty much every model.  After you've assigned the permanent address (and obviously if you change your networking substantially remember to repair this process) - re-install your printer as a network printer and tell it the new address.

Once done your printer will always have the same IP address and you should have zero connection issues from that moment on.

DHCP (i.e dynamic assignment of IP addresses as devices need them) - is great for most things, but fixed addresses are very handy and vastly more reliable with devices that need drivers pointing at them - i.e. printers.

Printer prints only part of a print

This is often a communication issue (see above) but can also be an issue with the print spooler service or with your GPU being overloaded. 

We have a separate about printers printing only half or a portion of your print.

Driver Issues (e.g. Missing Settings)

Driver issues usually come down to missing or incorrect drivers installed for your printer.  

Two things tend to happen (and this is near universally a Mac issue, we don't get PC questions about this):

  1. People inadvertently are using the simplified driver that comes with their operating system (this usually occurs when they have upgraded from one major version to another - e.g. Lion to Mountain Lion etc.)
  2. People inadvertently are using the 'AirPrint' driver with their printer - again, you will only get a subset of the options your driver offers if you're using this

In both cases the solution is the same:

  1. Confirm what driver you are using
  2. Remove the printer manually (go into to printer settings and use - control in the +- controls at the bottom left of the printers list to do this)
  3. Download the latest drivers for your printer from epson.com.au (or canon.com.au etc)
  4. Install those drivers
  5. Re-confirm the driver in use. 
  6. Still the wrong driver? Manually remove the printer again, then manually add the printer and explicitly choose the correct driver. (Go into the printer settings and use the + control in +- controls at the bottom left of the printers list to do this)

You should now be using the correct driver and find all options available.

Really Stubborn Driver Issues

Again, this tends to happen only on the Mac.  If you just can't seem to get the right driver working, or any driver at all, you can completely reset the Print System on the Mac.  But this is the Nuclear Option - it will remove ALL settings, profiles, drivers etc. for ALL printers you have in there.

But it does tend to solve just about any really stubborn print issue on the Mac.  Apple have an article about this.

Paper Feeding Issues

These can be fiddly, but are usually quite solvable once you have a few techniques.

Most feeding issues stem from paper curl or dirty rollers.  

Again, we have an existing article about paper curl and various other factors, see below, but one of the most effective techniques is to glove up and take a cardboard roll, around 3 inches or 8cm in diameter, and gently roll your paper, with the printable side facing out, around this roll.  This roll supports the paper as you do this so there is no chance of a crease or fold occurring, and the act of wrapping the paper around this medium diameter object is very effective at removing the paper curl.

Marks In Your White-Space

Sometimes you'll make a gorgeous, perfect print, only for the whole thing to be 'ruined' by some sort of slight mark in the whitespace area of the print.  There's a few things you can do:

  • Take the zen approach and recognise life is not about achieving clinical perfection in all things at all times
  • Attempt to remove the mark with a very high quality, very soft pencil eraser (yes, this really works very well!)
  • Use a 'whiteout' product to cover the mark - but you might need to mix a small amount of yellow or magenta ink into it to better match your paper tone.  This can be tricky but can also be surprisingly effective.

White Dots In Your Prints

These occur when there is some dust or a fibre sitting on the page, it is printed over, then later the fibre falls off and a small white uninked dot appears in your print.  

Our unique Inkjet Print Retouching Kit was made to solve these issues.  You can use it to retouch small white dots in prints.

Inkjet Print Retouching Kit
Our unique inkjet print retouching kit. Super handy for getting rid of little white dots you sometimes get with fine art papers!
We no longer produce these kits, but it is easy to create a similar kit for yourself.
More info