How to Clean Printer Cartridge Heads

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Inkjet printer.
Inkjet printer. (Image: Image 1: http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/inkjet-printer3.jpg.)

When you use your inkjet printer, the printer ejects tiny drops of ink from the cartridges inside. The ink travels through the nozzle of the cartridge, then passes through the print head, which applies the text and images to paper. After printing, bits of ink can dry around the opening to the print head. The resulting crust can lead to poor printing quality, including blots and smudges. Fortunately, it's not difficult to clean the printer heads yourself. In fact, because this is a common printing issue, most printers have built-in clean functions. Cleaning a printer cartridge head requires almost no technical know-how.

Things You'll Need

  • utility application for your printer
  • scrap paper

Turn on your printer and attach it to your computer. If you use the printer regularly with this computer, software should have been installed on your computer when you first began using it. If not, install this software according to your printer's manual.

On a Windows machine, click on the "Start" menu and go to your control panel. On Windows XP, a "Printers and Faxes" link might be available. If so, click that instead. On Macs, use the Printer Setup Utility application.

On Vista, under "Hardware and Sound" click "Printer." On XP, you should already be on this tab from the "Printers and Faxes" link. That should open a new window, with at least one printer listed (on Macs, the Printer Setup Utility will automatically list your printer(s)). If the problematic printer is not listed, go back to Step 1 and make sure the printer's drivers (installation software) were installed on your computer. Also make sure that the printer is connected to your computer properly and that the printer is powered up.

In Windows, right-click the icon representing the problematic printer (the model number should be listed) and select "Printer Preferences." A window with a number of tabs such as "Layout" and "Maintenance" should become visible. On the Mac, just select the printer you want to clean.

In Windows, click the "Maintenance" tab. If that tab is not available, look below to the tips section of this article. Various cleaning modes should be listed there. On Macs, click the "Utility" button and follow the prompts to clean your printer. Some printers have more or less thorough and time-consuming cleaning modes. Choose whichever mode suits your needs best.

The cleaning generally involves the printer pushing ink through the heads in a pre-specified pattern. If you don't want to waste paper on the cleaning process, use scrap paper instead.

Tips & Warnings

  • If no maintenance tab is visible, it's possible your printer has other methods of activating this mode. On some printers, it involves pressing button combination on the printer itself. Your printer's manual should tell you how to proceed. Sometimes, It is necessary to activate a cleaning mode multiple times before the printer head is fully cleaned.

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