Printerhacks » Tips and Tricks » How to Really Clean an Inkjet Printer in 5 Simple Steps
How to Really Clean an Inkjet Printer in 5 Simple Steps

There you sit, late at night, typing away with a paper due in the morning. You’ve written a wonderful article, backed it up, and now it’s time to print the beast. After clicking the familiar printer icon, you silently wait for the paper to get pulled into the printer and produce a work of art that Charles Dickens would appreciate. After your printer finishes the that last line you take a look at your masterpiece only to see that there is streaking, blotches, and other impurities. Time after time, you try to “clean” the printer through the manufacture’s software, but all it seems to be doing is drain your precious ink.

If you’ve ever been in this situation, this tutorial will tell you how to really clean your inkjet. By “cleaning”, I actually mean getting some supplies and physically cleaning your printer.

As a technician, I receive many calls about a customer’s inkjet that is not working right or has poor output quality, even after a replaced cartridge. Due to their falling prices and cheap materials, it makes no sense for me to venture out to a house call just to fix a clogged nozzle or poor ink cartridge when the customer could just stop by Wal-Mart on their way home and pick a new one up for 20 bucks. So, to compact this waste, I’ve written this tutorial.

Definitions

Before we actually get into the cleaning portion of this tutorial, here is some terms you may need to know.

Print Head: This part of an inkjet printer gets the most wear and tear and generally causes the most amount of problems. It is required to print, however doesn’t necessarily have to be included with the ink cartridge. Most of the cartridges you’ll purchase for inexpensive personal-class Canon, HP, and Epson printers will have a print head built right into the ink cartridge. This will prevent a lot of problems, but also opens the doors to those famous “drill-and-fill” cartridge shops in the mall (which can also cause major problems) that disregard the need to change the head along with refilling the ink.

Ink: This should be self explanatory, but I just wanted to note that not all inks are treated the same. Some contain a poor material and make cleaning, installation, and use a real pain. I’ll cover ink cartridge quality in another tutorial.

Print Head Stepper Motor: This motor mainly functions to either park or control the print head assembly. Some printers have a separate stepper motor for parking and controlling the print head.

Stabilizer bar: The stepper motor drives a belt to move the print head. This stabilizer bar ensures that everything is nicely lined up and even.

Paper Feed Assembly: This can differ between printers, but for this tutorial, we’ll refer to this term for the part of the inkjet printer that actually picks up and feeds the paper into the printer.

Interface Ribbon: You may see this ribbon behind the print head/cartridges. It’s responsibility is to be the messenger to tell the print cartridges what color and where to drop the ink.

Start

(HP Deskjet 5650)

Ok, now that we have those terms out of the way, lets start cleaning.

Warning

Warning! This tutorial is meant to be an educational experience. I am not responsible for any damage incurred due to the following tutorial. I am not an inkjet expert, just a technician. If your inkjet printer no longer functions because of these instructions, I am not liable for any damage whatsoever.

First try to locate the following cleaning supplies:

  • Glass Cleaner (better known as Windex)
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • 3-4 Sheets of Paper Towels
  • Copier/Printer or Sewing Machine Oil (WD-40 may be used if no other types of oil can be found)
  • 2-3 Cotton Swabs (better known as Q-tips)
  • Optional: Latex Gloves
  • Optional: Small hook or pen/pencil (see step 3 to see if you need this)
Cleaning materials
(my collection of tools and cleaning supplies)

Step 1

Remove Cartridges and Power Down

Cartridges

(removing a #57 cartridge from an HP 5650)

If you have them, go ahead and put on your latex or close fitting gloves. Ink generally gets everywhere and can be hard to clean off your hands. It’s important to not work on a printer that’s plugged in. However, sometimes certain inkjet printers will not let you change the ink unless the printer is plugged in. So, if this is the case, go ahead and life the cover of your inkjet so that the cartridges can be removed. Once that’s done, unplug the printer.

NOTE: Be sure not to touch the metal part of a inkjet cartridge, because the natural oils on your hand could inhibit the communication of your cartridge and your printer.

Step 2

Clean Ink Cartridges

Before
(the print head in this picture is dirty and clogged)

To clean the inkjet cartridges, check to see if your cartridge’s have both ink and a print head together.

Together (most common):

Take a paper towel and fold it in fourths. Then add either alcohol (preferred) or Windex to one side of the paper towel. Now, wipe the bottom of the cartridge on the paper towel to clean off the print head in a flower like fashion. It is normal that ink comes out of the cartridge even after you think it’s all clean (that’s what it’s supposed to do).

Separate (less common):

Do not clean the ink cartridges themselves. Since they don’t have a print head and generally don’t control the amount of ink that flows out the bottom, you can get pretty messy if you tried to clean the ink itself. Take the print head and separate it from the ink cartridges, then follow the above directions to clean the head.

Ink 1

(start cleaning by getting a really good “first” wipe)

Ink

(notice the star like structure)

After

(the print head looks much better and is clear from grit and grime)


Step 3

Clean Ribbon and Ink Reservoir

Ribbon
(careful when cleaning the ribbon, they are fragile)

Now take another paper towel and fold it again in fourths. This time spray a thin layer of Windex on the paper towel and clean the ribbon if it has any major ink blotches on it (see picture to better understand this step).

Whenever a printer finishes its document, your ink “rests” or docks usually on the right or left of the printer. Over time, this area can harness a ton of ink mixed with paper dust. This makes a gooey substance that’s can cause big image problems on the paper since every time you print, you run the chance of hitting or docking on this mountain of gooey ink. To clean, we’re not going to use a cleaner, because if you can see a buildup of ink, generally, it’s much too hard to get to and can be very messy. In the picture, I’ve highlighted where this printer’s “reserve” is starting to build up.

Reserve Ink

(a very small patch of “goo”)

Take a long hook or pen/pencil and tear down that mountain of mess. Some printers don’t have this problem, but most do after a long period of printing. Many customers will complain that they just replaced an ink cartridge and still have streaking. When I looked at my printer, there was a small patch of goo.

Step 4

Oil the Stabilizer Bar

After a while of printing, you may notice that the inside of your printer has a thin film of ink inside everywhere. Although it doesn’t really matter when it’s on the plastic, this can affect the oil on the stabilizing bar, making it harder and harder for the print heads to move. Sometimes it gets so bad that you can hear a “crunch” or “grind” and the end of a printing job. It may appear that the printer isn’t aligning right or can’t dock, but sometimes the lack of oil is the cause.

Oil

(just a few drop will do the trick)

To oil this bar, simply put small dabs on different parts of the bar and drag the print mount/head across the bar manually to get a good coating.

Movement of print head

(gently rock the cartridge carrier back and forth, spreading the oil)

Step 5

General Outside Cleanup and Paper Pickup Assembly

Once all the previous steps have been completed, you may want to clean the paper pickup assembly if you suspect it has ink on the rollers which causes paper to jam or not feed properly. My printer has a rear access door which is convenient, but other inkjet printers may have hard to reach rollers. I would suggest doing your best in getting at these rollers with a cotton swab and some glass cleaner or alcohol.

Paper Pickup Assembly

(this is found on the rear of the printer)

To clean the outside, take a paper towel and fold in fourths. Spray a thin film of Windex on it and wipe the outside of the printer to your liking.

The Finished Product

Printer Done

That concludes this tutorial of how to clean an inkjet printer. Hopefully it will save a few inkjets from an early grave at the landfill.

For more information on inkjet printers, check out Wikipedia’s extensive article on inkjet printers.

103 Comments (Leave a Reply)

  1. jay (July 13, 2011)

    This was great. The yellow bottle you show, is this an oil and if so what type? Also, wwe use Canon pixma 4700 for making quantities of photos. Would this also be good for cleaning the heads which are separate? Thanxxx Jay

    • Printer Whisperer (July 15, 2011)

      The oil is just a standard machine oil. It can be purchased from a sewing machine company if needed. As far as cleaning a 4700, I think it would be a good idea to periodically clean the heads.

  2. Eve (July 16, 2011)

    YOU ROCK! thanx to this i saved a lot on having it cleaned by a tech and is now working perfect! thank you.

  3. Michael (July 25, 2011)

    Great article! Thanks! I have the exact same printer pictured, an HP5660. I put in new cartridges and it worked fine for about 10 to 20 prints. I did a test print using the Unix driver for my Mac OS 10.5.8 Powermac. Everything looks fine on the test except red and or magenta are missing. Any suggestions?

    • Printer Whisperer (July 30, 2011)

      I’d clean them again. It sounds like they are definitely still clogged. When wiping them with a wet paper towel, make sure you can see the ink coming out before installing them back into the printer.

  4. Acoustictherapy (August 19, 2011)

    Great info, and I will definitely use it. However, my problem is more, um…icky. I had a magenta cartridge on my Officejet Pro 8000 leak, and pretty much the entire cartridge emptied inside the printer body, heads and head mechanism. I managed to get the worst of it out and the printer is printing again…but when I use a higher resolution, random blobs of magenta are dropping onto the paper.

    Repeated manual cleaning doesn’t seem to help, as I’ve apparently cleaned all the accessible parts of the printer. Do I need to go in there with a screwdriver and start taking things apart to really get to the source of the trouble?

    • Printer Whisperer (August 26, 2011)

      Sorry to say that you probably missed something if you’re still seeing magenta. Try and follow the paper and find out where approximately the ink is coming from and try to re-clean that area.

  5. Kathy (August 24, 2011)

    Thank you for this! It worked for my Epson SX218 and the black is now printing once again. I found other articles with tips, but yours were the clearest and, because of the illustrations, the easiest to follow. Huge thanks!

  6. Roland (August 26, 2011)

    Re. Lubricating the stablising bar

    Years back I used silicone grease in my printers (line printers, dot matrix etc.) as it stayed where you put it. In more recent years I changed to using silicone spray which is a dry lubricant as it is more readily available and has other uses around the house (eg. lubricating curtain tracks).

    Tip: if you do your metal curtain tracks at the same time, then when the curtains stop gliding smoothly, you’ll know when the printer needs retreating.

  7. Kevin (August 27, 2011)

    Great article but I need some help! My Printer (HP Photosmart) uses a 58 cartridge which I have refilled successfully then not used for couple of months. Coming back to it now, the 58 cartridge ink comes out freely onto the cartridges print head (it actually comes out a little to quickly?) but when printing the ink doesn’t make it onto the paper. I have tried test pages, multiple clean processes from the menu (which often makes it worse). Test blocks are fine for the other cartridge but very streaky (if present at all) – but like i say, there is visible ink on the print head, and when wiped away it bleeds back out straight away! Can anyone help please?!?

  8. RobertW (September 4, 2011)

    Trying to clean cartridges in an HP 1220C.

    Tried the recommended ‘soak in hot water’ routine but to no avail.

    Then…I decided to take the CREVICE tool from my small VACUUM CLEANER and run over the copper head.

    Voila. Works like a charm dislodging ink.
    Give it a try.

  9. jack (September 9, 2011)

    i have a bother mfc ink jet i put a replacemnt black cartage in and it reads full but page prints blank. if i change the doc to anyother color it will show. could this be a cleaning issue? it is a new printer 1st time I replaced the cartridge Any ideas?

  10. MrDonjo (September 13, 2011)

    Good article. My old HP 820Cse is feeding paper reliably again since I cleaned the rollers with paper towel dampened with isopropyl alcohol. Cleaning out the gooey accumulated ink in the spittoon is another not-well-publicized maintenance task that saved my printer a few years ago.

  11. Gary (September 20, 2011)

    I have an HP Photosmart D5160 that prints out a test sheet following each print job. How do I stop it?

    • Printer Whisperer (October 16, 2011)

      That’s probably a problem with your printer driver set to print a test page after it prints a job. Try using a different computer or press any buttons on the printer to try and just print one page to narrow down the issue.

  12. ray (October 1, 2011)

    I am having the same as jack at first would not print black at all. after i clean it up it prints black but there are still stripes in blank where the printer is not going through. it will perfectly print in color. Please help!!!

    • Printer Whisperer (October 16, 2011)

      My guess is that your black cartridge is still clogged. Try to clean it again and if that doesn’t work, it will most likely just need to be replaced.

  13. Ron (October 16, 2011)

    when printing I have missing lines every 1/2 in. The missing line height is 1/16 high. Is this a clogged printer head?
    Thank you

    • Printer Whisperer (October 19, 2011)

      That sounds like a classic case of a clogged printer head.

  14. Dean (October 19, 2011)

    Hi, I use an Epson Stylus Photo 1400 for sublimation dye (heat printing) and I am having problems with the matte sublimation paper being taken by the printer most times. Could the paper leave a residue of some kind on the paper intake rollers, making it harder to catch onto the paper? Thanks, signed stressed !!!

  15. Shiona Cant (November 28, 2011)

    Great advice and good to see your pictures. We are going crazy with our HP Photosmart 3310 All-in-One..every print now has black marks at the top of the paper at about 2cm intervals. Looks like the paper grabber and rollers are dirty. Also suffer from paper jams. Have cleaned rollers at back of machine and trying to clean from middle of machine with lid up. Not sure which parts to touch or not. Should I send a photo of the inside to you?

    • Printer Whisperer (November 30, 2011)

      I don’t think I would be of any help with a photo. Looks like you’ve got multiple issues with the printer. At this point, if the value of the printer is less than $100US, you may want to consider getting a new one and saving the ink. Otherwise, I’d bring it in to get professionally serviced.

  16. Kristinnm (December 2, 2011)

    Thank you for these instructions! I was hoping maybe you could help me – I have an HP 6980 InkJet that is lifting or scratching the ink from glossy label prints basically where the rollers are, so it leaves vertical white lines. It basically leaves 4 light track marks from the top to bottom, through both black and colors. It never used to do this and doesn’t on matte paper, but this is for my business and I must use the glossy label paper. Will cleaning the rollers fix this or do you think this is another issue? Thanks for any help you can offer! K

  17. Looby (December 7, 2011)

    I have a Dell 922 AIO purchased 2004 and till now not had a problem. Recently,on the underside of the paper along the bottom edge, black stripy areas are being left behind. Not thick or heavy just deminishing the quality of a job. I have just read your instructions and will try them. But in the meantime, do you think your cleaning process will solve this problem, or are there other issues here?

  18. Anonymous (January 6, 2012)

    Although my ink cartridges are relatively new, The color changes as it progresses down the page. It will begin with accurate colors, but then changes and fades. What could be the problem?

  19. Linda (January 6, 2012)

    My HP Deskjet5650 will begin to print the colors accurately, but as the page progresses, the colors change and fade. The ink cartridges are relatively new. what could be the problem?

    • Printer Whisperer (January 12, 2012)

      Could be a lot of different things, if you’ve already tried cleaning them, I’d replace them with new 57′s.

  20. Goose (January 18, 2012)

    Have HPpsc 1210. It prints one thin line from top to bottom, but only when I scan. I didn’t clean it yet because it seems to me to be the scanner, not the printer. I believe in the “not broke, don’t fix” adage, so I won’t touch it without expert opinion. Tks

  21. bev simpson (January 19, 2012)

    Does this apply to the HP Photosmart Plus when it continues to show an ink system error code even after cleaning the printhead according to the HP instructions?
    Is it a problem with resetting the printer or is the printhead still clogged? what about soaking the printhead? Thanks for helping

    • Printer Whisperer (March 13, 2012)

      I’m not sure if it’s the printhead, but something does seem damaged. You may find it easier to just replace the print head at this point to save time and money.

  22. Jeannie (February 1, 2012)

    This was very helpful. Thank you

  23. Davey (April 14, 2012)

    I stupidly failed to switch my HP dj960c printer off when changing a cartridge. Whilst the cartridge cover was still up the print head returned to the home position and was prevented going right home when it was trapped by the casing of the printer. Although the colours are great there is vertical banding over all the picture. The print head will not centre and it grinds when starting up. Any ideas how to cure this. I’ve tried switching off and manually centring it but as soon as I switch back on it returns to its previous position.

    • Printer Whisperer (April 27, 2012)

      This is a tough one to solve because there could be a number of things wrong with the printer. Keep trying to line up the print head and hope for the best.

  24. Debbie (April 23, 2012)

    I have an Epson WorkForce 615 — there’s a specific area on my paper after printing that comes out distorted (hard to explain) I’ve tried cleaning everything more than once and it don’t change, any suggestions? Also I always use Epson brand because they say too, is this necessary? I’ve seen cleaning kits for the inkjets, do you recommend these? Thanks for your help and answerin questions ahead of time!

    • Printer Whisperer (April 27, 2012)

      I’m not too familiar with the workforce 615. You shouldn’t need to always use OEM cartridges, but they generally provide the best results. Seems like you have an alignment problem which is causing the distortion. Those are hard to fix and may require bringing the printer in for repair.

  25. chris (August 10, 2012)

    My hp8500 leaves a very thick black ink mark on the right side edge of the printed paper. This happens in either color or grayscale. Is this a leak from the black ink cartrige? or do I have a bigger problem?

    • Printer Whisperer (August 22, 2012)

      Yeah that sounds like a bad ink cartridge. Try using another black ink cartridge and that should fix the problem (provided there isn’t additional ink that’s still in the printer from the previous leaking cartridge).

  26. Cyndi (September 29, 2012)

    THANK YOU!! Easy to follow directions with pictures AND I fixed it myself with no tech-fix talent.

  27. Tony (November 23, 2012)

    Really good info. However one of the biggest issues with ink jets is paper misdeeds. The rollers need to be cleaned and restored so they can feed the paper correctly. First clean the rollers with alcohol and use a product called “rubber new” to restore their softer density. This is what copier repair tecs use to resolve paper misdeeds and jams.

  28. Bob (November 24, 2012)

    two years ago I was given a HP1180c printer .
    It spilled a copious amount of ink everywhere when I moved it from table to table — what a mess to clean up etc. An internal inspection revealed ink was everywhere inside — much too much to clean by hand so I took it to the backyard,got the garen hose on full flow and flooded the whole internals for about half an hour (until the water ran clean). I then blew dried the thing with compressed air using a long thin nozzle so as to aim the air as best as possible. I then let it stand for a few days .
    Presto — the printer now works just like a new one. I’ve now printed about 1200 full A4 sheets to date without a problem.
    Would not recommend this as aremedy unless you know EXACTLY what you are doing and the potential problems which might arise

  29. Rjwilson (December 30, 2012)

    I have epson Workforce 615 printer. It is skipping certain lines on a document. I have done head alignment operation (also nozzle cleaning). Is there anything else I can do, besides replace printer?

    Thank you for your help.

  30. Max (January 11, 2013)

    For years, I have cleaned ink jet cartridges by wiping the heads with alcohol-soaked paper towels. The printer and ink manufacturers always tell you to “NEVER WIPE OR TOUCH THE PRINT HEAD” area. Ha ha ha. Always knew that was a crock. Glad to see.

  31. Meg (January 20, 2013)

    …what about cleaning a Brother all-in-one? The ink cartridges are not the print heads… :(

  32. Art (March 12, 2013)

    I have a Hp Photosmart 3310 all in one. It has worked very well for several years but recently it started to have streaks and white lines when printing in black. I suspect is a blocked printing head but as the head is not on the cartridge I don’t know how to get to it. I have cleaned the heads many times, replaced the cartridge and cleaned where i could but no luck.Any ideas how to clean it?
    Many thanks

  33. Crawford (April 15, 2013)

    Thanks a bunch – thought we had to buy a new printer but I followed all your steps and presto – one less printer in the landfill



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