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How to Really Clean an Inkjet Printer in 5 Simple Steps

How to Really Clean an Inkjet Printer in 5 Simple Steps

here 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.


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.

(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

(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

(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)

(notice the star like structure)

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

Step 3

Clean Ribbon and Ink Reservoir

(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.

(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.